Are the A's run of series-clinching failures bad luck or the sign of an organizational flaw? When it gets to 1-11 it starts to look like more than coincidence, and when the specific causes include runners forgetting to run, runners missing entire large bases, runners neglecting to slide, relievers refusing to throw their best pitch, one of your aces in a bar fight at just the wrong time, dropped fly balls by your best outfielder and non-interference calls, it starts to look like fate, karma, conspiracy, or perhaps a sign that someone is saying you really need to spend more time at church.
Yet what it boils down to is coincidence. A 5-game series often comes down to one game and a game often comes down to one moment. The odds that the "one game" and "one moment" would go against the A's 6 5-gameseries in a row? According to a coin, it's about 1 in 64 -- which is "not likely" and "not incredible". Today let's put previous years in the rear view window and focus on the game which decided Oakland fortunes in 2013: That would be game 4.
The A's had not one, not two, but three avenues to victory on Tuesday. One was to hold the 3-0 lead, but that evaporated on one swing of Jhonny Peralta's bat, and that's baseball. The second was to hold the 4-3 lead and I think Bob Melvin, while he has probably managed better games, gets a bit too much flak for the series of failures that occurred after the 7th inning stretch.
Sean Doolittle is very reliable and if he pitches a scoreless 7th, it's lined up for Dan Otero to pitch the 8th, Grant Balfour the 9th, and likely the champagne to flow. Doolittle's failure to hold the lead (or tie) -- perhaps aided by a bad call, but at the same time Doolittle gave up a bomb, then a smash for a double, later a single -- informed future decisions. In particular, Otero, who had thrown 2 full innings the day before, wasn't pushed to pitch a full inning and perhaps he should have been. Maybe Jesse Chavez would have been a better choice than Ryan Cook, who has been way out of synch for a solid month now. One could argue that Jerry Blevins, a true reliever and lefty specialist, was a better bet than Brett Anderson, whom the A's brass could not admit was simply having a "lost season". But it started with a rare failure from the right reliever.
As for the 8th, I think the A's suffered from not having better LH hitters available on the bench. Daric Barton played his way onto the playoff roster with an excellent September, but was not a hitter Melvin really wanted to send up in lieu of Josh Reddick or Stephen Vogt. This proved problematic because Melvin had one bullet, Alberto Callaspo, for 3 hitters who were likely to be over matched by Max Scherzer. Had John Jaso been available, or had Seth Smith not already been in the starting lineup, or had the A's gone to post-season with another Callaspo-type on the bench, things might have rolled differently in the half inning that I believe ultimately decided the series: The top of the 8th of game 4, when the A's had their shot to re-take the lead late and close it out for good, regardless of the events that preceded it.
Instead we look back on disappointment that stems partly from the pattern of clinching-failures that has obscured how remarkable these A's have been. No other AL team has won 190 games the past 2 seasons during a stretch we all thought would be devoted to the rebuilding process, and baseball has been revitalized in Oakland so long as no one flushes a towel.
If one single pitch swung -- literally -- the series, it was a 3-2 pitch to Reddick that from the moment it left Scherzer's hand never looked like it would be a strike, and then proceeded to break only more comically away from the strike zone. You could be looking for a fastball, a basketball, or a great deal on acai berries (text me; I have leads) and you would not think that pitch had any chance of being a strike. If that pitch is taken, I think we wind up looking at an A's-Red Sox ALCS, albeit one in which the A's might not have the services of Sonny Gray or Jarrod Parker.
I would not want to be a fan of any other team. I think the A's are pretty classy, very funny, and surprisingly talented, and they make the most out of the least, which is kind of cool. They're great at winning 2 games in the ALDS and they suck at clinching -- and for that, the only known antidote is "maybe next year". I wore my A's sweatshirt all day today, and on its sleeve all throughout next season you will find my heart. Hope to see you throughout the off-season as we process the recent past together and anticipate a promising future.