Athletics

Faltering defense continues to be A's unwanted storyline

Faltering defense continues to be A's unwanted storyline

NEW YORK — A weekend that began with promise instead wound up feeling like another lost opportunity for the A’s.

Their defense once again paved the way to their undoing Sunday, and there were plenty of players willing to accept responsibility for a 9-5 loss to the Yankees in the rubber match of a three-game series in the Bronx.

When right fielder Matt Joyce had a catchable fly ball pop out of his glove for a third-inning error that loaded the bases, it seemed inevitable the mistake would come back to haunt the A’s.

On cue, one-time Oakland draft pick Aaron Judge drilled an opposite-field grand slam off Andrew Triggs to a turn a 2-1 A’s lead into a 5-2 deficit. Joyce said he couldn’t stomach to watch the replay of his missed catch afterward.

“It just hit my glove and I dropped it,” Joyce said. “Obviously that’s pretty tough to swallow for me in that situation. For me, I think that’s an easy play. It’s a little embarrassing. It’s obviously really frustrating, especially with what it led to.”

The A’s (22-27) chalked up two more errors, giving them a staggering 49 in 49 games played. When play began Sunday, they had at least 10 more errors than every other big league club. It’s no surprise, therefore, that they also lead the majors with 35 unearned runs, after five of the nine runs they surrendered Sunday were unearned.

That kind of bumbling play in the field is making it difficult for the A’s to maintain leads when they claim one, and tough to mount comebacks when they fall behind. In a factoid that helps explain why the A’s likely find themselves looking at another summer of selling off veterans, they have won just one of the eight road series they’ve played in 2017. Their 7-17 record away from Oakland is second worst in the American League.

The A’s took Friday’s series opener 4-1 but dropped the final two to the AL East leaders.

“I’ve said often, there’s a psychology to it too,” manager Bob Melvin said. “You feel like you have a chance to battle and come back and score some runs, and when your defense is poor, sometimes mentally it’s tough to overcome or get past it. We just have to keep working on it.”

Leading 5-2, New York added to its lead in the fourth with help from a Josh Phegley throwing error on Aaron Hicks’ stolen base. Hicks wound up on third and came home on Chris Carter’s sacrifice fly. The A’s pulled to within 7-5 on Khris Davis’ 15th homer which in the eighth, a two-run shot. But the Yankees answered right back with two more off reliever John Axford, who hurt his cause with two walks.

There were other mishaps that didn’t cost the A’s runs, like Davis making a poor throw to third that allowed a Yankee runner to advance an extra base, and third baseman Ryon Healy losing a foul pop up in the sun.

Regardless of the defensive issues, A’s starter Andrew Triggs wasn’t looking to hand off blame. Just one of the six runs he allowed was earned over his six innings. But Triggs still had a chance to preserve a 2-1 lead in the third if he could have retired Judge with two outs and the bases loaded. Instead he left a 2-1 sinker over the plate and Judge mashed it over the right field wall.

“In my mind it was either sinker away or sinker in, and I thought away was better,” Triggs said. “But you gotta execute the pitch and I didn’t.”

It was the first career grand slam for Judge, who was drafted in the 31st round out of high school by Oakland in 2010 but opted to attend Fresno State. The Yankees took him in the first round in 2013, and in clubbing his 16th homer Sunday (tying him with Mike Trout for the league lead), Judge continued building his strong early case for the Rookie of the Year award.

From 2.9 to 100 percent: Tracking A's playoff chances throughout the season

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AP

From 2.9 to 100 percent: Tracking A's playoff chances throughout the season

In the last 30 seasons of Major League Baseball, no team had made the playoffs with the lowest Opening Day payroll in the league.

Until now.

Against all odds, the Oakland A's are heading to the postseason. How on earth did this happen?

FanGraphs has tracked each team's playoff chances throughout the regular season. Oakland opened the season with just a 9.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number dipped to a season-low 2.9 percent on April 14, when the A's fell to 5-10. 

Oakland's chances remained below 20 percent through the month of June, dropping to just 3.1 percent on June 15 when they were 34-36 and 11 games out of the second Wild Card position.

But then something happened. Despite numerous injuries to their starting rotation, the A's caught fire. Oakland would win 21 of its next 27 games to reach the All-Star break at 55-42. Suddenly, the A's playoff chances were up to 30.9 percent.

