It's almost one of those impossible riddles, like "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Given a robust-but-not-ridiculous 8.5 game lead in September, do you play your best players until you clinch...and in wearing them down, watch them not play well enough to win...so you don't clinch yet and they have to keep playing...So now they're more worn down...?"
That's what seemed to happen to the A's for a while. Tattered versions of Huston Street, Eric Chavez, Frank Thomas, et al, kept playing because the team hadn't clinched yet. Street became less and less effective. Zito lost velocity while Haren lost the key ability to get hitters out. Chavez became the Monty Python character who refused to quit in the face of all evidence that even the glue holding him together was peeling. The Big Hurt became The Little Slump. In the end the A's, even at the end, needed three mulligans before finally reducing their magic number to zero.
Was it the right approach? The A's regulars, panting, huffing, and failing, ultimately clinched with five days to spare. Will that be enough to rejuvenate all signs of weariness and send the A's into the post-season at full strength? Would the A's have clinched even later, or possibly not at all, had the regulars had more regular rest in September? Or...Would fresh backups have performed as well, or better, than weary regulars? And will a "tired arm" follow Street into the ALDS, while Chavy's lame ass (and I only mean that literally) never quite heals?
We saw what happened by playing the regulars until the A's clinched. Here's the alternate scenario from which the A's brass had to choose:
- A start or two (likely a losing one or two) by Halsey or Windsor, to give Zito, Haren, and Blanton--all of whom have thrown a lot of innings this year--a little extra rest.
- Lineups that occasionally featured, maybe, Antonio Perez on the infield, or perhaps Adam Melhuse at DH, while the A's still had a magic number.
- 2-3 games where Justin Duchscherer was appointed the team's closer and Kiko Calero was appointed the only set-up man, with Chad Gaudin possibly getting some "pressure innings".
So perhaps it's a bit strange that I would have opted for the alternate scenario. And still feel that way.