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5 reasons to be optimistic about the Athletics playing the Royals in the Wild Card game

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"You can't touch this." -- the KC Hammer (who regularly hammers KC)
"You can't touch this." -- the KC Hammer (who regularly hammers KC)
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a long couple of months for Oakland Athletics fans, but the suspense is over and we now know the A's made the playoffs. Everything has been doom-and-gloom lately as the team did its best to fully collapse, but that's all behind us now because everything is reset. Every team is tied at 0-0, and the MLB lead in home runs is a tie between every player with zero. It's a clean slate, both for the players and the fans. Let's start October late-late September with a shot of optimism to restore the fAith of any among us who may have lost it over the last two months.

Here are five reasons to be optimistic about Oakland's one-game, winner-take-all playoff against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City:

1. Jon Lester owns both the Royals and the postseason.

Take your pick from these pitching lines:

Lester, 2014 overall: 32 starts, 2.46 ERA, 219⅔ innings, 220 Ks, 48 BB, 16 HR
Lester, career vs. KC: 13 starts, 1.84 ERA, 88 innings, 73 Ks, 33 BB, 1 HR
Lester, 2013-14 vs. KC: 4 starts, 2.28 ERA, 27⅔ innings, 24 Ks, 7 BB, 0 HR
Lester, posteseason: 11 starts, 1.98 ERA, 73 innings, 63 Ks, 20 BB, 7 HR*

* doesn't include two relief appearances from 2007 ALCS

This is why Beane traded Cespedes for Lester. This exact situation. Setting aside everything that happened before and everything that will happen after, and just looking strictly at Tuesday, I'd rather have Lester on the mound than Cespedes, or really any individual hitter, in the lineup. That's how perfect Lester is for this game.

It's not a surprise that Lester has had so much success against these Royals. He's good at limiting hits and walks, and your best chance against him is to pop a couple of quick homers and then hold serve. The Royals' offensive strategy requires them to make lots of contact and string together hits in long rallies, because they don't have a lot of power. Long rallies are difficult to come by against Lester.

Furthermore, Kansas City has a few key left-handed hitters in its lineup: Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer. Gordon has even splits this year and in his career, so facing a lefty doesn't neutralize him. But Moose and Hosmer are both better against righties. On the flip side, two of the scarier right-handed hitters, Billy Butler and Omar Infante, had major off-years in 2014. Josh Willingham is on the team, but we'll talk more about him later.

That leaves three guys to fear. The first is Salvador Perez, a right-hander who has some pop but posted a .289 OBP this season. Next is Lorenzo Cain, a speedy right-hander who came into his own this year and batted .301 overall. Finally, there is Nori Aoki, a lefty who has reverse splits and destroyed southpaws this year. But again, the latter two of those three guys are more likely to hit singles than homers.

So, with Lester on the mound, the thing to fear most is a pair of slashers who aspire to hit the gaps in a best-case scenario and a guy with a lower OBP than Alberto Callaspo. They're good, but there is no Trout/Pujols/Hamilton or Cabrera/Martinez/Hunter or Jones/Cruz/Davis to get through in Kansas City. That doesn't guarantee victory, but it should make you breathe a lot easier.

2. Josh Willingham, aging hitter

In that last section, I mentioned Willingham and then sort of ignored him. That might seem surprising to you, since he has ruined Athletics pitching since leaving as a free agent after 2011. In 21 career games against Oakland, he's launched eight home runs and tallied a .708 slugging percentage. Furthermore, he bats right-handed, seemingly making him the perfect foil for Lester.

The thing is, I don't even know if he'll be starting on Tuesday. He didn't on Saturday in a crucial game against southpaw John Danks. He didn't on Thursday against southpaw Jose Quintana. In fact, he only had 33 plate appearances in all of September -- nine games, seven starts. He hasn't homered since Aug. 22, which sounds downright Mossian. Royals Review reports that he's been dealing with back and groin injuries lately, so clearly the problem is physical; he's already announced that he'll retire after the season.

