The A’s have been very good at deflecting pressure, putting one foot in front of the other and moving on a very orderly path through the 2013 season.
Does all that change now, with the season down to one game?
They won’t want to admit it, but yes it does.
Just not so much for the players. Most of them went through the disappointment of losing in Game 5 of the 2012 playoffs to Detroit and Justin Verlander, and they know the obstacle the Tigers are.
But that’s a one-season thing for the most part. The real pressure is on the organization, because post-season baseball in Oakland has been a series of unfulfilled dreams for the most part stretching back two-plus decades and across three ownership groups.
In 1990, with Walter Haas the owner, Sandy Alderson the general manager and Tony La Russa managing the club, the A’s were defending World Series champs. They made it to the World Series for the third consecutive year only to see an upstart Cincinnati team that wasn’t that good before and wasn’t that good after steamroller them in four games.
The 1992 season, the next-to-last with just one round of playoffs, saw an aging A’s team that would soon be disbanded – as it was, Jose Canseco was traded in the final days of August for Ruben Sierra – make it to the American League Championship Series. Down 3-1 to the Blue Jays, starter Dave Stewart guaranteed the team a win in Game 5 and delivered. Game 7 was set up for Ron Darling, who had dominated the Jays all season; his 1.99 ERA against them was his best against any team that year, and he’d beaten them in Game 3.
In between, however was Game 6.
What a debacle. Rickey Henderson started the game by dropping a pop fly. Two batters later, Joe Carter homered off the increasingly (by that point in his career) unreliable Mike Moore, and the next thing you knew the A’s had lost 9-2.
Then came the wilderness years. Walter Haas died in September of 1995, and by that point the team that had dominated the late 1980s was either out of baseball or out of Oakland. The Coliseum itself had been perverted into somebody’s idea of a Raider residence, and baseball wasn’t much worth watching in the place for a few years.
With Steve Schott now the owner, Billy Beane the general manager and Art Howe running things in the dugout, a new century saw new success. In 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 the A’s made it to the AL Division Series four years running (Ken Macha was the manager in 2003).
Oakland made it to Game 5 of the playoffs in each of those seasons. And the A’s lost each time, frequently in fits of agony.
In 2000 Gil Heredia started and won Game 1 against the Yankees. In Game 5, he gave up six runs in the Coliseum before the A’s ever got to bat. The offense battled back, but the Bronx Bummers won that one 7-5.
In 2001, with the A’s a wild card entry this time, Oakland won the first two games in Yankee Stadium. Down 1-0 in the seventh inning at the Coliseum to Mike Mussina, Jeremy Giambi singled and Terrence Long doubled. Giambi should have scored easily, but bad base running and Derek Jeter’s desperate pickup of a loose ball and throw to catcher Jorge Posada cut that short. The Yankees won 1-0 and went on to win Games 4 and 5, the latter after the A’s led 2-0 early behind Mark Mulder.
In 2002, this time facing the Twins, the Moneyball team took a 2-1 lead in the ALDS, got blown out in Game 4, then in Game 5 gave up three runs in the top of the ninth to the Twins as Minnesota took a 5-1 lead. Oakland then scored three times on a Mark Ellis homer off Eddie Guardado before capitulating.
And in 2003, with Macha the manager, the A’s would get no further than they did with Howe at the helm. The A’s went up 2-0 in this series, but with three chances to win, didn’t. Barry Zito pitched Game 5, and after the A’s scratched out a run against Pedro Martinez to lead 1-0 after five innings, Zito was stung for a game-tying homer by Jason Varitek and a three-run game-deciding homer by Manny Ramirez. Those four runs stood up for a 4-3 win, but not before three ninth inning walks gave the A’s every chance for a tie or a win. Adam Melhuse and Terrence Long both looked at called third strikes as the season ended.
Four years, four ALDS Game 5s, four ousters.
Schott sold to Lew Wolff and John Fisher in 2004, and it would take a while before they saw a post-season return on their investment.
The 2006 season would prove to be Macha’s last. The A’s broke through by winning the ALDS against Minnesota, but they scarcely put up a fight in being swept by the Tigers in the ALCS and Oakland wouldn’t return to the post-season for another six years.
The organization clicked again in 2012. Again there was a Game 5, Detroit again. Verlander has two no-hitters to his credit, but it’s difficult to see how he could have pitched better than he did in shutting out the A’s 6-0 on four hits. The game was close until the seventh inning, but the two third-inning runs off Jarrod Parker might as well have been two dozen. See ya.
Along the way the A’s have had 12 chances to win a game, close it out and move forward. They have lost 11 of those.
Now it’s 2013. It’s Game 5 again. The players have changed in the last two decades, but the history has remained constant.
So yes, the pressure is on the organization as a whole. The hardest thing in baseball is to win a 162-game season, but the A’s have done that. The next-hardest thing is to advance, and the A’s have yet to prove they can do that.
Are they ready to explore what lies beyond the ALDS? Thursday will tell.