The year 2013 has been good for the Oakland Athletics. They won their division for the second straight year, they saw one of their players emerge as a legitimate MVP candidate, and one of their highly-touted young pitchers displayed flashes of brilliance down the stretch. All the while, various left-handed pitchers showed us new levels of comedy on Twitter, our hearts were stolen by a nerdy second baseman and the tallest position player in major league history, and one of our sluggers won the Home Run Derby. And adding some schadenfreude-flavored icing to the cake, the Angels and Giants both finished with losing records and the Yankees missed the playoffs. It would have been tough to write a better script.
Of course, not everything went perfectly. The team lost Game 5 of the ALDS for the second straight year to the same team and the same starting pitcher. The ballpark situation remained completely and utterly unresolved, and the current stadium began (continued?) falling apart at the seams. A couple of potentially star outfielders had disappointing seasons, and a couple of fan favorites -- one with a big personality, the other with a big body -- departed via free agency.
It was a season full of great memories, and it's difficult to choose a favorite. I made it to the division-clinching game, and, during the ensuing celebration, was drenched when Grant Balfour sprayed a garden hose into the crowd; the holy hosewater cleansed me of all my baseball-related sins. I was lucky enough to witness Sonny Gray's amazing performance in Game 2, and it may have been the best stadium experience of my life. I got to meet dozens of my fellow community members at our AN Day tailgate, much to the chagrin of opposing pitcher Erik Bedard.
However, the thing I'll never forget about 2013 took place on June 13, and it involved Nate Freiman. Freiman, the aforementioned tallest position player in history, came out of nowhere last spring. The roster was seemingly set, but the A's picked up Six-Eight Nate in late March and seemed determined to squeeze him onto the team at the last minute. He had displayed solid power in the minors, but he'd never played above Double-A; it is likely that the only reason he made the roster was that he was (indirectly) a Rule 5 draft pick and would be lost if he were sent down.
For the first two months of the season, Freiman had held his own as a platoon first baseman who appeared mostly against left-handed pitchers. The power wasn't there, but he was getting on base enough to justify his playing time. He was well on his way to becoming yet another Billy Beane success story, a diamond in the rough uncovered in an under-the-radar move. D.L. Nelson cited Freiman's pick-up as his favorite moment of the season in a recent e-mail to me, calling it "the kind of maneuver that distinguishes the A's, not only from the Astros and Padres (the two teams who gave him up before Oakland got him), but from the Angels and the Yankees, too." Indeed, Nate became a minor fan favorite due to his height, his humble personality, and his unbelievably awkward slides. Oh, and his game-winning hit on June 13.
My favorite Oakland A's memory of 2013 is the five-hour, 35-minute, 18-inning marathon against the New York Yankees. I was already leaning this way when Nico echoed my thoughts by suggesting both this game and the 19-inning affair against the Angels in April (won on a Brandon Moss walk-off home run at 1:41 a.m.). However, I was in attendance for the Yankees game, whereas I'd fallen asleep before the Angels one even hit extra innings (worst fan ever), so I'm going with Freiman's heroics.
I went to this game as an afterthought. It was a rare Thursday afternoon tilt, and that is usually my day off; what better way to spend it then to get my friend Dave to ditch work and go see a ballgame with me? (Note: It took virtually no convincing to get him to come.) Now, you must understand that Dave is the kind of die-hard fan who gets decked out head-to-toe for an A's game, down to the sunglasses and socks. He's also the kind of fan who brings a broom to the game when the team is going for a sweep, as they were in the finale of this three-game series against the Yankees. It's a small plastic broom, only a few feet long, with green bristles. It's enveloped in green and gold duct tape, and the way that the colors spiral up the handle make it look like something out of Willy Wonka's factory. It's an impressive creation.
The game seemed cruise by quickly at first. Jarrod Parker and Hiroki Kuroda matched each other pitch for pitch, with each allowing a pair of early runs and then settling down to spin eight quality innings. It was barely 3:00, and it looked like I may be out in time to beat the traffic through the tunnel on the way back to the East Bay. But then, something happened. Or, more accurately, nothing happened. For hours. Oakland seemed poised to exercise their walk-off magic in the 9th, when a pair of singles put a runner on third with just one out. However, Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss both struck out to send the game to extra frames. Little did we know that we'd be treated to an entire extra game.