Like Adam Dunn, this is Willingham's first trip to the postseason, and it comes right as he plans to hang up his cleats. On a personal level, it would be a bummer if he wasn't able to start, or even play, in the Wild Card game. Other than the fact that he always beats us, I think A's fans still have a special place in their hearts for the Compliant Pork. He's a good player and seems like a quality guy and it would be nice to see a reward for him at the end of the tunnel. But he's also like Dunn in that he arrived with a bang and then didn't do much after his first week with his new club. He was the thing I was most afraid of in the Royals' lineup, but the bittersweet reality is that he might not even play.

3. Big (regular season) Game James Shields

James Shields is a fantastic pitcher. He's a horse who is a good bet to go seven or eight innings in each game (6⅔ average per start this year), and he's capable of dominating on any given day. He has nine career shutouts, which ranks behind only Tim Hudson, Bartolo Colon, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett among active pitchers (unless you count Johan Santana as active). Each of those guys has pitched several more seasons than Shields has, and Hudson leads the group with 13 blankings. Shields is as likely to throw a shutout as any pitcher in baseball other than Clayton Kershaw (who also has nine in his career, in two fewer seasons).

So yes, Shields has earned his nickname and his reputation as a big-game pitcher ... in the regular season. Here is his postseason career:

Shields, postseason: 6 starts, 4.98 ERA, 34⅓ innings, 25 K, 8 BB, 4 HR

Of those six starts, two have been disasters and only two have been quality. The two disasters happen to be the two most recent ones, in 2010 and 2011. Only once has he finished the seventh inning, back in the 2008 ALCS. Only once has he had a scoreless outing, in his only World Series appearance -- and that was only 5⅔ innings, with nine baserunners allowed. None of this will matter if the A's offense keeps doing the jack-all nothing it's been doing for the last couple months, but the point is that their biggest obstacle on Tuesday may be overcoming themselves. And whenever the A's face Shields, I always look back to this game, for which I was watching from the stands, as a source of optimism. He can be beaten.

Postseason stats are dangerous to rely on, because they inherently come in tiny sample sizes and they can be dashed to bits in one great or terrible series. But it's sure nice to know that the next time Shields has major success in the playoffs will be the first time, especially given Lester's consistent, unflappable October success. It's all about stacking the odds in your favor as much as possible to increase your chances of hitting the jackpot.

Oh, and Shields is a right-hander. Although the full-season stats don't suggest a huge split for Oakland's lineup against lefty or righty starters, they went 64-49 against righties and 24-25 against lefties and our collective eyeball test seems to agree that the club has struggled against southpaws lately. If I had to pick, I'd rather have the lineup featuring Dunn and Vogt and Sogard and best-case Moss rather than Gomes and Freiman and Punto and worst-case Moss.

Also, Josh Reddick, possibly Oakland's hottest hitter, has three homers, a triple, and a double in 22 career at-bats against Shields, for an 1.182 OPS. So there's that.

4. Home-field advantage? Maybe not.

Let me start by saying that this section is based on a junk stat. But I'm still going to cite it.

There have been four Wild Card play-in games since the system was established in 2012. In three of those four games, the visitor won. The only exception was the 2013 Pirates beating the Reds in Pittsburgh. The point isn't that the visitor has an advantage in this particular situation. Rather, the point is that home-field advantage is just not a big deal in this instance. In a single game, a small consideration like that comes second to which hitter manages to blast the three-run homer, or which pitcher happens to have the game of his life. Those things can happen anywhere.

The A's were 48-33 (+15) at home, and 40-41 (-1) on the road. The numbers in parentheses denote how far above or below .500 they were in each split. The Royals were 42-39 (+3) at home and 47-34 (+13) on the road. The Royals were better on the road, by a significant margin. Again, this doesn't mean that they're bad at home. It just means that playing better at home is not how they got to this point, like it may have been with a team like the Rockies (serious park effects) or the Yankees (serious home-crowd effects).

