The A’s surprised a lot of us with their terrific season. What were your expectations for the team on Opening Day?
I saw this as a bridge year. After three straight last-place seasons, this would be the year that they moved back up toward the respectability of .500 and maybe third place at best. The young core was impressive in the second half of 2017 and played around .500 ball, so this wasn’t pure optimism. However, I figured that the likely collapse of the starting rotation would tank any chance at Cinderella contention, and that it would take at least 90-95 wins just to sneak into a Wild Card in the top-heavy AL, so I saw virtually no chance of making the playoffs.
Those last two predictions turned out to be spot on -- the rotation fell apart and the league was stacked at the top of the standings. But somehow the A’s made it anyway. Unreal.
At what point did you realize that the A’s were having a special season?
My article The 2018 Oakland A’s are for real was posted on July 13. The A’s were an MLB-best 63-29 since June 16, so that was about a month into their incredible surge. The lineup was blasting away, the pitching staff was somehow holding steady, and they had won road series against the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros, and also played the Yankees to basically a draw on the road as well. That was what really did it, seeing them beat not just the doormat teams but all the other AL playoff squads.
What player or players would you credit with the Athletics getting this far?
Their MVP is Matt Chapman, and he should finish high on the ballot for the AL award. He’s one of their best hitters, and also the single best defensive player in baseball at any position.
Beyond him, Khris Davis made a huge difference with his MLB-best 48 homers, six of which could be considered game-winners. Stephen Piscotty hit like Nelson Cruz since late-May, and Jed Lowrie made his first All-Star team with a career year.
On the pitching side, Blake Treinen just had one of the best seasons ever by a reliever. He’s a main reason why Oakland was able to survive the loss of so many starters.
Both the Yankees and A’s have extensive experience with the Wild Card Game. Do you think that we’re in store for a dramatic matchup?
Just about every Wild Card Game is a dramatic matchup, but these two teams are particularly well-matched. They are two of the five best lineups in the sport, and two of the top three in homers. They also both bring powerful bullpens, which figure to overshadow their starters. It’s going to be fascinating to watch, because neither team will ever be out of the game -- even if one unleashes early and takes a big lead, they won’t be safe from a comeback until the final out is squeezed.
The Yankees and A’s also have quite the postseason history, with the Bombers coming out ahead in the most recent showings. What do you think the A’s need to do to escape the Bronx with a win?
Don’t beat themselves. These A’s can hang with anyone, but if they start handing out walks then they’ll get themselves in trouble -- like they did in the game the Yankees won in the Coliseum in September. I’m confident that Oakland can score, but their pitchers are going to need to go after the Yankees hitters and make them swing the bat.
The pitching matchups were kept under wraps for a while. If Bob Melvin had called and asked for your opinion, who would you have on the mound?
I kept waffling between Mike Fiers and Edwin Jackson. Both were solid for the A’s this year, but of course neither name jumps off the page. Fiers can be homer-prone, which is bad for a righty in Yankee Stadium, and Jackson slowed down toward the end of the season.
In the end, the answer is neither. Liam Hendriks will open a bullpen game, and there may not be a starter at all (though Jackson is on the roster). The strategy makes me nervous in such a big game, but it really probably is the best way to go with this particular staff. The fact that the Yankees essentially bullpenned their way to a win in this game last year helps the confidence, and frankly even if Jackson had started, I would have assumed he was only going a few innings anyway.
Last but not least, how do you plan to get through the stress of this game? I’m already freaking out.