OAKLAND — The Tampa Bay Rays had just fallen behind 3-1 to the Toronto Blue Jays, and in the Oakland Athletics clubhouse, four players were watching.
Three hours before their penultimate regular-season home game against the Minnesota Twins, with their magic number headed to two with a Rays loss, and the possibility of clinching a playoff berth at home looking more and more likely, most of the A’s were watching college football. Rookie Ramon Laureano was sleeping — deeply — in his chair at his locker.
“That’s how we’ve been all year,” said Mark Canha, the longest-tenured Athletic on the roster, having been on the team/in the organization since 2015. “I think it’s kind of an unspoken thing. That’s just how we’re approaching this whole thing. That’s when we’re at our best, anyway.”
The atmosphere will be a bit different on Sunday, as with one more Rays loss — they play at 10 a.m. Pacific time — or one more A’s win, Oakland will return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Unlike 2014, the A’s could clinch at home. Their starter? Trevor Cahill, who is 5-0 with a 1.49 ERA at the Oakland Coliseum.
“I’m sure we’ll have that game on in the morning, just like we always have baseball on, and maybe on TV on the NFL,” Semien said. “Tampa will be on one of these TVs when we’ll be getting ready.”
“It should be pretty rowdy,” manager Bob Melvin said. “I can’t help but think back in 2012, when we came a long way back and swept Texas [at home] to win. Man, it was hard not to, at times, focus on the crowd, because they were so into it. My guess is, they’ll be pretty spirited tomorrow.”
The last time the A’s went to the playoffs in 2014, they clinched in Arlington, but they limped into the one-game Wild Card playoff against the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals.
Oakland stumbled down the stretch in 2014 after trading Yoenis Cespedes. They went from having the best record in baseball (59-36) before the All-Star break to going 11-25 from Aug. 10 to Sept. 19. They hit 146 home runs with a .320 on-base percentage and backed into the Wild Card game on the road with just one win to spare.
“Every time you get an opportunity to go to the playoffs, it’s special,” said All-Star second baseman Jed Lowrie, the only player in the clubhouse who remains from 2014, after a one-year stay in Houston in 2015. “Obviously, ideally, you’d want to go into the playoffs hot, but any opportunity to go is special.”
Stephen Piscotty is having a career year with 26 home runs, after being traded from the St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason to be with his mother, as she fought a losing battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He was with the 100-win 2015 St. Louis squad that clinched a playoff spot on Sept. 19.
After clinching so early, the Cardinals went 8-6 down the stretch, losing four of their final five games and were eliminated in the NLDS, three games to one.
This year’s A’s have gone 59-25 since June 16 — the best record in major league baseball.
“If I had to pick and choose, I’m not sure how,” Piscotty said. “Obviously winning the division is the most ideal, but teams that win the Wild Card game get a sense of confidence that makes the team more dangerous.”
What’s most dangerous about this Athletics team is that they can win in a lot of different ways, because they’ve had to. With six different starting pitchers having season-ending surgeries and 14 different pitchers having started games for Oakland this year, the A’s are on pace to record the fewest innings by starting pitchers in a non-strike-shortened season in franchise history (798).
In contrast, the 2014 team’s starters threw 996 innings. The 2014 team had five players with double-digit homers. The 2018 A’s have eight hitters in the double-digits for homers, including five 20-home run hitters (topped by MLB leader Khris Davis with 45), plus Matt Joyce, who has spent much of the year on the disabled list, but hit 25 from the left side last season.
Oakland has hit 213 home runs on the season, with a higher batting average (.252 to .244) than the 2014 team, and a better OBP (.325).
“I think, if you look at this lineup, it’s probably the most well-balanced and deep lineup that I’ve ever been a part of,” Lowrie said before Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Twins. “We had some pretty good lineups in ’13 and ’14. I played with really good teams in Boston, too, but it just seems like, one through nine, this lineup can hurt you.”
Because of that depth, the A’s have a laid back, casual locker room atmosphere marked by youth. With an average age of 28.4, Oakland is the 12th-youngest team in the majors.
“I think there are more guys that have come up in our system, and have looked forward to being A’s, where we were maybe a little more transient in the past,” Melvin said.
“We just play loose, play relaxed and have fun. I like it,” Canha said. “It’s a good, healthy, positive environment to be in, which is important, when you’re coming to the park day in and day out.”
For players like Semien, Canha and Piscotty — who grew up in the Bay Area — clinching at home would be special.
“Honestly, yeah, it would be cool,” said Canha, a San Jose native. “I haven’t thought about clinching here as opposed to clinching in Seattle. Honestly, I’ll take either one, and I’m sure the fans are the same way.”
Catching the Houston Astros at the top of the division –3 1/2 games ahead with seven to play — is a tall task, but doable. Oakland is 7-9 against the Seattle Mariners, who they face in a three-game set starting Monday. They’re 8-8 against the Los Angeles Angels, against whom they close out the season.
Houston faces the Angels one more time on Sunday, and then head to Toronto for three and Baltimore for four. The Blue Jays and Orioles are a combined 115-194. The Astros are 3-0 against Baltimore and 2-1 against Toronto.
If the standings don’t change, and the A’s stay in the second Wild Card spot — 1 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees — they’d start the postseason on the road. Playing at home — where the A’s are 26-9 since the All-Star break — would be even better for a fan base that saw their team finish last in the AL West with 87 losses a season ago. Oh, and then there are those 10 final-at-bat wins Oakland has, two of which have come in the last two nights.
“This second half, we’ve played great at home,” Semien said. “Using this place as a home field advantage, a lot of teams don’t seem as comfortable, especially with how the field is playing with the Raiders here. It’s just a different place. We know what to expect when we play here.”
“I think it would be great for the city if it were here,” Canha said. “I’d love to play it here. It’d be cool to see what the Coliseum is like in that type of atmosphere, because I’ve heard stories, but I don’t know if I’ve seen it yet. I’d love to see it. I hear the playoff games in the Coliseum are pretty legendary. I’d love to see it.”