The Kansas City Royals' 12-inning, triple-comeback 9-8 victory over the Oakland A's last night was easily the craziest October showdown in recent memory, even if it did happen to be played on the last evening of September. But perhaps the craziest thing about it was that the A's weren't even supposed to be there in the first place.
On June 29, at the season's halfway mark, Oakland had a 51-30 record with a +135 run differential, the best in the majors on both counts. Billy Beane's A's teams had fallen short of a ring many times before, but this scrappy, scruffy squad seemed bound for October glory; it felt perfectly reasonable to imagine that, by time the American League Wild Card game rolled around, these A's would be watching it at home in Oakland while waiting to face the winner of the play-in game.
But that's why you actually play the games, right? From that point on, the A's went 37-44 with a +22 run differential, while the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim streaked past them in the AL West; only the Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers – thoroughly lousy teams all – played worse than the A's did in the second half.
Many claimed that Beane's controversial trade of slugger and fan-favorite Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox on July 31 for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes was at the root of the rot (even Adolf Hitler had some tart words to say on the matter), while others pointed out that injuries, batting slumps and just plain bad luck all came down with a vengeance on the A's during the last three months of the season. In any case, theirs was a second-half swoon practically worthy of the '69 Chicago Cubs; with the Seattle Mariners nipping at their heels during the final weeks of the season, it seemed perfectly reasonable to imagine that this A's team would end up pissing away the second Wild Card spot entirely.
And yet, both of those A's teams were present at the Wild Card game: the insanely fun world-beaters of the first half, and the agonizing train wrecks of the second. Brandon Moss, DH-ing against the Royals' right-hander James Shields instead of Adam Dunn (who'd been picked up late in the season seemingly for this exact situation) made A's skipper Bob Melvin look like a genius by clubbing two homers – a two-run shot off "Big Game" that gave the A's a 2-0 lead in the first, and a massive three-run bomb in the sixth off of reliever Yordano Ventura that put them ahead 5-3. The A's added two more runs that inning, giving Lester (who was still seriously dealing at that point) a 7-3 lead, and the game seemed as good as over. The A's had once again found their fire, and they looked scary enough to beat the Angels in the next round.
And then the wheels came off. Melvin kept Lester on the mound too long; the premature exit of catcher Geovany Soto due to a thumb injury allowed the Royals to run wild on Derek Norris; there were hapless fielding plays (including Gomes and Sam Fuld colliding like beer league softball players on Eric Hosmer's triple), awful relief performances and – aside from Moss's three-run greeting to Ventura – an excruciating inability to make the Royals pay for their many mistakes. The A's "Road to October" ended before the month even officially began, thanks to a 12th-inning Salvador Perez RBI single down the third base line that a diving Josh Donaldson missed by inches, at most.
It can't be much fun to be Billy Beane today. The anti-Moneyball/sabermetric mocking from the peanut gallery is perhaps to be expected – despite the fact, as Manny Acta pointed out on Twitter this morning, all 30 MLB teams now employ some form of advanced statistical analysis – but there's also no getting away from the fact that the A's had won just a single postseason elimination game in their last 13 tries before yesterday, or that Beane's wheeling and dealing this summer was expressly designed to take them further in October than they'd been since 1990.
Lester, Gomes and Dunn weren't Beane's only pickups; he also snagged starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs in exchange for hot shortstop prospect Addison Russell, reacquired Fuld –who'd been released by the A's in April – from the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Tommy Milone, and purchased Soto from the Texas Rangers. While Lester and Samardzija pitched arguably better for the A's than they did earlier this year for their previous teams (and Cespedes' .296 OBP with the Red Sox certainly doesn't lend any mathematical credence to the notion that his absence grievously affected the Oakland lineup) Beane's vision simply didn't pan out. If Lester and the A's had won the game last night, people would be once again hailing Beane as a genius; they didn't, so he's once again being vilified as a charlatan.
Despite the widespread calls for his head, it's almost certain that Beane will be back as Oakland GM next year. He may not have built a World Series champion yet, but few if any GMs in the business are as good at building competitive teams out of spare parts. Bob Melvin will probably still be around next year as well; even though he presided over the A's free-fall (and seemed utterly powerless to do anything about it), he's still led the team to two division titles and one Wild Card game in his three-and-a-half seasons as A's manager, and Beane has repeatedly praised him for his open mind and his ability to get the most out of the team's roster. Unless there's been some unreported behind-the-scenes clashes between two, expect to see him back at the helm in 2015.
Whether or not we can expect to see the A's compete next year is another story. There will certainly be plenty of new faces on the 2015 squad: Adam Dunn is retiring, Alberto Callaspo, Jonny Gomes, Luke Gregerson, Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie and Geovany Soto are all free agents; none of them will be particularly missed, other than Lester, but Beane will have to find a budget-friendly way to fill the gaping holes in the middle infield and at catcher.
Samardzija, who becomes a free agent at the end of next season, might be Beane's most valuable trade piece right now – unless you count Josh Donaldson, who is under club control for four more years. It's frankly hard to imagine Beane trading Donaldson, a popular player and one of the best third basemen in the game; of course, it was hard to imagine him trading Cespedes before that particular deal went down.
In any case, signs currently point to 2015 being a rebuilding year for the A's, with the Mariners replacing them as second banana in the AL West. Then again, we've counted Beane's A's out before, only to eat those words once October rolls around. Love Beane or loathe him, only a fool would bet against him, even after last night's debacle.
Dan Epstein's latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. He's on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras