Are the Oakland Athletics Legitimate World Series Contenders?

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The Oakland Athletics might be for real. In spite of starting pitcher Bartolo Colon’s 50-game suspension, they have a legitimate shot at the post season.

Compared with where the A’s were at the end of June – five games under .500 and 13 games out of first – they are squarely in the hunt for a wild card spot, and at least within striking distance of the division lead.

I was lucky enough to be at the park when they beat the Minnesota Twins 4-1 on Tuesday night. A win by three runs over a team that’s struggling just to get to the finish line doesn’t signify inevitability, or fate, or whatever you want to call it. But the way they won makes me think they have a shot; they won with pitching, offensive production up and down the lineup, and defense.

Pitching – The A’s three pitchers Tuesday night combined to throw 106 pitches, 77 of which were strikes. They averaged slightly more than 1 pitch out of the strike zone to each batter they faced. They issued no walks, and struck out nine.

A slimmed-down Brett Anderson made his first major league start since June of 2011. The left hander underwent Tommy John surgery last July, rehabbed for a year, made six starts in the minors, and finally came off the DL yesterday. After a shaky first inning in which the Twins’ Ben Revere scored from third on a wild pitch, Anderson settled down. He threw 86 pitches over seven innings, 64 of which were strikes. He struck out six and walked none. With Colon out of the rotation, Anderson’s return could not have come at a better time.

The bullpen also performed like you’d expect from a team headed for the playoffs. Sean Doolittle, the A’s set up man, pitched a perfect 8th inning. He threw just 9 pitches and recorded two strikeouts. Grant Balfour pitched the 9th and posted a save, striking out Minnesota’s lead-off man Revere to end the game. The A’s pitchers faced one batter over the minimum 27. They gave up four hits, and allowed a single run, but remarkably the Twins didn’t leave any men on base. That means the A’s played some stellar defense – more on that later.

Offense – The A’s had ten hits and drew four walks, but they scored only four runs. The bad news is they left too many men on base. The good news is they got offensive production from up and down the lineup. They scored their first run when the number seven hitter, Josh Donaldson, doubled home the number six hitter, Seth Smith, in the bottom of the 2nd. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Smith and Donaldson singled. Derrick Norris, batting eighth in the lineup, singled to left driving in Smith and breaking a 1-1 tie. In the bottom of the 7th, the A’s number three hitter, Josh Reddick singled to left scoring Coco Crisp, the A’s leadoff hitter, who’d doubled to start the inning. Yoenis Cespedes followed Reddick with a single, and Chris Carter, the number five hitter, came up with runners at first and second. Carter delivered an RBI double to put the A’s up 4-1. Last night’s contributions from the top, middle, and bottom of the lineup bode well for a team eyeing the playoffs.

Defense – This is where it gets fun. In the Twins’ half of the fifth, Justin Morneau led off with a single to center. Morneau advanced to second when the Twins’ catcher, Ryan Doumit, also singled to center. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe came to the plate with runners on first and second and nobody out. Brett Anderson was facing his biggest challenge in over a year. He was up to it, and he got lots of help. I had a perfect view of the play from my seat on the first base side of the park. Plouffe swung at a first-pitch curveball, driving a sharp grounder to third. Josh Donaldson fielded the ball cleanly about five feet from the foul line and immediately stepped on the bag. At that point I figured I was about to see a throw to first for a nice double play.

Instead, Donaldson wheeled and threw to Adam Rosales covering second. Okay, a smart play; get the lead runners and leave the force at second in order. Rosales grabbed the slightly high throw from Donaldson. Two outs on a nice 5-4 double play. Adam Rosales has some holes in his game, but he has quick hands and a solid arm. So the play wasn’t over. With Doumit nearly on top of him, Rosales pivoted instantly, and in one motion avoided the sliding Doumit and threw a strike to Chris Carter at first. Honestly, it wasn’t close. Ploufe was out. Man, oh man! A triple play! The place, including me, went nuts.

I have no idea how many professional baseball games I’ve been to, but I do know that before last night I’d never seen a triple play. And it wasn’t the fairly typical line-drive-to-a-shortstop-covering-second-on-a-hit-and-run-who-steps-on-second-and-then-tags-a-couple-of-confused-base-runners-who-are-sort-of-standing-around-after-the-catch triple play. This was an around the horn, 5-4-3 triple play, just as fast and as sweet as you can imagine. These things just don’t happen all that often. Of the approximately 450,000 outs recorded by the Athletics franchise in over 101 years, 3 outs been recorded all at once only 21 times. And the most recent time they did it, I was there to see it. I’ve seen many memorable sporting events and moments, and the triple play that Donaldson, Rosales, and Carter turned Tuesday night against the Twins is at or near the top. Pitching, offense, and defense: these A’s just might be for real.