Toward the end of the regular season, there was a sizable contingent of A’s fans that were afraid to face the Astros.
The fear was not out of a belief that the A’s couldn’t beat Houston, but that the A’s wouldn’t beat them (because, up till last week, they wouldn’t beat anybody in the playoffs). The thought of losing to the putrid cheaters was so horrific that it could not be entertained. The thought of losing that comes about because the A’s always lost in these situations.
However, after last week, that thought isn’t there, and instead it’s replaced by an at times brash confidence with an underlying sense of purpose. The confidence that comes with winning is the perfect weapon to take into the ultimate grudge match.
And make no mistake, this is a grudge match, even if Billy Beane insists it isn’t. The mutual disdain is out in the open. Unlike a lot of so-called “rivalries,” which are really more for the fans and not the players, the A’s players aren’t shy about sharing their disrespect for the Astros.
These guys in the locker room know the incredibly difficult decision that Mike Fiers had to make when he went public and on record about the Astros’ electronic sign stealing maneuvers. By casting shadows on the Astros’ World Series victory, he did so upon his own championship memories. But likely, his memories were already tainted. Sure he never actually played in that postseason, but he was a major part of the season, leading the team in innings pitched with 153⅓. If not for the cheating, he would have rightly earned his ring.
Perhaps Fiers wasn’t initially planning to go public. He probably wrestled with the idea for a while, given that in the intervening two years he revealed the news to the Tigers and the A’s, but not the public. However the Astros, in their seemingly infinite hubris, seemed to have used the cheating on Fiers himself. Maybe that pushed him over the edge. I still remember the game, September 9, 2019.
Mike Fiers came into that game with a sterling 14-3 record, and a 3.51 ERA. He was on a big-time roll of eerily consistent and solid starts. But Fiers allowed five home runs in one inning (plus three batters into the 2nd). That felt absolutely insane. Sure, Fiers is prone to serving ‘em up from time to time, but that’s uncanny.
The A’s were probably not going to win that game regardless with Fiers going up against the Houston lineup and Zack Greinke. However, the five home runs were beyond absurd. The A’s had first reported the sign stealing in October 2018, and started going to ridiculous lengths to change signs for the rest of that series (which they ended up winning, three games to one).
To be clear, Fiers never publicly pointed at that start as a reason to come forward. I just personally believe that day, the day they let him know that he was not their brother, that they would go so far as to cheat in order to ruin the beautiful season he was having … that may have been the final thing he needed to convince himself that there is no honor among thieves. And he did the honorable thing, though it cost him dearly in the eyes of many players.
I’m sure A’s players, who love Fiers just as dearly, did not enjoy the Astros calling him a “punk-ass bitch” among other things. Stephen Piscotty recently said, “You can obviously tell he cares about others. He was kind of frustrated to see young rookies get called up, get put in that situation [getting their signs stolen and having poor outings] and get sent down the next day. It’s just not right. I think we all applaud him for standing up for what is right. He’s a great teammate, we love him here and we’re very grateful for what he did.”
The A’s of course, after two consecutive seasons of falling short to the Astros, feel like they were robbed of the AL West division. They might have a case. In 2019, if half of the 11 losses to the Astros turned into wins, the teams would have finished with identical 102-60 records. In 2018, if half of the 12 losses were wins, the teams would have finished with identical 103-59 records.
My gut says that without the cheating, the Astros were still the better team and I don’t know if the A’s would have won the division (which leads to the question, with that much talent, why bother cheating?), but at the very least, it’s clear that Oakland was robbed of the chance to compete fairly for the division title. And the head-to-head record of course doesn’t take into account other Houston wins against other teams that might have turned on knowing what pitch is coming.
The bottom line is the A’s players believe they were robbed after getting stuck in the one-game Wild Card following back-to-back 97 win seasons. And that’s good enough to stoke the flames of the hate that brings heat to this matchup. They set out as a goal to take the division from the suddenly video-less Astros, and they accomplished that. The fact that they get the opportunity to score one for all of baseball by ending their season has them salivating. We know some of that mini-erupted into the brawl (lite) earlier this year after the Astros plunked the A’s five times (wtf), but it’s nice to recap the shade.
Sean Manaea, July 2020: “I really don’t have much respect for any of those guys”
Ramon Laureano, on Astros’ hitting coach Alex Cintron (August 2020): “I regret charging him because he’s a loser”
Liam Hendriks, after beating the White Sox: “There’s a little bit of it going on there, that we want to make sure that they know what they’ve done and we can prove it to [the outspoken Carlos Correa] and make sure they lost to the top team in the A.L. West.”
And, just for kicks, we’ll throw in this one from Vallejo’s own C.C. Sabathia from Friday. As one of the league’s elder statesmen and not directly facing the Astros this week, he had a lot more leeway to speak his mind:
“They cheated and then they’re mad at us. Like get the f--- out of here,” he said. “It’s a f---ing joke. And then you finish under .500 this year. Like, shut the f--- up ... The kid’s a clown, I’m sorry.”
“[Dusty Baker’s] like a big uncle, like that’s my guy. So for him to be managing, I’m happy that he was able to win another playoff series. Shows how great of a manager he is. But man, f--- them dudes, man.”
I love, love, love the disrespectful quotes. How often do players go on record with stuff like this?
I’m glad that Carlos Correa stoked the flames again, just in case people outside of the A’s clubhouse had mostly forgotten about their cheating ways, with his “U mad, bro?” act. “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?,” he said after beating the Twins.
After knocking on the division door twice, the third time was the charm for the A’s. They’re 7-3 this year against the Astros (7-0 in full-length games) and know they can beat these guys. And rather than just be the team that’s “happy to be here” looking up at the “elite” “World Champion and defending AL Champion” Astros, they know they belong and they’re out for blood.
With everything that’s happened since last offseason, and having been deprived as fans from being able to let the Asterisks know how we feel, it’s a rare, beautiful twist of fate that we get this no-love-lost grudge match for all the marbles in the West. Bring on the Astros.