OAKLAND -- A grounds crew tractor prepared the Coliseum infield Saturday evening. Shadow slowly overtook the pitcher's mound, and made its way towards second base. The mesmerizing ritual of dragging the infield dirt smooth is an art form performed 81 times per year here
It’s no easy task prepping a big-league diamond, but it’s always done to perfection at the Coliseum, regardless of the quality of team taking the field.
A clean infield might be the only thing that was truly expected this season from the A’s. The crowd is hit-and-miss, depending on the day of the week. The stadium is well known for its faulty plumbing. And the team?
The prevailing thought coming into the season was that maybe they were a year or two away from competing, and that was before the Tommy John Fairy came to visit the pitching staff.
Call it kismet. Call it an anomaly. Call it whatever you want, but the Oakland Athletics are the best story of the 2018 MLB season. They're an unbelievable 60-25 record since June 16.
There is a randomness to this campaign in Oakland. They knew they had young players ready to blossom at the corner infield spots. The production from veterans Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis was also something manager Bob Melvin could pencil in. The bullpen coming out of spring training was also a strength, but there were plenty of other question marks.
With seven games remaining in the season, the A’s are a game away from clinching an improbable American League playoff berth and they couldn’t have done it without some surprise contributors.
“It’s a combination of young talent with veteran players that are producing at a high level,” Lowrie told NBC Sports California. “You can’t fake talent over the course of 162 games.”
Davis is in the conversation for AL MVP, while Lowrie has set new highs in home runs and RBI in his 11th season in the bigs.
Blake Treinen is 9-2 with 37 saves and a 0.81 ERA. He’s one of the most dominant closers in the game, and will receive votes for the Cy Young.
Matt Chapman has walked away with the Gold Glove at third base and Matt Olson has 27 home runs at first.
So many more have played well, but the A's would not be where they are without some surprises.
Lou Trivino made the club out of camp and -- outside of some recent hiccups -- he’s been about as important as any other player on the roster. Since getting a call-up in early August, Ramón Laureano is turning heads with both his play in center and his approach at the plate. And then there’s a 28-year-old rookie, Nick Martini, batting leadoff and playing left field after toiling in the minors for eight seasons.
“You need contributions like that from guys that you don’t expect,” Melvin said Saturday evening, ahead of a wild A's win. “You want your key guys to have good years or close to their numbers, but when you have guys that can come in that you didn’t expect, that makes your team that much better.”
Trivino's struggles are blips on the radar. Before the A’s stockpiled arms like Fernando Rodney, Jeurys Familia and Shawn Kelley around the trade deadline, the 26-year-old rookie was Oakland’s setup man. In the first half of the season, Trivino posted a 7-1 record with 1.22 ERA. Without his contributions, Oakland's season would have been over early.
Melvin said the team is working through some of Trivino’s recent struggles, and pointed to a lack of movement in his pitches and a few mechanical issues. There is no plan to move away from his high-90’s fastball as a bullpen option.
Dustin Fowler was supposed to be the center fielder of the future in Oakland, but that plan is on hold. Laureano’s arrival looked like nothing more than a short-term cup of coffee in the bigs, but he instantly caught the team's attention.
His catch and throw from deep center field against the Angels on Aug. 11 might go down as the defensive play of the year. With the bat, he’s managed to hold his own, hitting .295 with five home runs and 18 RBI in 146 plate appearances.
“It’s so much fun in this clubhouse and everybody gets along so well,” Laureano said. “It’s not something that you set up, it just has to happen organically, like everyone’s together. That’s what we’ve got here. We’ve got something special for sure. ”
After playing 854 games at the minor league level, Martini finished Saturday’s game batting .295 with a .390 on base percentage. He’s made some highlight reel plays in left and his approach at the plate has helped set the table for the A’s big bats in the middle of the lineup.
While he has plenty of confidence in his ability as a player, the gravity of his situation -- as well as Oakland's -- is not lost on Martini.
“It’s definitely crazy that I’m leading off on a team like this and in the hunt,” Martini said. “I’m super grateful for it.”
It’s a next-man-up mentality. In a game known for huge personalities, the A’s are putting their egos on the shelf and forging forward as a collective unit.
“That’s probably the underlined theme of this team that kind of makes us who we are is that everybody plays for the guy next to him, not necessarily themselves,” Melvin said.
Players like Mark Canha and Chad Pinder have been valuable members of the A’s squad as well, but there are times when they have had to take a back seat to the young guys. They’ve both found ways to make an impact, whether as a starter or coming off the bench.
“Everyone buys in to the same thing, everyone just wants to win and wants to succeed at this level, everyone is willing to do what it takes to make that happen,” Martini said.
It’s not a fluke. As the sample size gets grows, the young A’s continue to prove that they are a team worthy of their record. They’ve held their own against the best baseball has to offer, and they are ready to do damage in the postseason.
The all-for-one, one-for-all mentality has created a perfect storm in Oakland. A lot of credit goes to the veterans for creating the right culture in the clubhouse, but the production from the unexpected has helped make this a memorable season in Oakland.
The front office will have a few tough decisions to make heading into the playoffs, but it’s clear that Trivino, Laureano and Martini have earned their spots on the postseason roster.