AL West: a wild, wild finish?by David Wade
September 24, 2012
Through 150 games, a span including slow starts, late-inning wins, historic individual performances, and surprising seasons, we already know how these teams have gotten to this point. Texas and Seattle have followed the script, sitting in first and last, respectively.
Anaheim*, despite the addition of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols from the free agent market and the call-up of Mike Trout—their sensational top prospect heading into the year—has failed to make a run at Texas for the division title.
On the other hand, Oakland, despite trading away three of their best players from last season, and despite losing valuable pieces to injury or suspension this season, has surprised us all by challenging Texas for the division lead.
So now we head into the last week-and-a-half of the 2012 season prepared for a thrilling finish that could rival last year's unbelievable final days.
With seven games remaining against division-leading Texas, Oakland could pull off a feat many thought impossible a few months ago. Trailing by four games, the odds still remain heavily against them actually winning the division. On the bright side, their lead in the Wild Card is 2.5 games over the Angels, 3.5 games over the Rays, and 5.5 games over Detroit going into the Tigers' Sunday night game with the Twins. If Oakland can hang onto that lead, it can secure the newest playoff spot in baseball.
Unfortunately for Oakland, those leads would have been greater were it not for a recent rough stretch that included two soul-crushing losses to New York in extra innings this past weekend. The loss on Saturday was particularly difficult, as Oakland held a four-run lead in the 14th inning but couldn't close out the Yankees. While we will see how the Wild Card is Oakland's most likely way into the playoffs, two remaining series with Texas means the A's do still have a chance to win the West.
Oakland will face Derek Holland Monday, then Yu Darvish on Tuesday. Martin Perez, new to the starting rotation, is due to start Wednesday.
The Texas pitcher that may present the toughest challenge to Oakland is Darvish. In his last three starts, spanning 23 innings, Darvish is 2-0 with 26 strikeouts and a 1.17 ERA. He is starting to look a lot like the dominant pitcher he was in Japan before Texas signed him this past offseason. While he still features up to seven different pitches, he seems to be trimming the number he relies on down of late.
Whether it's a product of focusing more on certain pitches over others, or just his reaching a comfort level in the major leagues, he is not walking as many batters as he did earlier in the year. Oakland hitters are prone to the strikeout, and Darvish already has 22 punchouts in 20 innings against them this year. A ray of hope: he has walked 11 A's batters in that time, as well.
As for Oakland's pitchers, they continue to deal with injuries to the starting rotation. Brandon McCarthy is out after taking a line drive off his head (and thankfully recovering from a very scary injury), and the team just lost Brett Anderson due to an oblique injury. With Bartolo Colon out for a drug suspension, Oakland has been forced to shuffle in starters since the All-Star break, a time period in which, despite their troubles, they have played very well.
Travis Blackley will return to the starting role where he has had some success this year. Blackley and their other young starters will be instrumental if Oakland is able to extend its season.
While it's possible to catch the team you're trailing by four games with seven more meetings to go, Oakland's best bet to make the playoffs is found in the new Wild Card format. Unfortunately for the A's, the teams behind them in the Wild Card race have easier paths to the finish line, mostly because they don't have to face Texas seven times.
Detroit plays Kansas City and Minnesota the rest of the way but is far enough behind Oakland and Baltimore that the Tigers are a much bigger threat to Chicago for the Central division crown than to the A's for the Wild Card. Tampa Bay, hoping for a repeat of last year's late-season heroics, goes on the road to face Boston and Chicago before finishing at home against Baltimore in what the Rays hope would be three very meaningful games.
One of the biggest threats to the Athletics for the Wild Card is their division mate, the Angels. The Angels have three games of their own against Texas but also get to face the last-place Mariners for six. Anaheim is hoping to salvage a season that held a ton of promise at the beginning of the year. Pujols and Trout, as expected, have made the offense better. But it's the pitching, something that figured to be a strength, that's been mediocre.
Jered Weaver has delivered, but the rest of the All-Star rotation has not pitched as well as they are accustomed to. Dan Haren, in particular, has been injured and inconsistent on his way to an ERA that's over a run higher than his mark last season. While we never really put Ervin Santana on Weaver or Haren's level, he has been good in the past, but his ERA has nearly hit 5.00 in 2012 and is part of the reason the staff as a whole is in the middle of the pack in the American League instead of near the top. The addition of Zack Greinke has helped, but they've only had him for about 80 innings.
Obviously, if the Yankees and/or the White Sox fall out of the lead in their respective divisions, they would replace either Baltimore or Detroit as threats to Oakland and Anaheim for the two Wild Card spots.
A couple of weeks ago, Jayson Stark covered something else that will make this last week and a half interesting: the looming disaster of scheduling tie-breaker games prior to the playoffs. While Stark's focus in the linked article is more on the National League, the American League also could see a dramatic extra game before the dramatic new extra game now needed just to make it to the Division Series.
Hopefully, the weather will cooperate next week, and nothing will mess up what is setting up to be a very dramatic ending to the 2012 season. There are tight races in both the American League East and Central divisions, but the West has certainly done its part to add to this late-season excitement.
References and Resources
* For the past couple of years, we've referred to this team as The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in all of these columns, save the last. In that last column, we referred to them as "Anaheim" a couple of times. A faithful reader pointed out that they had not been "Anaheim" in several years.
In the interest of not making you read "The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim" every time this team is referred to in the above column, I have chosen the simpler, and less wordy, "Anaheim." It is a matter of personal preference. Please don't take this as a lack of editorial control or ignorance of the fact that the team changed its official name on Jan. 3, 2005.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.