Warning: Justin Verlander’s read may be different, but call the Jon Lester-turbocharged Oakland A’s the Kings of the Hill.
They’ve got pitching for Game 1. They’ve got pitching for Game 2. Heck, with Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Jason Hammel and an absolutely killer bullpen, they’ve got pitching for Games 8, 9, 10 and 11, too.
Whatever October throws at them, the A’s now have the arms to throw back. And then some.
But before we flip that calendar to October and shop for the Halloween candy, let’s back up.
Without question, the A’s now take their place as heavy favorites to reach their first World Series since 1990 and win their first World Series since 1989.
It's cute the way Verlander said after the Samardzija trade that the A’s clearly had the Tigers in mind for October target practice.
But before Bob Melvin and his Cracker Jack staff of coaches even begin poring over the advance scouting reports for the postseason, take a look a few hundred miles to the south. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Los Angeles Angels of We’re Back in Business own the second-best record in the major leagues. The Angels are breathing so close to Oakland right now that the A’s can tell you if Mike Trout had grilled onions for lunch.
First thing the A’s must do, in a hot summer that looks an awful lot like 2002 (another Billy Beane October scar), is step on the Angels’ necks. And in obtaining a left-hander at the top of his game with oodles of October cred, their chances of doing that are better than ever.
Lester is 30 and arrives in the Land of Catfish Hunter and Joe Rudi with a 2.52 ERA despite threading his way through those AL East Murderers’ Row lineups in Baltimore and Toronto. He is a three-time All-Star who has grown into a true ace with the help of Red Sox manager (and former pitching coach) John Farrell and current Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves.
And, oh yeah, Lester owns the lowest ERA in World Series history among pitchers with 20 or more innings at 0.43, according to ESPN Stats & Info. For you historians in the crowd, that ranks just ahead of the immortal Harry “The Cat” Brecheen (0.67), Claude Osteen (0.86) and another former Red Sox lefty, Babe Ruth (0.87).
Do not underestimate that part of this deal: As high as the ceiling is for Samardzija and Gray, they do not have World Series experience. Lester not only has it, but he’s also bathed in it, moisturized with it and spritzed it on his wrists to keep the pleasant odor with him.
No question, dealing Cespedes was, and will be, painful. Every day Melvin wrote that guy’s name into his lineup, instant lightning was capable of crackling in Oakland’s lineup at any given moment. And Cespedes in Fenway Park—wow. Even the Green Monster was said to be ducking Thursday morning.
Re-acquiring Jonny Gomes, a beloved clubhouse figure in his past Oakland incarnation with a dangerous bat, will help. So will the Sam Fuld deal with Minnesota (h/t Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com).
But this game always has been about pitching, and October always has been about pitching, times two. Gray was gutty in a highly memorable Game 5 performance in the division series last fall against Detroit at the Coliseum, but Verlander was better.
And even yesterday’s blockbuster can become tomorrow’s ho-hummer. Buzz-worthy as the Cubs deal was, and as much as Samardzija looks like he’ll be able to help, Hammel, in his four starts in Oakland, is 0-4 with a 9.53 ERA. Yikes.
So the final curtain falls way prematurely on Cespedes, a proposition that you can bet kept Beane up the past several nights, pacing around in his flip-flops, but surely no more than the nightmares of exiting so many Octobers in the past decade.
How many times did the A’s have to take it on the chops at the hands of Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and every other stinking Tigers pitcher short of Denny McLain before they said screw it and built a rotation to steamroll old memories?
The A’s lost to the Tigers in the division series in ’13 and ’12. They were bounced from the AL Championship Series by Kenny Rogers, Verlander and their Tigers pals in ’06. They were squashed in the division series in ’03 (Red Sox), ’02 (Twins), ’01 (Yankees) and ’00 (Yankees).
It was in the raw emotion following that ’01 elimination that Beane uttered the tagline that has continued to stick with him all of these years: that you can plan and plan, but in the end, the postseason still is little more than a “crapshoot.”
To a large degree, Beane is right about that, just as he’s right about most things. But in acquiring Lester, a man who already owns two World Series rings (’07 and ’13), and Samardzija, Beane has done everything in his power to lessen those odds.
Now, about the only possible insurance left for these A’s to pick up is a player heady enough to make a miraculous, come-from-nowhere flip play to obtain a key October out at the plate. You know, just in case.