Both teams emptied their bullpens as inning after inning went by. Each squad's top relievers came and went. The Yankees put runners in scoring position for five straight innings, putting each member of the slowly diminishing crowd on the edge his or her seat over and over again; meanwhile, the A's managed exactly one baserunner over those same five frames. I watched helplessly as the clock pushed further and further into rush hour, dreading the drive that awaited me but otherwise transfixed on the proceedings immediately in front of me. The aftermath of this commitment could wait; it was rapidly becoming apparent that I was seeing one of the best games of my life unfold in front of my eyes, and that was all that mattered. Luckily, everyone kept their senses of humor about the situation. After the top of the 14th ended, Diamond Vision treated us to what it referred to as a time-honored baseball tradition: The 14th inning stretch. We all sang for the second time that day, and boy did we need it.
The Yankees had seemed on the verge of breaking through for at least an hour, but the tide changed in the 15th. Jesse Chavez had come in for Oakland to quell a rally in the 13th, and had wriggled out of his own jam the following inning. For the first time in my life, I found myself cheering for him. As others around me cited his prior shortcomings and lamented the decision to rely on him in such a tight contest, I did my best to assure everyone that he was a better pitcher this year, that he'd learned a new pitch, and that he might just be able to get the job done.
While Chavez settled in for a long outing, the A's finally figured out Yankees reliever Adam Warren. The right-hander had retired 12 of the first 13 batters he'd faced, but Oakland got Moss to second base with one out in the 15th. Coco Crisp came in to pinch-hit for Chris Young, and the stadium exploded. Dave's broom, hidden from sight for the last several innings, finally tasted sunlight again, dancing up and down as everyone's mouths watered for walk-off pie. Every last person in the crowd just knew that Coco was going to get a hit. It wasn't even a question. He was our heart and soul, and this was exactly the kind of moment he lived for.
Coco got his hit on the very first pitch from Warren. He blooped the ball in front of Vernon Wells in left field, and I, for one, began celebrating as if the game were already over. There was no way that Wells, the rare no-hit/no-glove outfielder, the living, breathing punchline, would be able to save the game. Not even with the none-too-swift Moss doing the running. Actually, I nearly missed the play. My celebration had carried me around 180 degrees, and only at the last moment did it occur to me that I should turn back to see the winning run cross the plate. But then, something happened...
Wells threw him out. Are you f#&%ing kidding me?! How did that even happen? The ball barely even beat Moss to the plate. It landed directly in catcher Chris Stewart's outstretched glove, which was already in the exact spot necessary to tag Moss; Wells really could not have made a more perfect throw. The crowd was quieted, and the reality quickly set in that this game was not yet over.
Chavez retired the next nine batters he faced, and Warren and Preston Claiborne kept the A's in check for the next two innings. Dave and I spent a substantial amount of time using the broom to sweep off the empty seats in front of us and the area around us, trying to keep the magic alive. Claiborne came back out for the bottom of the 18th, and, after retiring Derek Norris to lead things off, something finally happened.
The rally started with a single by John Jaso, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided that it was time to make a bold move. Defying conventional wisdom, he brought in his closer, Mariano Rivera, to pitch in a tie game on the road. Seth Smith greeted him with a single, and Rivera issued an intentional walk to Jed Lowrie; it was one of only 41 intentional passes that Rivera would grant in his entire career. Moss's spot in the lineup was up next, but there was a problem -- Moss had been lifted after his collision at the plate in the 15th. In his place was the last guy off the bench. Nate Freiman strode to the plate.
It was a mismatch for the ages. Not only was Freiman a ridiculously untested rookie, but his entire role on the team was to face left-handed pitchers, not right-handed Hall of Famers. Rivera was the best reliever in baseball history, and it seemed like Freiman didn't have a chance. It was like pitting a velociraptor against a dachshund.
Rivera's first pitch missed for a ball, but his second pitch did exactly what so many of his offerings had done over the last 19 years -- it shattered Nate's bat. Something different happened this time, though. The ball didn't pop straight into the air, or roll toward an infielder for an easy double play, or skew into foul territory. Instead, it jumped toward the outfield grass, landing almost exactly where Coco's hit had traveled three innings earlier. Wells fielded it, but there was no chance of throwing out the runner this time. The unthinkable had happened. Nate Freiman had walked off against Mariano Rivera.
If you watch baseball long enough, you will see a lot of crazy stuff happen. This wasn't even the first time that I'd seen Rivera lose to the A's; I witnessed Marco Scutaro, a similar out-of-nowhere player, hit a walk-off home run against him several years earlier. This moment seemed like something greater, though. It was a classic Billy Beane player, an overlooked hitter who had washed up on the Island of Misfit Toys and found a home, defeating the Goliath-like superstar to seal a sweep against the Damn Yankees while Dave's broom leapt around triumphantly. It was a microcosm of the entire 2013 season. It was worth waiting for. It was perfect.
And the cherry on top? The game had taken so long that rush hour was over. I zipped straight through the tunnel with ease. Happy New Year, Athletics Nation!