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The 2018 Oakland A’s never give up

No lead is safe against the Comeback Kids, down to the final out.

You have permission to call it a comeback.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s played four games against the Padres over the last couple weeks, constituting the whole season series between the two interleague teams. In three of those games San Diego scored first. In two of them the Padres led as late as the 6th inning. In one of them they took their lead down to the final strike in the 9th. And yet each time, when the dust settled, the A’s emerged victorious.

That’s how the 2018 season has gone for Oakland so far. Sure, they aren’t at the top of the standings, ranking 10th in MLB and only third in their own division. If the summer ended tomorrow they would miss the playoffs by a wide margin. But on any given day they are never out of the running, and that’s a feeling A’s fans aren’t used to after three pathetic last-place doormat campaigns. They don’t always win, but you can never count them out. Get frustrated by an opponent’s rally in the 6th and turn off the TV at your own risk.

The magic hasn’t been limited to games against the Padres. By my count the A’s have come back from deficits in the 6th inning or later 11 times already this year. Move the goalpost back to the 7th inning, and they’ve still come back eight times. And all of that doesn’t include games in which they came back earlier, like in the 2nd inning on Wednesday, nor ones that were merely tied in the late innings. Here is the full list of 11 comebacks:

3/29, vs. LAA

  • Down 5-4 in 7th, Khrush RBI single ties it. Semien walk-off single in extras.

4/18, vs. CHW

  • Down 6-1 early, then 9-4, then 10-8, but Lowrie HR takes lead in 8th. Olson walk-off single in extras.

5/2, @ SEA

  • Down 2-0 in 8th, Lowrie HR ties it. Canha HR in 9th wins it.

5/19, @ TOR

  • Down 4-0 in 8th, rally ends with Pinder grand slam to take lead.

6/16, vs. LAA

  • Down 3-1 in 6th, Semien homers and then Angels reliever Noe Ramirez loads bases with walk and two HBP; Lucroy walks in tying run, Piscotty singles in winners.

6/17, vs. LAA

  • Down 5-3 in 9th, Semien homers and then Angels reliever Blake Parker walks a pair; down to final out, Canha RBI single ties it. Lucroy walk-off single in extras.

6/19, @ SDP

  • Down 2-1 in 9th, two outs and two strikes, Piscotty HR ties it. Lowrie HR wins it in extras.

6/25, @ DET

  • Down 1-0 in 7th, Piscotty HR ties it. Then down again 4-1 in 8th, Semien, Lucroy, Barreto cap off rally with consecutive RBI outcomes to tie it again. Lowrie HR in 9th wins it.

6/26, @ DET

  • Down 6-0 early, still down 7-6 in 7th. Tigers reliever Louis Coleman helps load bases with two walks, then Olson ties it with RBI groundout. Lowrie and Fowler drive in runs in 9th to win it.

6/30, vs. CLE

  • Down 2-0 in 6th, Phegley HR ties it and Canha RBI takes lead.

7/3, vs. SDP

  • Down 2-0 in 6th, Lowrie clears bases with double, Khrush singles him in, Canha homers to cap it.

I don’t know where that number of comebacks ranks among MLB clubs, but you’d have to figure it’s high on the list. Even better, it hasn’t just been one or two players coming to the rescue every time, but rather a true team effort from top to bottom. Jed Lowrie is probably the single biggest contributor, but names like Stephen Piscotty, Mark Canha, and Marcus Semien keep showing up over and over, among many others.

What’s more, the same trend isn’t occurring in the opposite direction. The A’s freely come back late against a variety of opponents, but nobody has managed to do so against Oakland — not even once. The A’s are undefeated when leading after seven innings, with a record of 33-0. (Or is it 34-0 now? Not sure if Wednesday counts, with a tie after the 7th but a lead after the 8th.)

Note: That doesn’t mean the A’s have never blown a game, just never when leading after the 7th. They’ve lost a couple late ties, and surely a few leads in earlier innings.

It’s not hard to figure out why this is happening. The A’s have a lackluster starting rotation, with eleventy pitchers on the DL and literally Edwin Jackson holding down a spot. The starters haven’t been terrible, but they’ve been below-average and it’s not unusual for them to cough up a few runs early. But the back of the bullpen has been as dominant as the rotation has been shaky, so once the relievers come in the damage tends to slow or even stop completely. Then the dingerific top-10 MLB lineup gets all the time it needs to power its way back into the game, and if/when they do Blake Treinen is there to shut the door behind them — he’s been so fierce that it feels like he could find a way to remove a run from the opponent’s ledger.

Of course, all of this comes with a big red flag. Just as we scoff at the Mariners’ precarious grip on the Wild Card, held together by a ridiculous 26-11 record in one-run games even while their best player is out with an injury and a suspension simultaneously, we can’t expect the A’s to continue this stretch of late-inning perfection forever. They won’t necessarily make 11 more comebacks in the second half, and eventually even Mecha-Treinen will probably get beaten once or twice.

And if we do hope to sustain the seemingly unsustainable, then we must acknowledge the other side of that coin too. The 2012 Orioles proved one-run success can be kept up for a full season (they went 29-9), and the Mariners themselves are the eternal example of how you can lose superstars (Johnson, Griffey, A-Rod in consecutive years) and still come out a legit contender (116 wins the next season without them). Oakland and Seattle are both succeeding by the skins of their respective teeth, and it’s anyone’s guess which one (or both, or neither) will blink first.

But for now let’s just enjoy the good times. There are three more months to answer the big-picture questions and find out which teams are fully for real. Right now, at this moment, the A’s are officially fun and interesting to watch. They’re definitely not bad, they’re probably good, and their window of contention is beginning to reveal the tiniest cracks of sunlight slightly ahead of schedule. The last few years were a slog through the doldrums, and the best times are likely yet to come in 2019 and beyond, but this current squad is truly worth watching — all the way until the final out.