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2006-09-30 09:39
by Philip Michaels

Well, in the words of Professor Higgins after he passed off Eliza Doolittle as a duchess at the Embassy Ball, thank God that's all over with.

I don't mean to imply that I did not take the requisite pleasure out of the Athletics winning the AL Western Division -- believe you me, we were a-hootin' and and a-hollerin' something fierce over at the Michaels homestead Tuesday night. Besides, if the sight of a swim-goggle-wearing Bobby Kielty dousing teammates with whatever alcoholic beverage he can get his hands on doesn't bring a smile to your face, you've got deeper issues than either I or baseball can address.

But when you put yourself on the brink of clinching a title in dramatic fashion on Friday, and then you spend the next three days floundering about -- including blowing a three-run ninth inning lead -- well, the mood can change from "We did it!" to "What took you so long?" awfully quickly.

Still... regardless of fashion, we won. And if the last two years have taught A's fans anything, it should be that advancing to the playoffs is almost entirely preferable to not.

And when you think about it, it's kind of appropriate for the 2006 Athletics to clinch the division title in a sort round-about "We'll get to it when we get to it" manner, at least from my perspective. Of the A's teams of recent vintage -- let's go back as far as the run of above-.500 seasons that began in 1999 -- this has easily been, for me, the most maddening team to follow. Baseball is a streaky game, but the A's have taken that to its most illogical extreme this year. They set the tone early for what kind of year this was going to be when, on Opening Day, they found themselves on the business end of one of the most savage beatdowns I've ever had the misfortune to witness in person; naturally, Oakland followed that up with a stirring walk-off win.

There have been days when I think they can't be beaten -- where they could be trailing in the late innings by multiple runs, and I have every confidence that they're going to pull it out. And then there are days when I'm just grateful that the A's can't be relegated to the Pacific Coast League. And of course, just when I resigned myself to a disappointing season -- which I feel obliged to do every now and again just so to remind myself to derive some pleasure out of watching the games and not because I'm a horribly faithless fan, at least not entirely -- the A's would resume winning in convincing fashion.

Or to put it another way, in the past week, I've taken to having internal debates in full public view and poor Ken went momentarily apocalyptic taking comfort in the reassurance of natural disaster documentaries. And we're supposedly balanced individuals, hardened by experience and blessed with the wisdom that comes with age. Supposedly. This is what the 2006 Athletics have reduces us to -- imagine the team's effect on lesser men.

For the record, my two favorite teams in this eight-year span of winning baseball have been the 2002 Athletics and the 2005 edition. The 2002 team was, of course, kind enough to win 20 consecutive games, which is simply a mind-boggling feat. They also had a charismatic front-man, three starters at the height of their superpowers, and a bullpen that, more often than not, got the job done. The fact that this was also the team that purged Oakland of the last remaining whiff of Giambis also makes me favorably inclined to commemorate its feats through song. As for the 2005 Athletics, any team that finds itself 15 games under .500 and rallies back to remain in the playoff chase until the last week of the season deserves our admiration. That team had every excuse to curl up and die at various points during the season, and it didn't -- and a lot of that set the foundation for the success we've been able to witness this year.

Other random thoughts on this final weekend of the regular season:

• The A's playoff roster is beginning to take shape, and it appears the team is inclined to not carry an extra pitcher in the first round of the playoffs. Smart move -- Oakland is much more likely to need the likes of D'Angelo Jimenez or Hiram Bocachica to pinch run for Frank Thomas or Eric Chavez in tight, late-inning situation than it would the likes of Ron Flores or Brad Halsey to absorb the final innings of a multi-run blowout. Besides, if you're using that 11th or 12th pitcher in a best-of-five series, odds are the breaks are not going your way.

• At this particular moment, I find myself on the hopefully optimistic side of the ledger for Oakland's playoff chances -- a condition for which I entirely credit Rich Harden's return from the DL. It is impossible to overstate how much Harden's presence improves the A's outlook, and not just because he's one of the 10 best pitchers in the American League when healthy. No, Rich Harden's availability to pitch is also good news because more Harden means less Joe Blanton. Sure, Blanton might work his way into the middle innings of a game here and there, but having him not start improves our fortunes considerably.

(Then again, maybe I should keep this under my hat. I was listening to the Baseball Prospectus Radio podcast last week -- and by the way, I don't take it the least bit personally that not one minute after I show up on Baseball Toaster, BP Radio host Will Carroll announces his departure... not troubled by that at all -- when one of the callers inquired about whether the Dodgers should trade for Joe Blanton in the off-season. Yes, fans and general managers of non-Oakland-based baseball teams -- you need to trade for Joe Blanton. You covet Joe Blanton. Pay attention only to his gaudy win total -- disregard all other statistical measures of his performance, especially his declining strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio and his swollen Runs Allowed numbers. You should also ignore his demeanor on the mound and his poor body language. Just look at those 16 wins -- Joe Blanton, like Storm Davis before him, is all about the winning. Now, surrender you finest prospects for him.)

• Does it worry me that the A's have yet to score a run against the Angels in two games. Yes, but only in the sense that I also worry each morning as i drive to work that my house will be a burnt-out husk by the time I return in the evening. For one thing, the last two games have been started by John Lackey and Ervin Santana, both of whom the A's have gallantly decided not to hit all that well against this season. For another, the A's aren't really playing for anything and have fielded a lineup populated by a good number of Sacramento River Cats. So I don't take this as a portent of our impending doom.

It might be a good idea, however, for the A's to squeeze a run home against either Joe Saunders or Dustin Mosley in the next 48 hours if this Era of Good Feelings is to continue on my end.

2006-10-02 14:16:34
1.   Laurel
It's a bit eerie reading this because the way you've felt about the A's this year sounds pretty much the way I'd describe how things have gone with me and the Twins this season. "There have been days when I think they can't be beaten" and then, you know, those other really bad days. Will be interesting to see which A's team and which Twins team show up for these games.

(I'd be pulling for the A's were they not up against my beloved Twins. I really hope whichever team wins this series can go all the way.)

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