By Ryan Chichester
Special to S.F. Examiner
A’s at Yankees
First pitch, 5:08 p.m. today on TBS and ESPN Radio
As the A’s prepare for their biggest game since a devastating Wild Card loss in 2014, Bob Melvin and company are determined to prove that this squad is in a far better position to advance than the one that took the field in Kansas City four years ago.
Of course, the A’s have already done plenty of work to separate themselves from their 2014 predecessors. After sprinting out of the gates to a 59-36 start in 2014, Melvin’s group began to stumble. The team’s 3.5 game lead over the Angels on July 1 turned into a 10 game deficit by the end of the season, as the A’s tripped and fell en route to a 22-33 record over the final two months of the campaign, settling for the second Wild Card spot.
Four years later, and the A’s have come full circle, but in more encouraging fashion. The team with the lowest opening day payroll played to their bank account with a 5-10 start before shooting up the American League ranks faster than you could say “Moneyball.”
The A’s slugged their way to the second Wild Card spot (even nipped at the first place Astros’ heels for a few weeks), finishing with the third most home runs in baseball and one of the deepest bullpens in the game. The A’s turned an eight game Wild Card deficit on July 1 into a 6.5 game cushion by the final week of the regular season. The A’s aren’t stumbling into the postseason this time. They’re in an all-out sprint.
“Two completely different situations,” manager Bob Melvin said of his current squad, as opposed to 2014. “We were fighting for our lives and struggling at the end of 2014, here is completely the opposite. Here we had a good run in the middle of June and clinched a spot early…It’s a different team.”
Now comes the team’s ultimate test, a true barometer to determine whether the A’s are a feel-good story with an expiration date, or a true contender. The task: take down the mighty 100-win Yankees in the Bronx, and claim the big road playoff win that painfully eluded them back in 2014, when the A’s bullpen coughed up a ninth inning lead and a one run lead in extras to give the Royals a launching pad to their first American League pennant in almost 30 years.
Looking to lead the A’s on their road to redemption will be Liam Hendriks, who gets the start with the season on the line after being designated for assignment in late June. The righty opener now enters the biggest outing of his career following a scoreless stretch that spanned 11 ⅓ innings, penning a script for his own personal redemption story.
“It was a trying year, regardless of everything else,” Hendriks said at Tuesday’s press conference. “It’s made me better…it’s brought out that little animosity, to go out there and prove that I can do this. This is just another test. It’s the same as any other game.”
With Hendriks leading an all-out bullpen charge, the A’s feel more equipped to finish the job they left painfully incomplete in 2014. The normally sell-minded A’s acquired Fernando Rodney and Jeurys Familia to pad a bullpen that finished the season third in the majors in ERA, thanks in large part to a historic season from closer Blake Treinen, who was brought back to Oakland in a trade that sent Sean Doolittle (who recorded the blown save in the 2014 Wild Card Game) to Washington. The bullpen helped the A’s finish the season 31-14 in one run games, including 10 walk-off wins. It’s a far cry from the 2014 team’s 21-28 showing in such affairs. The A’s find themselves back where they were four years ago, but in a much different, and a much better, place, despite the hostile environment that awaits.
“They’re excited about the venue,” Melvin said, as the team looks to silence what is sure to be a raucous crowd in the Bronx. “They know it’s going to be loud and exciting, and they’re looking forward to it.”
The A’s have been working to prove themselves since the second month of the season, when they began their ascent into the conversation as one of the best teams in the league. Now, it comes down to one game. Nine innings (or more) to take down a Goliath and wash away the bitterness that lingers from 2014.
Matt Chapman and the A’s might be chugging their usual Red Bulls before tonight’s game starts, but they hope to be sipping champagne by the time it’s finished, and complete their road to redemption.