After losing on Sept. 10, the St. Louis Cardinals were 71-69. The NL Central division was out of reach, and they ranked fourth in the Wild Card race, trailing the Second Wild Card spot by 3.5 games.
Beginning the next day, they went on a 17-game winning streak. When they finally lost again on Sept. 29, they were 88-70. Not only had they caught up in the postseason race, they’d taken control and clinched the Second Wild Card, running away with a 6.5-game margin. During that span they’d gained 13.5 games on the Padres, who had led the chase a few weeks prior. The Cardinals eventually won the playoff spot by seven games, over the Reds.
Meanwhile, in the American League, on Sept. 15 the Seattle Mariners were clinging to their final hopes. They were fifth in the Wild Card race, four games out of the Second Wild Card spot with 16 to play, and with far too many teams ahead of them in the standings. But they finished the summer on a 12-4 run, and seven of those victories came against one of the teams they were chasing, effectively knocking out a fellow contender single-handedly.
The Mariners didn’t quite reach the playoffs, falling short at the last moment, but they made it more interesting than anybody expected. They played meaningful baseball on the final day of the season, and if the results of Game 162 had gone differently for a couple clubs on Sunday then Seattle could have broken their two-decade postseason drought. It was an honor just to be nominated.
Late-season magic happens all the time in the majors, and the Oakland A’s conjure it up as often as anybody. Their playoff teams often start slow and then heat up as the summer goes on, sometimes when they weren’t even supposed to be good, with the shining example being their surprise 2012 division title. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen for them this year, right when they could have used it.
On Aug. 20, the A’s still held the Second Wild Card spot. Any kind of surge could have locked up a fourth straight Oaktober, but instead they reeled off a six-game losing streak and limped to a 16-23 record down the stretch. Not only did the magic never appear, they got a front-row seat to Seattle’s own Cinderella story, losing to them seven times in the final two weeks and officially getting eliminated at T-Mobile Park.
“We didn’t have that magic at the end of the year we usually have,” said outfielder Mark Canha, via Shayna Rubin of the Mercury News. “That’s usually our calling card. We usually come back to win those close games, historically been good at that. We didn’t have it this year.”
Each of the past three years, Oakland posted a winning record during the final month on their way to the playoffs, but not this time.
- 2018: 16-10
- 2019: 18-8
- 2020: 14-12
- 2021: 13-16
There are plenty of reasons why the A’s collapsed down the stretch. The point here isn’t the specifics of which players slumped or got hurt, or how many saves were blown or close games lost. They were good enough to compile a 70-53 record before their skid, and their final run differential of plus-56 was better than the Yankees club who did snag that final Wild Card spot. It was so disappointing precisely because it could have gone better, and perhaps should have.
After all, for all the flaws in Oakland’s roster, it’s not like the Cardinals or Mariners are juggernauts. They’re both good too! But are they meaningfully better than the A’s?
The Cards ranked middle-of-the-pack in the NL in both hitting and pitching, but had excellent defense. Their lineup was led by two superstar corner infielders in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, plus breakout star Tyler O’Neill in the outfield, while their catcher and middle infielders didn’t hit much. They only had one starting pitcher exceed 110 innings, and it was Adam Wainwright, who just turned 40 in August. Their first closer was walking 6.5 batters per nine innings, so they replaced him with a setup man who posted eight blown saves, and supplemented that with another guy they got off the scrap-heap in July.
That’s an oversimplification, but the point is they aren’t stacked, and in fact they kind of resemble the A’s. Goldy and Arenado produced similarly to the Matts. They both had good outfields, with the edge going to St. Louis, but Oakland’s rotation stayed far healthier and more productive. They both had messy bullpens, and they both had weak bats at the same up-the-middle positions. Nobody on the A’s was quite as good as O’Neill, but it’s not like anybody had him penciled into the MVP conversation last spring.
As for the Mariners, scientists will spend years figuring out how they got so hot. They have two pretty good hitters, and a few more decent ones. Two of their starters had slightly above-average seasons, and they traded away their closer in July. They played well and won games, no disrespect, but they didn’t do it with some collection of expensive stars, nor a group of elite prospects graduating together like the White Sox or Blue Jays. They were outscored by 51 runs this year.
The Cardinals and Mariners weren’t any better on paper than the A’s in 2021, not in any sense that made the results inevitable. They all had some good players and some clear flaws in their rosters, and by late-August it was Oakland who led the trio in the standings. But in the final weeks, it was St. Louis and Seattle who found the late-season magic while the green-and-gold faded.
It could have been us, but it wasn’t, not this time. Lots of things went wrong, but this group was talented enough that they could have gotten hot in September. Happens all the time, often to teams you don’t expect and for reasons that don’t make sense, and it happened twice this year. Just to somebody else.
Weird stuff happens in sports, once they actually go on the field and play the games. We can study and analyze all day, but we’re never going to fully predict the future, and a lot of the time we don’t even get close to guessing right.
For much of this summer there was a feeling of pessimism among the Athletics Nation community. That the cheapskate owner didn’t spend enough during the offseason, and that this squad wasn’t quite good enough to compete, and that once the downward spiral began in late-August it would be impossible to bounce back. All of that turned out to be true. But the point is it didn’t have to, that’s just the way it went this time. Cardinals fans and Mariners fans were in the same place six weeks ago, until suddenly they weren’t.
The 2021 A’s didn’t get the job done, and it’s too late to change that. We’ve seen it go right here so many times in the past, which makes this miss hurt even more. But they’ll be in this position again someday, whether it’s next summer, or in 2025 after another rebuild. There will be more late-season magic to be captured in those years, and hopefully it’ll return to Oakland again.