So, yes. The Oakland Athletics are dead again. The A’s finally got to host a winner-take-all playoff game after losing last year’s Wild Card Game in New York but, for the ninth time in as many tries, they biffed it, losing 5-1.
If you were fortunate enough not to have spent those three-and-a-half hours experiencing the drudgery, allow me a brief summary: The Rays were prepared for Sean Manaea to keep his fastball up and away to right-handed hitters, and those Rays hitters ventilated him with a dinger in each of the first three innings; Yandy Diaz did it twice. The A’s put a baserunner on in every single inning only to strand nine of them, scoring their lone run thanks exclusively to a dumb throwing error. After a year of jacking big homers, the A’s supposedly deep lineup farted up eight futile singles. It sucked pure ass. I felt like this.
And yet, despite Wednesday night’s shellacking and the preceding decade or so of disappointment, there are plenty of reasons for a goldfish-brained optimist like me to feel confident about the future of this A’s team. The primary reason is the emergence of Jesus Luzardo, one of baseball’s best pitching prospects. The 22-year-old made his debut this season for the A’s, pitching a total of seven games in relief. He threw as many pitches as Manaea over three clean innings against the Rays, logging four strikeouts and looking extremely nasty in doing so.
Next year, he’ll take a spot in the rotation for the first time, and he’ll be joined by a young core that includes Manaea, Frankie Montas (who looked like an ace before getting popped for PEDs), Mike Fiers, and A.J. Puk, another powerful lefty who made his debut this season. Any of those five could emerge as the team’s ace.
“We’re going to get better,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We have the makings of an even better team next year, and you couldn’t help but think of that as the season was winding down and some of these younger guys came up and played so well.”
“For Luzardo to go out there today and pitch the way he did, I mean, I love that kid,” Matt Chapman said. “He competes, he gets after it and he really works hard. He’s a guy for our future. And so is Puk and our whole team. We’ve got a lot of guys returning, a lot of young guys.”
Chapman took the loss harder than anyone, as he reportedly sat and stewed in the dugout, staring at the Rays as they celebrated on his infield. Chapman is the beating heart of the A’s, a Platinum Glove winner who has improved his power hitting in each of his three MLB seasons. Along with shortstop Marcus Semien and first baseman Matt Olson, he forms one of the best young infield cores in baseball. All three men could be gold glove winners, and Semien will almost certainly finish in the top-five of AL MVP voting after a breakout season that saw him turn his previous flashes of promising pop into elite power numbers. In a year when the entire outfield got hurt and last year’s home run king Khris Davis slumped hard, the infield carried the A’s to one of the best records in the sport after the All-Star Break.
Which brings us to the biggest obstacle in front of the A’s: themselves. Fans harbor a deep mistrust of ownership, and for good reason. John Fisher and Co. just won’t pay their players, even homegrown stars, seemingly on principle; the team keeps one of the lowest payrolls in baseball every year. Semien will reach free agency next summer, and he’ll command a high price. He’s an East Bay local who played his high school and college ball in Berkeley, and one assumes he would prefer to stay with the team, provided they’re willing to break character and pony up. The cynical modern economics of baseball feel especially oppressive here; given the organization’s history and the broader anticompetitive trend in the league, it would be something of a surprise to see them keep this exciting young core together.
The other looming obstacle is the divisional dynasty in Houston. The A’s will be hard pressed to win the AL West even with their nucleus of young and improving stars, because they share that division with the most stacked team in baseball, which happens to be one of the few teams in the sport actively trying to maximize its current championship window. The reality is that even if the A’s can reel off a third consecutive 97-win season, they will likely have to win a do-or-die game just to keep playing in October. Oakland’s streak of nine straight losses in such games is the longest in baseball. It has been 46 years since they won one.
“My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck,” Billy Beane said in Moneyball. That’s true, to a degree, although last night felt more like the A’s getting outplayed at the worst possible time. I am optimistic that they’ll get another shot soon, and hopefully the third time shakes out better.