For upstart A’s, another season of expectations begins
OAKLAND — The knock on the Oakland A’s is that, despite more than a decade of actual, sustained success, they can’t finish out a season with style.
The team’s last World Series appearance was nearly a quarter-century ago (when they were swept by the Cincinnati Reds in 1990). That particular bugaboo looms large, the other ding in the Athletics’ veneer of overall excellence is that they also can’t start seasons well, at least in the smallest sample size sense.
Going into Monday night’s home opener against Cleveland, Oakland had lost nine consecutive Opening Day games, tied for the longest such schneid in MLB history.
When it was over, and the Pacific rains came again to finish what they started earlier in the day, the A’s had lost 2-0. The record, now at a full decade, was all theirs.
Starting pitcher Sonny Gray, the de facto staff ace of the moment, given that much of the rotation is in various stages of bodily healing, was sensational through six scoreless innings, allowing five hits and three walks, while striking out seven. The 24-year-old right-hander used his heavy, sloping curve and pinpoint fastball to shut down the Indians before being removed before the seventh inning.
But as is the A’s way, the offense couldn’t scrape any runs together to support Gray. A 399-and-a-half-foot blast from A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson in the eighth plopped freakishly off the top of the center-field wall and froze baserunner Daric Barton with indecision at third.
The Indians deftly escaped from that bases loaded, one-out situation and the bullpen preserved the shutout to its end. Though things became interesting when Indians closer John Axford walked two in the ninth before striking out Nick Punto to seal the Cleveland victory and send Oakland fans home defeated and a little wet.
But the initial loss to this 2014 season didn’t bring about some deep sense of fatalism. Sure, the season has barely begun, and for a team that won 96 games last season and the American League West title (its second in a row) by five games, there is the usual Oakland optimism that this year could be "The Year."
Much of the talent from last year’s roster returned, a year older and wiser, and general manager Billy Beane, keen to revamp the bullpen, did so by investing in arms like Luke Gregerson and Jim Johnson. Gregerson pitched a perfect seventh on nine pitches — all strikes, but Johnson had a miserable ninth. The former Baltimore closer (101 saves the past two seasons), surrendered the only runs of the game, and was booed off the mound and back to the locker room.
Manager Bob Melvin, with a guidance counselor’s demeanor, didn’t convey any panic or concern after the game. Gray, in his hushed Tennessee twang, was similarly even-keeled, though clearly disappointed, standing near his locker. And the rest of the players, many in various stages of facial follicular growth that will no doubt get gnarlier with each passing month, sat around quietly eating postgame buffet.
Connie the Cookie Lady delivered this season’s inaugural batch earlier in the day, a few dozen treats dotted yellow and green, and with a note affixed to the tray lid. "To the Awesome A’s! Best darn team in MLB!" it read. "MAKE CHIEF WAHOO CRY ‘BOO HOO!’" (The o’s in "boo hoo" were drawn to resemble bulging eyeballs and a teary-eyed Indians logo was taped alongside, to really drive the point home.)
The A’s are a franchise adept at underachieving on a larger scale, used to soul-crushing losses brought upon by Derek Jeter-as-Stretch Armstrong and the like. But they are also beloved on a local scale that’s hard to calculate.
They possess a collective likability that would make any politician rage-jealous in a blink, despite more than a decade where the common practice is to part ways with superstars as if they were milk still a week shy of expiration. But this is the A’s way of things, and 12 years after the events of Moneyball and the 20-game winning streak that largely validated its practice, these shortcomings are not questioned because the winning has rarely ever stopped for long since then.
Of course, it’s the winning that needs to get better.
The constant hope is that regular season prowess will finally make way for baseball that reaches its ultimate, natural conclusion late in October; that the team’s leaky fast food carton of a stadium, with more than a little charm in its concrete bowels, will serve host to one more Fall Classic, like had become commonplace so many years before. The battle over a new stadium continues apace, but that reality is so far beyond everyone’s minds here that it remains a dream not yet realized.
The A’s may not start seasons very well, and they may not win 96 games again, but it’s a long baseball season. The Rangers’ players seem to break upon contact, and the Angels knows all too well about underperformance.
This 2014 season will be as good as any to prove that Opening Days mean nothing if you can close out a season the way you know you can.