Like it or not, the underdog theme has constantly framed the struggle of the Oakland A's to compete, ever since the Haas family sold the team to the notorious cheapskates Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann. It was, of course, romanticized and reinforced in the Hollywood blockbuster Moneyball last year. This year, once again, the A's are trying to compete with a $55M payroll, against teams like the Yankees with their $196M payroll, Angels ($155M) and the Rangers ($120M).
The underdog makes a great story theme; it inspires the audience and illustrates that a man can achieve anything, even if the world seems so hell-bent on placing every obstacle in his path. However, its popularity is not indicative of its frequency. The reality is that we can't all grow up to be president, and that underdogs usually lose. And the bleeding green and gold A's fan base is...bleeding.
The A's are perfecting the most painful possible way to lose baseball games. Early in the season, this team was masters of the walk-off win, authoring 13 such dramatic finishes for the home crowd. Now the A's have been walked off three of the past four games, to some of the biggest spenders in the league. Tonight, instead of the Yankees celebrating, it was the Rangers; instead of the Bronx Zoo, it was Arlington, Texas; instead of Pat Neshek giving up a game tying home run in a critical situation, and Tyson Ross losing the game on a walk-off in a subsequent inning, it was...wait, actually that was pretty much the same.
The game started off well, as most painful losses do. After being forced to overuse their bullpen the entire week, the A's needed a strong starting performance from Dan Straily. Straily delivered beyond all expectations, going 6 2/3 innings with 8 strikeouts, and allowing only 1 earned run. The other run scored on a Carter error (he would have two for the day, one was charged to Donaldson but it came out later that the Rangers official scorer is actually just a cardboard cutout of Nolan Ryan with a can of Lone Star beer in hand, so I would ignore that ruling).
As has been the case for most of the season, the A's offense was fueled by the longball. Josh Donaldson staked the A's to an early 2-0 lead in the second inning with a shot off of Rangers starter Derek Holland following a Brandon Moss walk. Cespedes continued his tear, crushing a no-doubter in the third, and chasing Holland from the game with his 21st dinger. A parade of Rangers relievers held the A's to just one more run over the next six innings, which was driven in by the suddenly hot Cliff Pennington in the 6th inning, staking the A's to a 4-2 lead that they would blow in excruciating fashion.
However, skipping to the ending would not do justice to Straily, who had a beautiful 6-pitch shut down inning in the bottom of the sixth. Things were looking promising heading into the 7th inning.
In what seemed like a smart move at the time, Straily was pulled after two outs in the bottom of the 7th after 99 pitches, to have Jerry Blevins pitch to Josh Hamilton. Hamilton was 0-5 with four strikeouts lifetime against Blevins. Unfortunately, Blevins walked Hamilton. Nevertheless, Blevins has been a very good pitcher this year, having faced nearly an equal number of left and right handers, and holding right-handers to a respectable .222 BA and .300 wOBA. Leaving him in to face Adrian Beltre was thus one reasonable option available to Bob Melvin.
Melvin decided to make the change to Pat Neshek, and his (at the time) .086 BAA against right-handers. Depending on how you look at it, this was a defensible decision based on the stats, or it was a ridiculous decision that put the game in the hands of one of your "B team" relievers when both Blevins and Cook were available and ready. I might have thought that this was a good idea, except on Saturday, faced with the same situation (tying run at the plate at a critical juncture), Neshek had the worst possible result: HR, tie game. Today was deja vu all over again.
Ryan Cook pitched an uneventful 1-2-3 bottom of the 8th, and once again the game would come down to the 9th inning. After Pennington was retired, Stephen Drew a walk. However, with Seth Smith batting, Drew was running on two strikes; swing and a miss, strike-em-out throw-em-out double play. This, with notorious strike out pitcher Joe Nathan on the mound, and Cespedes on deck. Risking the 3rd out with your best hitter on deck and a man on base; I have no idea what the thinking was behind that decision, and unlike the Neshek decision, I'm not even going to guess.
With the A's bullpen taxed, Melvin tapped Tyson Ross to pitch the bottom of the ninth. In the 15th inning of Saturday's nightmare, Tyson Ross came in, immediately allowed two hits, but somehow almost made it out of the inning, if not for a Brandon Moss error that sealed the loss. This time, however, he couldn't blame his failure on hard luck. He allowed two singles to lead off the inning; the only out he would record was a sacrifice bunt by Elvis Andrus. And after an intentional walk on Hamilton, the utterly predictable Adrian Beltre single up the middle sealed the A's third one-run loss in four games, to a critical playoff contender on the road.
Barring a miracle turnaround, the AL West title is all but out of reach, with the A's 5 games back. The A's hold a tenuous 2 game lead on the WC2 position, and stand 1.5 games behind the Orioles for WC1. While the Angels get to play Seattle, and the Orioles play Toronto, the A's have three more tough road contests against Texas.
At this point, I take no comfort in moral victories and playing the big bad payrolls close. If the A's don't turn this road trip around quickly, this season will become yet another tale of the rich and powerful beating the little guy, and that's no story at all.