The A's could have won tonight, embarking on the path toward salvaging a season — it was supposed to be the season — that seemed completely lost for much of the past two months.
Oakland could have lost tonight, mercifully bringing to an end a torturous eight-week stretch that left many an A's fan dazed, depressed, or worst of all, entirely apathetic.
The A's did lose, but there was absolutely nothing merciful about it. They lost in a way so profoundly and impressively heartbreaking that it vastly exceeded everything Oakland has puts its fans through in the 2014 season. There were moments of dominance. There were moments that truly made you believe that despite everything, this year was still the year that the A's would break through and win it all. And then there were moments like the one so beautifully depicted at the top of this article that made you laugh and cry at the same time.
Put it this way: Brandon Moss hit two home runs tonight. He hit two home runs in August and September's regular-season games combined. Brandon Moss was the missing piece, and tonight, the A's found him. There was Brandon Moss, one of the shining examples of the Moneyball renaissance, absolutely mashing. All was well.
The game started off on a high note, to say the least. Moss hit a two-out, two-run bomb in the top of the 1st inning that put Kansas City in an immediate 2-0 hole.
But then Jon Lester took the mound, and it was clear from the beginning that things weren't going to go his way the way everybody expected them to. That Lester would dominate the Royals was always a consensus. But he allowed an infield single, a two-out stolen base, a walk, and another single on a sharp line drive in the first inning. The lead stood at 2-1.
Oh. Remember the conversation earlier in the week about who should catch this game? The widespread consensus was that despite his lacking offensive productivity against righties and the fact that he had never caught Jon Lester in a game situation in his life, Geovany Soto should earn catching duties. Why? Because the Royals steal more than any other team, and only Soto was remotely capable of containing that aspect of their game.
Well, scratch that. Billy Butler tried a delayed steal at the end of the 1st inning, one that ended with Eric Hosmer attempting to score from third base but getting easily thrown out at home.
Soto jammed, broke, dislocated, or somehow otherwise injured his left (catching) thumb on that tag. He caught the bottom of the 2nd, but wasn't able to remain in the game. Exit Soto, enter Norris. And the Royals ran absolutely wild on him.
Things got worse in the bottom of the 3rd. Another leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt, and a two-out double. Then a two out single. The Royals led, 3-2, and the A's were in dire straits after going down in order in the 4th — they essentially had six outs to take a lead before Ned Yost, a parody of MLB managers in of himself, turned the game over to his vaunted 1-2-3 punch in the bullpen. It seemed like the season was mercifully coming to an end.
But then Sam Fuld singled to lead off the fifth, and Josh Donaldson walked, and then Brandon Moss homered. Again. He hit baseballs almost 900 feet between his first and second four-baggers. The A's were up, 5-3, and they didn't stop there.
Singles from Josh Reddick, Derek Norris, and Eric Sogard gave Oakland a 7-3 lead. Four runs ahead in the 6th inning, with Lester having settled down from a rocky beginning. The season was back.
Out trotted Lester for the 8th, having retired 13 of his last 14 batters faced. His pitch count was low and he was cruising, looking to extend his quality start. Leaving him in was absolutely the right decision, as was pulling him after he gave up two singles, a stolen base, a walk, and a run. 7-4 Oakland. Exit Lester, enter Luke Gregerson to face Billy Butler.
Billy Butler isn't great against righties, but he was fine in his one at-bat tonight against Gregerson. He lined a single to right field, scoring Lorenzo Cain to cut the lead to 7-5. Things were headed south, fast, but the A's still had this. They were up two with five outs to go.
Then Eric Hosmer scored on a wild pitch, a slider in the dirt that Norris couldn't come close to corralling. 7-6, A's.
But hey, the A's were up with three outs to go. Three outs! And Sean Doolittle was coming out of the bullpen. There is not a fan on earth who wouldn't have taken a one-run lead heading into the 9th inning of a win-or-go-home Wild Card game.
Doolittle blew it. Guess who helped him? It starts with J, and ends with "osh Willingham." The Hammer is retiring at the end of this season, but he clearly got sentimental and decided to stick around for a few more days, because he singled on the bloopiest of bloops to right field and gracefully made his exit.
