If "the collapse" had never happened and the A's were still in first place, they would be expecting to play the Angels in the American League Division Series. Yes, Anaheim would have to go through the Wild Card game in this scenario, and they'd have to take on Detroit, Kansas City, or Seattle in that one-game playoff. But even in July, the Angels had so clearly established themselves as baseball's second-best team that it wasn't worth discussing — one ALDS would almost certainly be a matchup of California powerhouses, and the winner would be a clear World Series favorite.
Of course, Oakland's epic collapse did happen, and the A's are now faced with an unenviable 10.5-game division deficit and are holding on to their spot as the Wild Card host for dear life. Meanwhile, the Angels are clearly baseball's best team, and will enjoy home-field advantage as long as they remain in the playoffs.
But in a weird way, the A's can make it all go away, exorcise the demons of the last few months, and return things to July's status quo with two weeks of mediocre baseball against terrible opposition, plus a single all-important win over — if the playoffs started tomorrow — the Kansas City Royals.
Jon Lester is lined up to start that Wild Card game. The A's are 6-3 in his nine starts with the team, with two of those losses coming by a single run. All three came in the midst of Oakland's stretch of truly awful baseball that we all hope is over following two hugely important wins at Safeco Field, one of which came in a Felix Hernandez start.
Should the A's advance to the Division Series — obviously, this is all a massive hypothetical and Oakland could just as easily miss out on the postseason entirely — they'd play the Angels in a five-game series. It would be almost as if baseball fast-forwarded from July to October, albeit with a few minor tweaks.
They'd be faced with just two disadvantages compared to where they expected to be as of the All-Star Break: One, the A's wouldn't have home-field advantage, and two, they wouldn't have the opportunity to set their rotation leading into the five-game series.
To be fair, though, as unbelievable as Oakland playoff crowds have been in 2012 and 2013, they haven't translated to much success. The A's went 3-3 in front of sellout crowds in the last two Division Series, and the atmosphere couldn't prevent Justin Verlander from keeping A's bats silent three times (well, four, but three at the Coliseum).
And as for the rotation, ideally, yes, you'd want Jon Lester pitching Game 1, likely Sonny Gray in Game 2, and the duo of Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija pitching Games 3 and 4 with Lester again taking the hill for a Game 5. But Oakland's starting rotation is already much better than Anaheim's, especially post-Garrett Richards injury, and the pitching matchups will favor the A's regardless.
The bottom line is that the A's still have plenty of work to do. But if the standings hold, the A's will have the opportunity to make their worst stretch of baseball in recent memory disappear almost completely.
Sadly, this "opportunity for an opportunity" is an invention of Bud Selig's, and it completely disregards sample size and a 162-game regular season in favor of some dramatic development. If the A's finish two games ahead of the Royals for the Wild Card, it doesn't make much sense to give Kansas City the chance to flip 162 games' worth of data with a single win.
But alas, here we are. Oakland can wake up from its two-month nightmare and get right back on track. Play .500-ish baseball against Texas, Philadelphia, Anaheim, and Texas again, and they'll more than likely get that chance. And say what you will about the Yoenis Cespedes trade — it's tough to complain about having Lester lined up to save the season on September 30.