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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 6: The A’s improbable 97-win year

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Before the season began a large number of so-called experts — including your author — predicted that the 2018 season would be a lost one for the Oakland A’s. It made sense at the time. The A’s had finished last in the AL West for the three straight years heading into this season. The projections of the smart set over at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus calculated that Oakland would either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. The lineup looked pretty healthy but the rotation looked like a disaster, with Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill being signed off the scrapheap in an effort to, I dunno, relive the glory of 2010. The bullpen looked strong enough, but there are limits to how much you can rely on a bullpen, right?

At first they seemed to be playing, more or less, to expectations. As of June 15, the A’s were 11.5 games back of first place, with a 34–36 record, which was actually better than expectations, but the arms would eventually tire and the bottom would fall out. We were certain of it.

That’s when the A’s went on a five-game winning streak. Then they won 12 of 15. Then they went on a 50+ game tear that brought them into Wild Card position by early August. They’d continue their excellent play that month, tying the Astros at the top of the AL West standings on three occasions in mid-late August before eventually falling back. They’d only fall back a little bit, though, and in the end their season was phenomenal: a record of 97-65 and the second AL Wild Card, six back of the 103-win Astros. All with a league-low $66 million payroll.

How did the A’s do it? For one thing, they bashed. They featured the third-best slugging percentage in the American League and 4th best overall, were third overall in home runs hit and were fourth best overall in runs scored per game as well.

While their overall pitching was middle-of-the-pack, that was way better than expected, especially given how many injuries the pitching staff sustained before and during the season. They got a career year out of Sean Manaea, at least until his season ended with an injury. They likewise got career years out of Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. Something else that helped: in midseason they bolstered the staff with starter Mike Fiers and relievers Jeurys FamiliaFernando Rodney and Shawn Kelley.

With the fresh arms in tow, Bob Melvin relied more and more on his bullpen as the season wore on, turning to a full-blown bullpenning approach in September and in the Wild Card Game. There was some good fortune involved as well, as Oakland went a majors-best 31-14 in one-run games and notched 10 walk-off victories. Everything broke just right, at least until they faced the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.

That last game aside, it was an amazing year for the Athletics. With a respectful nod to the NL East champion Braves, the surprisingly good Rays, the Wild Card-winning Rockies and the second-half-surging Cardinals, the A’s were the best team story all season long if you ask me.

Baseball returns: Mariners beat the Athletics in the first official game of the season

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I wake up super early almost every morning. Today was no exception. Unlike most days, however, I had more to look at than my cats and more to do than wait for the sunrise: there was baseball — baseball that counted — on my TV. The Mariners took on the A’s in the Tokyo Dome at 5:30AM — which was 6:30PM, Japan time — in the first official regular season game of the year.

As far as games go it was light on the pitching and, a few dingers aside, was light on excitement, with the Mariners beating the A’s 9-7. But hey, less-than-exciting baseball is better than most things, right?

Oakland jumped out to an early lead thanks to a two-out first inning homer by Stephen Piscotty off of M’s starter Marco Gonzalez. The A’s added a second run in the second thanks to a Chad Pinder single, a throwing error which advanced him to third and a Marcus Semien RBI single.

The top of the third provided some chills: Ichiro, batting ninth for Seattle, came to bat with no one out and a runner on first, facing A’s starter Mike Fiers. Flashbulbs popped and the Tokyo Dome crowd chanted his name. He popped out to the second baseman who caught it in shallow right, sadly, but still got an ovation as he walked to the dugout. One of the more exciting and emotional F4s you’ll see.

At that point the pitching took a powder. Dee Gordon would single in Tim Beckham later that inning to make the game 2-1, the M’s would load the bases and Domingo Santana would hit one out to the opposite field for a grand slam to make it 5-2. In the bottom of the third Khris Davis came up and hit a two-run blast to make it 5-4. They say the pitchers are ahead of the hitters early in the year but, uh, nah. By the way, it was the third straight Opening Day on which Davis has homered. The record is four. Mark your calendars for next year.

Ichiro came up again in the top of the fourth, again with a runner on first, this time facing Liam Hendriks instead of Fiers. He worked a 3-1 count, fouled one off to bring the count full, fouled one off his ankle, which looked like it hurt, fouled one that bounced off his back or arm or something which also looked like it hurt, and then took one in the dirt to draw the walk. Again, a bigger cheer than you get for most walks. Later in the inning Mitch Haniger hit a sac fly to make it 6-4.

The Mariners took the field for the bottom of the fourth. Before the inning began, M’s manager Scott Servais signaled to Ichiro in right, who came running back to the dugout. He was being taken out of the game, replaced by Jay Bruce, who moved out from first base, in such a way as to allow his teammates to give him hugs and to allow the Tokyo crowd to give Ichiro a standing ovation. A nice move from Servais. An 0-for-1, 1BB night on what may very well be the future Hall of Famer’s penultimate game.

Things sort of got out of hand after that. The M’s added three runs in the fifth, two of which came on a Beckham homer. It gave us our first bat flip of the season:

At that point my kids left for school and my wife left for work and the game sort of blended into the background of the morning. Matt Chapman hit a three-run bomb for the A’s in the 7th to make it 9-7, which is a score more appropriate for the glorified spring training game this truly was than a regular season tilt, but such is life. And that, after a couple of scoreless innings, was the ballgame.

It was a game that, in the grand scheme of things, means nothing beyond the stats it created and the smallest of small impacts it will have on season standings that will almost certainly not turn on this game. Which is to say it didn’t matter all that much. It was not a big event. It did not change our day nor impact it beyond the moments of enjoyment and amusement it gave us as it unfolded. It did not insist upon itself like so many games in other sports, TV shows and news events which unfold seem so hellbent on doing.

It just happened. As baseball, when it’s at its best, simply does. Welcome back.