Frustrated by a string of game 5 losses to teams with aces, the A's went out and got their own game 5 ace, Jon Lester. And then everything unraveled, so much so that Lester is poised to pitch in an elimination game all right but it's just the one trying to get the A's to the 5-game series. The earliest Lester could go after that, if the A's secure and win the wild card, is game 3 of the ALDS.
So now Oakland is faced with an ALDS lineup that would look like Samardzija, Gray, Lester, _____, Samardzija. Game 4 is huge, as any A's fan who watched Oakland let game 4 get away in 2013 can attest. It's an elimination game for someone, meaning you either need to win just to stay alive (2012 A's) or you have a shot to close it out in 4 games (2013 A's). And all the options for game 4 are problematic.
Scott Kazmir has struggled mightily in August and September, and his biggest achilles heel by far in 2014 has been the Angels (4⅓ IP, 12 hits, 13 ER). In general the Angels eat up LHP, which makes Drew Pomeranz risky even if were a more known commodity. Jason Hammel has been pitching great and throws right-handed, but his career suggests he just isn't all that good. Is one of these who you want to throw if you have a shot to finally advance past the ALDS?
There's another way the A's could go, and while it's a total roll of the dice hasn't this season been all about rolling the dice? If you're "all in" how about this scenario should Oakland survive one elimination game and ride Lester to the ALDS:
Game 1 (Thursday, 10/2) - Samardzija
Game 2 (Friday, 10/3) - Gray
Game 3 (Sunday, 10/5) - Lester
Game 4 (Monday, 10/6) - Samardzija (3-days rest)
Game 5 (Wednesday, 10/8) - Gray (3-days rest) for about 4 IP followed by Lester (2-days rest) for about 3 IP
If you advance to the ALCS you go back to a 4-man rotation so that these pitchers only throw on short rest one time each.
You may recall, just not with glee, the 2000 ALDS when A's-killer Orlando "El-Duque" Hernandez came out of the bullpen in game 5 to quell an A's charge in a game the Yankees held on to win 9-7. Just when you thought you were done with him and you weren't. The A's got Lester with the hope that he could be a difference maker in game 5, and it's not impossible this could still be the case.
The cons to this idea are easy to raise. History is littered with excellent pitchers who, on 3-days rest in the post-season, did not thrive. And some who did. Every pitcher is different and Samardzija profiles as at least a good candidate to be strong, and come up big, on short rest. Gray would benefit from being limited to around 60-70 pitches. And you can't tell me the Angels would want to see Lester take the ball in the middle of game 5.
In other words, it's a gamble. Certainly throwing Kazmir, Hammel or Pomeranz in game 4 would be a gamble. No doubt dealing Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of the season was a gamble. Mortgaging Addison Russell for a better shot at the World Series now was a gamble. The question isn't, at this point, "Do you really want to gamble?" It's "How do you want to gamble?"
I think if I'm stuck with all my chips on the table and there's no ideal solution, if I have to gamble I'll do it with Samardzija, Gray and Lester. If I lose with them, well ... it wasn't meant to be. But to sit there with the ALCS a heartbeat away and watch Dan Straily lose a 3-0 lead? That was harder than watching Gray, who is great, serve up a 2-run HR to Miguel Cabrera, who is great.
As this point, I may as well win or lose with my best. In a short series against the Angels there's no way Kazmir, Hammel or Pomeranz represents putting my best foot forward. I didn't endorse going "all in" but I think I know what "all in" entails. You're "all in"? Pitch your best 3 next week if you're lucky enough to still be playing.