Alcides Escobar bunted pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson over to second, and Dyson stole third base, and Nori Aoki hit a sacrifice fly to right field to tie the game. The A's had blown a 7-3 lead in the one game they really, truly, actually couldn't afford to lose.
Then there were extra innings. Imagine a 10th and 11th of offensive futility from the A's, whilst the Royals expertly teased the raucous home crowd at Kauffman Stadium with leadoff runners that somehow always reached scoring position and, even more bizarrely, never scored.
The A's even scored a run in the 12th. Imagine that — a run! A Reddick leadoff walk, a sac bunt (yes, Bob Melvin was trying to beat Ned Yost at his own game) from Jed Lowrie, and a line-drive single from Alberto Callaspo. Let's give that its own paragraph:
A line-drive single from Alberto Callaspo.
That sentence doesn't even have a verb. It's not even a sentence. But it tells you everything you need to know. Alberto Callaspo was a) pinch-hitting against a right-hander instead of Adam Dunn and b) actually did something offensively productive. Alberto Callaspo had an RBI single, and the A's lost.
How'd they lose? Imagine a world where Dan Otero is pitching. There's one out. The A's have a one-run lead, and need just two more outs to advance to the ALDS to face a very beatable Angels squad.
But then Eric Hosmer hits a deep fly ball to left-center field. Very deep. Jonny Gomes is in the game, and running after it from left field. Sam Fuld, who moved to center after Coco Crisp left with a hamstring cramp, is running at it from the other direction. They leap. Neither catches the ball. Neither comes close to catching the ball. They collide, and lie in a tangled heap on the warning track in left-center field, and Eric Hosmer — no speed demon — is standing at third base.
Christian Colon singles. Christian Colon steals second base. Salvador Perez singles down the left field line. Game, season, maybe even competitive window. Done.
There's strategy to discuss. Bullpen moves were made that some might call into question. The starting lineup had its potential issues, as did Bob Melvin's late-game strategy with pinch-hitters and defensive replacements. Discuss them as you will, but I don't think they're worth writing about. Bob Melvin is not perfect, and the last month made most of us think he's further from perfect than previously, but his personnel decisions weren't the problem. The problem is that the A's blew leads on three separate occasions, came within two outs of advancing to the American League Division Series twice, and couldn't get the job done.
And Adam Dunn. This is the special Adam Dunn section.
Adam Dunn has played Major League Baseball since 2001. He has never once appeared in a playoff game. Perfect timing that he'd get traded to a contender in late 2014, right? Absolutely, because the A's happened to make the playoffs and even though his role was reduced to that of a platoon designated hitter, he was in luck — Oakland was facing a righty in its only guaranteed playoff game, and what do you know? Adam Dunn only plays against righties.
Adam Dunn was not in tonight's starting lineup.
His numbers against starter James Shields weren't great. He could only DH, and Brandon Moss has been banged up and was potentially unable to play defense, and Sam Fuld is a better defender than Moss. Fine. No start for Dunn. He'll get in the game eventually, right?
Adam Dunn did not appear in this playoff game, or in any playoff game, and for that, Bob Melvin truly owes him an apology.
Nick Punto pinch-hit for Eric Sogard in the top of the 10th. It's not that complicated — give the at-bat to Dunn, and replace him defensively with Punto at second base when the A's take the field in the next inning. Alberto Callaspo also pinch-hit. Ignore the fact that he singled — Callaspo has been really, truly offensively terrible. Give Dunn his at-bat.
But no. Adam Dunn didn't play tonight, and he might never play again. 1,631 career hits. 462 career home runs. No playoff appearances.
There will be A's baseball at some point very far in the future. In April 2015. Don't worry about them for a long time.
The A's scored eight runs. Jon Lester started. Brandon Moss hit two home runs. Twice, the A's came within two outs of advancing to the American League Division Series, in which Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, and Jon Lester were lined up to pitch the first three games. Nothin' doin'.
At one point, you might be able to enjoy some of 2014's memories. They probably all came before the All-Star Break. The Coliseum was beautiful this summer, and so was Oakland, and so were the A's. But give it a few weeks. Months. A game and a season as bizarre as this one deserve plenty of breathing room.
Baseball. It's a weird, weird game.