Don’t misread my headline as suggesting the A’s are front-runners for the second wild card or that they will win it. As play begins tonight, Oakland is 7 games back with 80 to play and it’s never a good sign when a spirited debate is whether the rotation on the field or the rotation on the DL is better.
However, in some ways the A’s are better positioned than the way it looked like it would probably go as we surveyed the landscape in March. The wild card appeared as if it was going to be a scramble amongst many flawed teams such as the Mariners, the Angels, the Blue Jays, the Twins, the Rays, and anyone else who could stumble along north of the .500 mark hoping to snag 87 wins instead of 84.
Instead, “5 mediocre teams to beat” is shaping up more and more every day like “one team to catch.
The Angels, 13-3 after 16 games, have fallen back all the way to .500 and are absent Shohei Ohtani (the pitcher, anyway), Matt Shoemaker, and Zack Cosart for the season as they try to reverse a free fall that is now going on 2.5 months.
The Blue Jays, with Josh Donaldson hurting and the lineup missing Edwin Encarnacion, sit 6 games under .500 and will likely be listening to offers for J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada in the next month.
The Twins, considered overachievers in 2017, are either underachieving or just settling into who they are really are as they bring a 35-42 record into tonight’s play.
The Rays have recently gotten hot, but still sit under .500 at 39-41 with a lineup that isn’t going to scare anybody but their fans.
If it really is shaping up to be a two-team race — and Mariners fans might rightly argue that at the moment it is more of a one-team race — being 7 back with one team to catch is often better than being only 3-4 games back but in 4th or 5th place.
For one thing, when you’re trailing multiple teams, even by only a few games, it is hard to gain on everyone because they will play each other and rarely do two teams play each other only to both lose. So if you’re trying to catch both the Angels and Mariners, and they are squaring off head-to-head, your celebration over a Mariners loss is tempered by the reality that you have failed to gain on the Angels. And with an unbalanced schedule, there are many Angels-Mariners, and Blue Jays-Rays, matchups. No matter how small the gap, it’s difficult to catch several teams at once because only one of them has to get hot to foil your efforts.
In contrast, if you can set your sights on just one team, 7 games is not a lot to make up over half a season — especially when you are afforded 10 more head-to-head matchups along the way.
The biggest obstacle is that the team ahead of you can coast by just holding their own. Offering hope to the A’s in that regard is the absurdity that while the Mariners are currently on pace to win 100 games, their run differential is all of +16, barely ahead of the A’s mark of +13. If ever there was a team poised to regress, maybe hit the skids for a stretch, it’s Seattle.
This is why I have maintained all along that Oakland’s biggest obstacle was not going to be any team but the A’s. If the A’s are any good, they can make up 7 games in half a season with Seattle or stave off any team behind them. The fair question is more whether the A’s are actually any good, with their patchwork rotation that is doing it with mirrors every bit as much as the Mariners are eeking out one-run wins like they are going out of style.
Bottom line? Give me one team to catch with a 7-game deficit, a team that is grossly outperforming their Pythag, and I think my team is in a superior position than if only 3-4 games separated several teams the A’s were trying to catch.
James Paxton’s career high in IP is 136 (he’s thrown 103 IP so far this season). Marco Gonzales is starting tonight’s game for Seattle. Felix Hernandez has a 5.10 ERA for the season. I have no idea who the second wild card will be, but I’m confident that we have a long ways to go before anyone really has an answer. And the A’s position right now is actually stronger than it looks.