Oakland and St. Louis both won again last night. The A’s for the fourth time in a row and for the eleventh time in thirteen games. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have won seven in a row, nine of ten and eleven of thirteen themselves. The A’s win over Seattle last night, combined with the Houston Astros loss to the Rockies, move them to within one game of the AL West lead. The Cards’ win over the Nationals combined with the Phillies’ loss moves them to within one game of the second Wild Card slot. They sit two behind the Brewers for the first slot and only four games back of the first place Cubs.
Absolutely no one picked the A’s to make the playoffs in 2018. If someone says they did, ask for receipts. As the season’s first couple of months unfolded, picking them to not contend seemed like the smart play. They trailed the Astros by 11.5 games as late as June 15. Last night Bob Melvin chalked the team’s success up to “hitting a lot of home runs and winning close games.” That’s true. It’s also true that the team has put together a huge number of spare parts and castoffs from elsewhere, particularly on the pitching staff — Edwin Jackson? Old friends Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill? Relievers Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney and Shawn Kelley ? — with an underrated core of Matts Chapman and Olson, Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis. It’s a balanced roster in an era of a striking lack of competitive balance and everyone is exceeding expectations.
The Cardinals are usually considered contenders, but when they fired manager Mike Matheny in mid-July they were only a game over .500 and seven and a half out in the division. It took them a little time to get some momentum under interim manager Mike Shildt — the Cardinals were sellers at the deadline, unloading Tommy Pham and dumping disappointing reliever Greg Holland — but they’ve put it together in spectacular fashion in recent weeks. An injury that took massively underachieving outfielder Dexter Fowler out of the lineup and allowed for more playing time for the speedy Harrison Bader helped. Matt Carpenter playing out-of-his-mind MVP ball has helped even more. Jose Martinez and even old timer Yadier Molina have been solid offensive contributors. Mood can’t hurt either, and getting rid of Matheny had to have helped that, at least if you believe the stories about the clubhouse atmosphere before he was canned.
Whatever the causes — and in baseball there are always several — the A’s and the Cards are on fire and are making real races in divisions that were not expected to have them this season. Now we watch to see if they can keep the pressure on the Astros, the Cubs and all of the Wild Card contenders for the final month and a half of the campaign.