Entering the second half of the 2015 season, there are two statements about the Oakland A's that I think most people would agree with. The first statement is that they are a better team than their 43-51 record and relative cellar-dwelling indicate. The second statement is that it's probably too late for that to matter, with so many losses already in the bank, so many teams ahead of them in the standings, and only a couple months left to play.
Well, you can go anywhere to read about how the A's are done and need to start looking toward 2016. I will continue to be your source for why 2015 isn't over yet (until it really is), and why this team not only could but should make noise as the summer goes on. On Friday I listed five things that need to change in the second half, and they can roughly be summed up in this sentence: The A's need to stop under-performing relative to their run-scoring and run-prevention skills, which can be accomplished by winning more close games, which will require the bullpen to stop blowing those close games, which would be easier if the defense tightened up, and all of which would matter slightly less if they didn't inexplicably lay down and die against every lefty starter.
The A's have now finished their first series out of the All-Star break, taking 2-of-3 from the Twins at the Coliseum. It might prove to be just another series, but I was struck by a few things that genuinely went differently this weekend. If you're already grasping for reasons to believe, there were a few to be found here.
The first game felt like a continuation of the first half of the season. The Twins won the battle of sequencing over Oakland, which made sense -- in the first half, Minnesota led MLB in terms of outperforming their expected Base Runs record, while the A's were by far the worst at turning their raw production into wins. When Oakland loaded the bases in the 3rd, Ben Zobrist fouled out to end the threat. When the Twins loaded them in the 6th, Trevor Plouffe hit a grand slam, and one that was close enough that it didn't actually clear the fence but rather landed just above the yellow line over the out-of-town scoreboard in left. Zobrist's next time up, he hit a single, and Plouffe's next time up he grounded out; switch up the sequencing and maybe Zobrist knocks in a pair, Plouffe hits into an inning-ending double play, and the A's win 2-1. But that's all a bunch of theoretical hindsight, and the fact is that the Twins came through when it mattered that day and earned the win, whereas the A's managed only five hits despite striking out only twice. Such has been Oakland's season.
The second game was much the same. The A's took a late 1-0 lead and Scott Kazmir was dealing, but there can't have been a single fan in Oakland who didn't feel nervous about entering the 9th with that slim margin. And, sure enough, stuff happened, like it always does. A ground ball was induced, but it went for an infield hit instead of a harmless out, and a throwing error exacerbated the problem. The bullpen came in and was so ineffective that the error didn't even matter, blowing first the lead and then the tie. And just like that, just like always, instead of cruising to a close win, Oakland somehow entered their final ups staring at a one-run deficit. Worse yet, they were facing an elite closer with a perfect 28-for-28 save record.
But this time, something different happened, something faintly reminiscent of the winning teams of the last few years. They broke the closer. And, in an ironic twist of regression, they did it in the dinkiest way possible. With two outs, Brett Lawrie's reputation as a hustle guy bought him a rushed, errant throw from the shortstop and an infield hit. A not-that-wild pitch, off the umpire's foot, got Lawrie to second with some heads-up running. And then, Jake Smolinski, entering as a pinch-hitter with a .143 season average, got jammed but muscled a seeing-eye flare into no-man's land in shallow left field. Somewhere, a duck snorted, and a quail died. With one out in the inning, Lawrie holds up on the fly ball and maybe settles at third base, but with two outs he was running all the way and scored easily. It was the perfect sequencing of the most accidental successes, and it kept the A's in the game long enough to win it in the 10th. And if Stephen Vogt's walk-off hit didn't give you deja-vu chills, then I don't even know.
And then there was the third game, the most beautiful of them all. I'll admit that the bittersweet nature of the previous win, with a walk-off necessary only because of previous failures by the bullpen and defense, dampened my excitement. But the thrill of the finale was undeniable. The odds seemed stacked against the green and gold -- not only were they facing a red-hot left-handed starter, he also happened to be an old teammate and therefore a prime candidate for the Curse of the Former A's. Seven shutout innings would have surprised precisely nobody.
But this time, something different happened, something reminiscent of the Gio game from 2014. The A's teed off. Against Washington in that 2014 contest, Oakland scored seven runs and knocked Gio Gonzalez out in the 5th; in this one, they tallied the same seven, and Milone was chased by the 3rd inning. The guys who were supposed to hit lefties actually hit the lefty, as Josh Phegley, Billy Butler, and Smolinski all went yard off of Tommy.
And best yet, when their opponent made mistakes they took advantage, just as so often seems to happen to them. With two outs in the 2nd, Lawrie reached on an error, but instead of letting that gift go to waste Phegley drilled a homer to turn what should have been a 1-2-3 inning into a crooked number. In the 3rd frame, Milone had two outs before hitting Mark Canha with a pitch; instead of stranding the free runner, though, the A's sparked up a rally, going double, homer, homer, single, double to plate five runs. It had been one strike away from being a 1-2-3 inning. The Twins loaded the bases in the next frame, on a double, a walk, and an HBP, but they came up empty-handed.
The series against the Twins was not perfect. Lawrie's aggressive play served as a catalyst at some key moments, but his twitchiness and over-exuberance also led to three fielding errors (and two on the same play). The pen was its usual maddening self, pitching mostly scoreless ball in the games that were already decided but instantly turning to mush in the one moment when it mattered -- though credit to Drew Pomeranz, truly the one consistent bright spot in the group, for his 10th-inning performance. And the lineup still showed it could disappear for a whole evening, though it was the first game back from a long layoff and at the hands of a long-time A's killer in Ervin Santana.
But there were signs of life. They launched a late-inning comeback and actually completed it for a surprisingly rare walk-off victory, only the second all year for a team that used to be an expert in such heroics. They got some good hops, they took advantage of some opponents' mistakes, and they actually got the big hits at the right times to turn opportunities into successes. They even crushed a lefty starter. Many of the things that have gone so wrong with such seemingly unsustainable consistency finally turned around, and they did so against the team that has had those same things go so unsustainably consistently right. To me, the series felt like a reminder that fortunes can turn on a dime in baseball, sometimes for no apparent reason, and that luck and momentum and clutchness often continue merrily along right until they don't. And sometimes, when you're hoping for your luck to change, all you're really hoping is for it to even out to where it seems like it should have been all along.
There's no telling yet what this series means to the developing picture of Oakland's 2015 season. Maybe it was the turning point in an impossibly weird season, the beginning of the run that will put the A's back in the wide-open playoff picture. Maybe it was just one more teAse, a brief glint of promise on the long journey to the middle, destined to be followed by a maddening sweep featuring a trio of one-run losses. The latter is always more likely for a team that is eight games under .500, but the former seems so tantalizingly possible for the hottest club in MLB since May 23 (29-21). Either way, this is the most exciting I can ever imagine a team being while sitting 10th in the Wild Card race.