Surely this was just a fluke. There was no way Oakland could maintain this level of play into the second half.

But they did. The A's won nine of their first 13 games out of the break, raising their playoff chances to 51.8 percent on August 2, the first time all season they had crossed the 50 percent barrier.

As August went on, the A's just kept winning. Following a 3-2 victory against the Dodgers on August 8, Oakland's playoff chances reached 70 percent for the first time. On August 21, they climbed above 80 percent. The A's finished August with a record of 81-55 and a 90.9 percent probability of reaching the postseason.

On September 24, that number hit 100 and it became official. For the first time since 2014, the Oakland A's are going to the playoffs.

A's have opportunity to build reputation as elite team in MLB playoffs

A's have opportunity to build reputation as elite team in MLB playoffs

The A's playoff chase did not end with the traditional cathartic bang, but it came close enough given the circumstances.
 
Oh, they got in all right. It’s just that their postgame celebration after beating Seattle, 7-3, was a bit muted (wet but controlled is probably the best way to put it) by the fact that the achievement had been achieved in pregame. Tampa Bay finally ended the last shredlet of doubt by expiring at home to the New York Yankees four hours earlier, and the value of the A's winning was mostly to stay on New York’s considerable heels.
 
That, ultimately, is the only discordant note the A’s have played in the last 100 days – they didn’t get to do the deed themselves.
 
In fact, they not only didn’t do the deed themselves, they watched the team they’ve been chasing do it for them and stay an arm’s length ahead of the Oaklands for the right to host the wild card game next Wednesday. They still trail New York by the equivalent of two games with five to play, so there is no benefit to kicking back and soaking anything in. The work is done when the work is done, and this work is not yet done.
 
But it’s damned fine work by any measure.
 
The Elephants have made themselves the fourth-best team in baseball in half a season by not shrinking before the task thrust upon them, by never letting up as they continued to consume starting pitchers at a rate that should be found in last-place teams, by being the equivalent in those 100 days of a 113-win team.
 
It therefore becomes impossible to make a compelling case that these are merely plucky overachievers getting hot at the right time. Overachievers don’t do this for 3½ months. They have earned the right to walk with the game’s kings.
 
Now, they have to prove they can run with them. That’s October’s task.
 
It’s perfectly acceptable to marvel at the Oakland turnaround, not just from their middling start this year but the three years of uninspiring sub-mediocrity before that. It’s fine to be amazed at the way they chewed through their own starting rotation, in some cases more than once, and still ended up a formidable team. It’s normal to note that they were a mediocre team at home until mid-June, then won three-quarters of their games at the grim Carpathian castle known as the Coliseum.
 
Why, it’s even acceptable to mock them for their modest home attendance, as though that has anything to do with what the roster did before all those empty seats.
 
But they earned all of it, and now all that accomplishment looks to get them the rawest deal of all the playoff paths – a game in the Bronx against the more solidly built Yankees, and then if that goes well, a series against the team with the best record this year and one of the 15 best in the game’s history by winning percentage in Boston.
 
And they’ll be the team people know the least about because, well, because people seek out only that knowledge they want to possess, especially when it comes to baseball. They don’t have a Cy Young or MVP candidate, or even a Rookie of the Year. They have the likely Manager of the Year in Bob Melvin, a potential Mariano Rivera Award winner in Blake Treinen, and two Gold Glove candidates in first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman. They may even have an Executive of the Year in Billy Beane.
 
But they also have that twitchy postseason history over the past 25 years, in which they have carried teams as strong and solid and in some ways deeper and more complete and still have been left behind by better teams with better players doing better things when the things mattered most. That history may not be this team’s, but this team is wearing the laundry of those other teams, and that’s just how history works.
 
So the A’s for all their good deeds still have a national reputation to build, and this is that opportunity. Whether it is done in Oakland or New York, Boston or Houston, they are on the verge of becoming a national team again, of being the 2013 Warriors en route to a glory nobody could imagine even now.
 
Or they could fail, in which case all they’ve done is serve notice that they are badasses in training. That would do as well given their modest origins in spring.
 
But if they’ve gone to the trouble of becoming this good, they might as well stay and enjoy the décor awhile. The A’s are either going to be the real deal, or they’re going to be close enough to see the landmarks and read the signs that led the way.