What the two moments happen to have in common is Matt Olson.
Back on May 12th came a play that would be much discussed in the following months, though at the time it seemed to have no post-season implications as the A’s were trudging around .500 in what most believed to be a building-block year.
With a record of 19-19, the A’s came within, well, a thread of taking the lead against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman when Jonathan Lucroy hit a fly ball to LF and Matt Olson tagged up. As I’m sure you know, Olson was called safe only to have the call overturned on replay. Instead of having Blake Treinen on the mound for a 9th inning save opportunity, the A’s went on to lose the game 7-6 in 11 innings.
The implications of this loss are interesting. Give Oakland a win here and they might go into game 162 in search of not their 98th win, but rather their 99th. Give the Yankees a loss and their season ends at 99 wins. In this scenario, the A’s use Treinen in game 162, not Chris Hatcher, and with that 99th win the A’s tie the Yankees. And they win the tie-breaker, having taken the season series 4-2. Home field advantage: Oakland.
Note that this all assumes the two teams both go on to win and lose exactly as they did between May 12th and September 30th, which can’t be assured but may as well be presumed. Who knows how a wild card game in Oakland would have gone. Perhaps the A’s would have felt comfortable starting Mike Fiers and/or asking 2 IP from Yusmeiro Petit. Maybe Severino would have dominated and the A’s bats would have gone cold. It certainly would have been nice to see a playoff game in a packed Oakland Coliseum, and I would have liked the A’s chances better in that setting. One (alleged) thread.
The other key moment occurred August 29th as the A’s were trying to keep pace with the Astros for 1st place in the AL West. This one is a bit harder for me to get wound up about because for all the A’s valor in staying with Houston so long, it’s hard to imagine that the Astros ultimately were not going to win the division with their considerable talent and what turned out to be a 21-5 run in September.
Still, if you’re neck and neck for the division on August 29th you’re for real and the A’s entered the series finale at Houston that day just one game back of the Astros. In that decisive game, with Trevor Cahill matched up against Dallas Keuchel, Cahill took an early exit and the Astros led in the middle innings only to see the A’s rally in the top of the 7th. In that inning, Stephen Piscotty was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, tying the game at 4-4 with one out, the bases still loaded, and the A’s looking to take the lead.
Taking the lead meant a chance to turn the game over to a combination of Trivino or Familia, and Treinen, the latter of whom was undoubtedly ready to pitch 2 IP in the last head-to-head showdown of the regular season.
Matt Olson strode to the plate and in came lefty Tony Sipp to face him. What might have been had Olson managed even a sacrifice fly to give the A’s the lead. However, Olson fouled out, the A’s failed to score the go ahead run and the game remained 4-4 until Tyler White’s cheap fly ball HR into the Crawford boxes off Familia walked it off in the bottom of the 9th.
If the Astros were going to win 21 of their first 26 September games, the result of the August 29th showdown probably mattered not a whit. Still, going into the final month tied for 1st place feels a lot different from being 2 games back and 2018 was a season in which the A’s made the words “improbable” and “win” practically interchangeable. Would a more successful Olson at bat have set wheels in motion for a win, and with it a different September? Probably not and who can know, but still it was a key moment in the fight for the AL West crown and an automatic entry into the ALDS.
At least that moment, that game, felt big at the time. A mid-May game, by a .500 team, at Yankee Stadium? At the time it was more annoying than it was seemingly momentous. In both cases, though, Oakland’s ceiling of “second wild card” was sealed. The moral of the story? Probably something about wearing a tighter uniform, or maybe it’s that baseball is a 6-month odyssey in which every moment has a chance to be that one you look back on and wonder “What if...?