One perceived advantage for the Royals in this contest is the fact that they're playing in the familiar confines of Kauffman Stadium. But they played better on the road this year and they're now in a game historically dominated by road teams so far. Let's just call it a wash and remove that advantage from KC's ledger.

5. Bob Melvin vs. Ned Yost

I generally don't put too much stock into field managers. I believe that one would have to be far on the extreme of brilliant or idiotic in order to gain or cost his team more than a couple games in the standings over the course of a season. I just don't think it matters that much relative to the actual talent and health of your players.

However, this might be a rare instance in which the managers make a difference. That's because they both lie on opposite extremes of the aforementioned competence spectrum, and because this is a single game without the benefit of 161 more of them to balance things out. A particularly smart or dumb move could actually make a big difference in this one.

On one side, you have Bob Melvin, two-time Manager of the Year, who is generally praised for turning a ragtag Oakland roster into a juggernaut over the last three seasons thanks to his ability to derive maximum value out of players with specific, limited skill sets. You may think that his magic ran a bit short the last two months, but you probably still agree that he's one of the best skippers in the game today.

On the other side, you have Ned Yost, who said this on Monday:

Umm. Kansas City's bullpen ranked 10th in MLB in ERA this year (3.30), and tied with the Mariners for the second-fewest blown saves (12). It features three phenoms (Holland, Davis, Herrera) with sub-1.50 ERAs who can handle the final three frames, and they will be coming on in relief of the starter who threw the fifth-most innings in all of baseball this season. The pen is almost certainly the biggest strength of this Royals team, and it's weird to me that Yost would consider doing anything drastically different with it in the most important game of the season, beyond carrying one extra starter for emergency reasons.

But perhaps Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy really is the fourth-best relief option after those three late-inning studs and this particular decision makes sense. In that case, consider that Yost was once fired by a playoff team just two weeks before the end of the regular season, because going into the postseason with a brand-new interim manager seemed like a better option than keeping Yost around. That says a lot. Royals Review also says a lot about "Nervous Ned." Grant Brisbee says even more in his recent post on the issue. His recent Yost post.

The managers may not end up mattering. But if Melvin makes a smart pinch-hitting move and Yost calls on Jeremy Guthrie instead of Kelvin Herrera because of, I don't know, reasons, then this advantage could mean something for Oakland.

***

So there are your five reasons for optimism. There are certainly others, but these seemed like a good start. I'll leave you with one more note, from a comment by user ORthey on Sunday:

Look, here's the truth

In the last 15 years, sending awesome teams to the playoffs hasn't yielding anything more than a single trip to the ALCS.

This year, we're sending a team limping, hobbling, and licking its wounds into a one-game playoff. It's as different as it gets, and for that reason, I'm feeling oddly optimistic.

Let's almost never forget: the 2006 Cardinals went 83-79 and won the World Series. You just have to get in to have a chance. The A's are in.

LET'S DO THIS THING BOYS

Winning 103 games didn't do the trick. Boasting the original Big 3 didn't do it. Giambi/Tejada/Chavez couldn't win. The magical 2012 team ran out of tricks. The even stronger 2013 squad fell short. Heck, even the mighty Cespedes wasn't enough to take Oakland over the hump, twice. Division winners, red-hot rosters, none of them had an answer except for Frank Thomas in 2006, on a team that needed a 17-2 record against the Mariners just to make it to October at all. So why not a crippled roster of slumping players who backed into the postseason on a cold streak against the worst clubs in the league? Why can't that team win? We've tried everything else, may as well try this roundabout route. If the 2006 Cardinals and the 2010 Giants can do it, anyone can. And this time the A's don't have to sit around for a week getting rusty while they wait for the ALDS to begin.

It all starts over on Tuesday. Everyone is 0-0, and nothing that happened last week or last month will be factored into the final score. Only what happens on Tuesday, with a stud two-time champion pitcher going up against a lineup he owns and a starter who has never succeeded in the postseason in a park that lends no advantage to its host, all of it called by one great manager and one great fool.

Fear not, Athletics Nation. We've got this.