And from an Oakland fan's perspective? Well, wow again. I mean, it's not exactly like the idea of an A's defeat is a shock. The team has spent the better part of the last couple of months losing, and by Tuesday their partisans were good and used to it. They might have hoped for the best, but they'd seen too much to expect it.
But to lose the way that they did? After two homers and five RBIs from the reawakened Brandon Moss? With six outs to go, up four runs, Lester on the mound? Failing to hold the lead, twice, when they had pushed Kansas City to the brink? Yeah, tip your hat to the the Royals for showing real heart. But for the Athletics and their faithful, that was a savagely soul-wrenching way to go down. It's a game to be filed in the catalog of A's playoff memories right alongside the immortal "Slide, Jeremy, Slide" game (2001) and the Great Verlander Shutdowns of 2012 and 2013.
Meanwhile, there is one community of Bay Area baseball fans -- talking to you, Giants Nation, or whatever you call yourselves -- who are unaffected by Tuesday evening's diamond tragedy. The Giants take the field in Pittsburgh for their wild-card game against the Pirates at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday. If you're in the city, the team is staging a party at AT&T Park starting at 4 p.m. followed by a free viewing of the game in the stadium.
Original post (3:30 p.m. Tuesday): Brace yourselves, Giants and A's fans -- your fifth-place teams are about to get a chance for baseball immortality.
Yes, the Oakland Athletics, the fifth-place team in the American League, are at Kansas City this evening for their wild-card playoff game against the Royals. Wednesday, the fifth-place San Francisco Giants take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game.
The prize for each team, should they win their games: a chance to move on to the best-of-five division series in each league. For the A's, beating the Royals would mean a series against the AL West champion Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. For the Giants, a victory in Pittsburgh will send them to Washington, D.C., to face the Nationals. And if they win those matchups, what possibly could prevent a Bay Bridge series?
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, OK?
The big question for Oakland and its fans is what A's team will take the field at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium. Yes, ace lefthander Jon Lester, the big-game pitcher acquired from the Boston Red Sox at the end of July, will start against the Royals. And yes, Lester seems like a good bet to do his part and keep the A's in the game.
But the rest of the team? That's another matter.
When the A's sent power-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to Boston in exchange for Lester, they had the best record in baseball. They reached their highwater mark Aug. 9, when they beat the Minnesota Twins 9-4 at the Coliseum, bringing their record to 72-44. They were still in first place by four games over the Angels, still acclaimed by many as the best team in the majors.
And then they began to lose. And lose. And lose. In their final 46 games, the A's won 16 and lost 30. A team that most had seen as a lock to make the playoffs struggled, stumbled and staggered in the season's final weeks, failing to clinch the American League's second wild-card spot until the final game of the season against the AL West cellar-dwellers, the Texas Rangers.
Sooner or later, someone will come up with the equation-driven sabermetrical explanation for what happened to the A's. The leading theory among fans and the more algebra-challenged among us is that there's no simple explanation. But we're sure that some or all of the following played a part: the loss of Cespedes' presence in the lineup; injuries to some key players, including shortstop Jed Lowrie and catcher-DH John Jaso; the prolonged hyperslump of outfielder-first baseman Brandon Moss; the evaporation of some vital but indefinable team chemistry.
(Go ahead and add your theory here, or check out a couple of excellent analyses: from Grantland: A Clockwork Oakland: What the Heck Happened to the Once Great A's? And, from Wendy Thurm on Medium: It Wasn't Supposed to be Like This for the A's.)
Rightly or wrongly, the outcome of tonight's game will be something of a referendum on the Lester trade, says Rick Tittle, who hosts the A's pre- and postgame shows on 95.7-The Game.
“If Lester goes out there tonight and doesn't get it done, if he has an off night as anyone can, then people will say the trade was a failure. And even if Lester has a great night, there's still a chance the A's won't score any runs for him. The bottom line is winning an American League pennant for (A's general manager) Billy Beane, which he's never had; and then maybe winning the World Series as well; but the first hurdle is this winner-take-all wild-card game.”
But enough of the A's and travails.
The San Francisco Giants also have made the playoffs. And, thinking about what the team did during the 2010 and 2012 seasons, you wonder whether there's something about the Giants, even numbered years and destiny.
The Giants' regular season seemed like two or three different seasons rolled into one: an amazingly fast break from the gate to leap far ahead of its NL West competition; a profound funk that allowed the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers to overtake them; and a recovery over the last six weeks or so that allowed the team to give the Dodgers a scare before settling for the second wild-card spot.
Like the A's, the Giants have never been part of this one-game wild-card format, which was introduced in 2012. But they have been in high-pressure postseason games in the last few years. Tittle thinks that experience gives the Giants an advantage:
“This is a battle-tested team, with a fantastic pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, on the mound, and I really like their chances. The Giants are a team that has been tested on the road in huge playoff games. You think about winning the World Series in Texas in 2010, you think about winning the World Series in Detroit in 2012. And in that same 2012 season, backs against the wall in Cincinnati, elimination games in St. Louis, and they came through every time.”
Some fans say they're not in love with the new wild-card format, which functions as more of a "play in" than playoff. But Tittle's take is different:
“Nothing's more exciting in baseball than a Game 7, and the beauty of the wild-card game is that it's a Game 7 on the first day of the postseason. It keeps the season alive for so many fans, and it makes every single game meaningful. You can ask people in Seattle or Milwaukee or Cleveland, whose teams got eliminated in the last few days, if they'd like to have a game or two they lost in April or May back again. Fans will say it isn't fair, after 162 games in the regular season, to have everything come down to one game, but I have zero sympathy for any team that didn't win their division.”
Many fans will gather to watch Tuesday night's game at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland (sold out, but check to see if they've added a second theater) or at sports bars like Ricky's in San Leandro.