OAKLAND — As soon as the last fans exited the Oakland Coliseum on Sunday, and as the Oakland Athletics pulled on their NFL jerseys for the travel day — highlighted by an aqua Ray Finkle Miami Dolphins jersey worn by catcher Jonathan Lucroy — work began to convert the stadium for Monday Night Football.
The only dual-purpose stadium left in Major League Baseball saw its bullpen mounds flattened and the removable pitching mound lifted away on chains by a forklift.
The steps leading to the visitor’s locker room are always soggy, the plumbing has been known to back up, the concession lines are interminably long, and even on a perfect September giveaway Sunday against a division foe, the A’s couldn’t draw more than 27,000 people. For Oakland — owners of the fourth-best record in baseball — the Coliseum is still home. It’s where they want to start the 2018 playoffs, one way or another.
“I think getting a home game here is very important,” said right fielder Stephen Piscotty. “To get a playoff game, at the Coliseum, with our rowdy fans, and I think that gives us a definite advantage.”
After Sunday’s action, the A’s (87-57) sat 2 1/2 games back of both the American League West-leading Houston Astros and the first AL Wild Card, the New York Yankees. They have no games remaining against either team, meaning they’re depending on the rest of the league to help them close the gap. If things remain the way they are, it looks like they’ll be on the road in the playoffs for a one-game playoff against the Yankees on Oct. 3. If they win the division, that narrative changes.
“We know we want to take the division, and that’s where our goals are set,” Piscotty said. “That seems to be the easiest path to the World Series.”
The A’s were predicted to win just 76 games and finish last in the AL West by FiveThirtyEight.com, with a -47 run differential. Now, not only do the A’s have a +97 run differential (fifth in the majors), but FiveThirtyEight gives them a 99 percent to make the playoffs. They only have a nine percent chance, though, of winning the division.
Of Oakland’s final 18 games, 12 will be on the road. That, alone, would be cause for concern for any other team trying to take the division from the reigning World Series champions.
The A’s, though, are 41-28 on the road this season away from the place catcher Jonathan Lucroy called a “graveyard.”
“For a while there, I think these guys probably preferred to play on the road,” said manager Bob Melvin. “We were hitting a bunch of homers, we had a streak for road games.”
Of the A’s 199 home runs on the year (second in baseball only to New York), 117 have come away from spacious Coliseum. They ran off a major league-record streak of 25 straight road games with homers. If they’re to play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in a one-game Wild Card playoff on Oct. 3, the A’s are probably not an ideal opponent, especially given what Oakland did to New York last week in a three-game series.
Here’s the thing about that graveyard, though: When it’s hopping, it’s a street party. Between the drums, the horns and crowds that can — and have — shown up for big games (40.546 for the Labor Day series opener against the Yankees), the Coliseum can be a difficult place to play. As good as the A’s has been on the road, they’ve recently had a pretty solid run at home, going 21-8 since the All-Star break.
“Recently here, when we’ve had this stretch, we’ve played a lot better at home, which was great,” Melvin said. “I don’t think anytime that they go on the road, they feel bad about it. When you have some success, and our record would indicate that we play pretty well on the road, I don’t think it’s a problem.”
One of the biggest reasons for the success — both at home and on the road — has been Piscotty. Since June 13, Piscotty is third in the majors with 20 home runs. He’s hitting .286 over that span, with 50 RBIs.
Before that, he had 45 strikeouts in 224 plate appearances, three home runs and 24 RBIs, hitting .236 in 58 games.
The fix? A refresher course with an old coach.
“One of my Stanford coaches, Brock Ungricht, and I got together midseason,” Piscotty said. “He knows that swing better than most. He coached me for years at Stanford, and I’ve been working closely with Darren Bush. Kind of got me back to feeling like myself.”
Piscotty’s best self is one that drives balls to all fields, and has an opposite-field approach.
“Getting back to that opposite-field approach opened up the whole field,” Piscotty said. “Getting back to me was a big accomplishment. I just tried to continue on, keep pushing, keep making adjustments. Pitchers are making noticeable changes to how I’m getting pitched, so I’ve got to adjust to that. That’s the game of baseball. That’s why it’s fun.”
Piscotty has been why, even with All-Star Jed Lowrie hitting .250 since the All-Star break, and Khris Davis hitting .143 since Aug. 22, the A’s have been able to keep pace with both New York and Houston.
The A’s have five players with 20 or more home runs — a franchise record — and have scored six or more runs in seven of their last nine. They’re second in the majors in doubles (295) and extra base hits (512), tied for second in home runs, third in slugging percentage (.438) and fifth in runs scored (699) and OPS (.762).
Their 508 extra base hits rank tied for 10th in Athletics history (in 2002 and 2013; 9th is 517 in 2003) and the 295 doubles are tied for 14th (in 1998 and 2007, 13th is 297 in 1933).
Add to that the fact that youngsters like Ramon Laureano and Franklin Barreto bring added speed and dynamism to the lineup, and that, besides being a defensive warlock, Matt Chapman is hitting .332 since the All-Star break, and you have an offense that’s tough to kill and a bullpen with three All-Star closers.
Given all that, it’s no surprise that the A’s are 27-12 in one-run games (the best record in the major leagues), or are the only team that’s undefeated (63-0) when leading after seven innings. The A’s are also the only team that has not lost when leading after eight innings (71-0)
“I think it’s exemplary of how our season has been,” Piscotty said after the A’s 7-3 win on Sunday. “It hasn’t just been one guy. We’re picking each other up. KD doesn’t have his best game, that doesn’t mean we can’t still score runs. When that happens, everyone knows to kick it into gear. That’s a special thing. It’s rare, and we’ve got it going, and it’s pretty special.”