If you’re feeling antsy after a year of sheltering at home, then have I got good news for you. The Oakland A’s are offering a two-fer deal to begin the 2021 season — you get to watch live baseball, and you get to ride a roller coaster.
The A’s entered the year as established postseason contenders, coming off three October trips and an encouraging spring training performance. Winning was expected. However, they opened the regular season by losing their first six games, tying them for the worst start in franchise history.
Only the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics ever opened 0-6, and no A’s team ever did seven. That 1916 squad went on to lose 117 games, and they still rank as the third-worst team in modern MLB history.
That kind of discouraging comparison wasn’t limited to the club’s own record books. In the entire majors, only three teams have ever started 0-6 and then reached the playoffs — the 1974 Pirates, 1995 Reds, and 2011 Rays.
What’s more, the losses weren’t easy ones to write off. It wasn’t a series of one-run margins that could have bounced either way, but rather a parade of blowouts, none of them closer than four runs. They became the third team in MLB history to allow eight or more runs in each of their first five games of a season, joining the 1974 Padres and 1995 White Sox, and by the sixth game the consolation was that they only allowed five in their quiet defeat. They were outscored 50-13 overall.
Finally, on the seventh day of the season, the roller coaster began to turn a 180. It was subtle at first, merely leveling out for a couple days after beginning with such a jarringly sharp downward spiral, but soon it accelerated and blasted straight back up from whence it came.
Naturally, the trick was facing the reigning NL Cy Young and highest-salaried player in baseball history, Trevor Bauer, who pitches for the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Nothing to bust a slump like that matchup.
But Oakland held serve against Bauer into the 7th, and did just enough against the Dodgers bullpen to squeak their way into the win column. It was exactly the kind of coin-flip one-run victory that all the losses before it hadn’t been, but at least the first one was out of the way and the skid was over. They lost again the next day to the Houston Astros, as the roller coaster finished its brief U-turn, and then the fun began.
It’s appropriate that the ascent started in Houston, since the effect was more like a rocket ship than a roller coaster, and the rise best described as meteoric. In the ninth game of the season they beat the Astros comfortably, then beat them again the next day to win the series, allowing just five total runs in the two victories and not even needing to earn a save in either.
From there they went to Arizona and outslugged the D’Backs for two games, then came home and thumped the Tigers in a four-game sweep. The offense was suddenly humming, the defense was making plays, the rotation was getting better every day, and the bullpen was finally getting tested in close games and nailing it shut each time.
After recording their first shutout on Friday, and their second on Saturday, and an extra-inning walk-off on Sunday, the roller coaster rocket ship meteor has now blasted all the way up to its starting point and beyond. You can see the people in line on the platform waiting for the next car to arrive for their turn, and you wave as you blow past them.
The A’s have now won eight in a row, and they did so with a 50-21 run differential, almost the mirror-image of their initial slump. They are the third team in MLB history to have both a six-game losing streak and a six-game winning streak within their first 14 contests of a season, joining the 1915 White Sox and 1991 Mariners, and only those Mariners ran their win streak to eight. If you’re keeping score, that’s already more rare than the previous stat about teams who started 0-6 but still made the playoffs.
The most ironic part of this wild ride is how little it’s told us about the 2021 A’s. They got blitzed in the opening week, which isn’t unusual for contending Oakland clubs. It happened at the hands of two excellent opponents, but they eventually figured out the Astros and beat them in the follow-up series on the road, and it turns out beating the Dodgers once was impressive since it was LA’s only loss in a 14-game span. Then Oakland comfortably beat a sub-.500 opponent, and crushed a rebuilding team.
None of that tells us much new about a squad we expected would be good, but who had questions to answer against top competition. It’ll still be months before we know their true identity.
But the journey toward finding out has sure been thrilling, historically so. A team might wait all year to feel the emotional highs and lows that the A’s have gone through already, and we’re barely halfway through April. It’s impossible to imagine what the next twist might be in this ride, but most importantly, remember not to panic if it’s another sharp descent — keep the fAith, and keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.