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Oakland A’s could stand in the way of the Yankees and their World Series dream

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 9/21/2019 Bill Madden
a group of people in a field © Elsa / Getty Images

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear the baseball gods have been engaged in a year-long conspiracy to make sure the Yankees do not get to the World Series.

How else to explain the unfathomable record amount of injuries that forced Aaron Boone to patchwork his way to the first Yankee AL East title since 2012, getting significant contributions from players such as Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin, Mike Ford, Nestor Cortes Jr. and David Hale, none of whom were even on the 40-man roster in spring training? Then on the day they clinched, their season-long best starter, Domingo German, gets put on administrative leave by MLB for alleged domestic abuse which will now keep him out of the postseason.

While it is premature to suggest this latest body blow to the Yankees is the one that will finally prove fatal to their World Series aspirations, a nuisance that has been festering within the American League in recent weeks potentially poses another unexpected obstacle for them. That would be Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s, the team with the 25th-lowest ($93 million) payroll and the team nobody wants to play right now.

In forging to the lead in the AL wild card race, as of Friday the A’s have gone 14-4 in September, including taking three out of four from the Astros in Houston, and they are a far cry from the team that was 19-25 as late as May 14. In typical Beane fashion (he seems to do this every year), they have rebuilt three-fourths of their starting rotation since the trade deadline, adding Homer Bailey and Tanner Roark in trades and getting back Sean Manaea who’d been sidelined all year with a shoulder injury. Combined, those three are 12-3 for the A’s. After a bit of a shaky start with the A’s, Bailey, with the aid of a perfected splitter that has now become his signature pitch, is 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA in his last seven starts. Along with Mike Fiers (15-4, 3.91), Brett Anderson (12-9, 4.00) and Chris Bassitt (10-5, 3.92), the A’s suddenly have a wealth of starting pitching going into the postseason, not to mention the presence of September call-ups — 6-7 lefty A.J. Puk, the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft, and Jesus Luzardo, the key return in Beane’s 2017 trading deadline deal with Washington for closer Sean Doolittle (that also included Blake Treinen, last year’s top closer in the AL). They are both working out of the expanded A’s bullpen but next year will be part of the starting rotation.

a baseball player throwing a ball © Jeff Chiu

“Last year, we had to rebuild our entire rotation and we had to start from scratch again this year, but actually the starting pitching has been one of our strengths this year,” Beane said Friday by phone from Oakland.

It was the bullpen that was an issue, particularly Treinen, who regressed mightily (4.91 ERA, five blown saves) until recently being shut down for the season with a back issue. In his place as closer was thrust Liam Hendriks, who’d previously had middling success as a spot starter and reliever but has been light’s out (1.66 ERA, 23 saves, 118 Ks in 81.1 in his new role. “A lot of really good relievers were failed starters,” Beane said of Hendriks. “He really hit bottom last year when we outrighted him and then later signed him back. But he’s taken it to a new level as a closer.”

It is, however, the Oakland offense that strikes the most fear in opposing teams. The A’s are seventh in the majors in runs and fifth in homers. They have seven players in their lineup with 20 homers or more. The left side of their infield, third baseman Matt Chapman and shortstop Marcus Semien, have 65 homers alone, and both play stellar defense. In Semien’s case, the defense has been a steady work in progress. Acquired by Beane in one of his best deals ever, along with catcher Josh Phegley and Bassitt from the White Sox at the 2014 trading deadline for right-hander Jeff Samardzija, Semien was playing all over the infield at the time and committed 35 errors in his first season with the A’s in ’15, 24 in the first three months. That’s when Beane assigned Ron Washington, acknowledged as one of the best infield coaches ever, to make Semien a special project. This year Semien’s .980 fielding percentage is his highest ever, and he ranks seventh in the majors in defensive runs saved and will likely finish in the top five in AL MVP voting. “We really liked Marcus when we made that deal,” said Beane. “We thought he was a special player and, as such, we were patient with his defense. If you ask me, the biggest secret to our success is our defense. We’re one of the best defensive teams in baseball, with plus defenders at every position.”

Pitching, defense and power, plus, in Bob Melvin, one of the consistently best managers in baseball, the A’s, despite their wild card status, have all the ingredients to be a very dangerous team in the postseason. Truth be told, the Yankees, now without German as well, might not be too concerned if they don’t finish with the best record. That would mean they’d play the Twins in the first round of the playoffs and, if the A’s win the play-in wild card game, let the Astros have to deal with them.

IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD ...

Last week was one for the families in baseball. Tuesday night in Baltimore, Blue Jays rookie Cavan Biggio went 4-for-5, stole two bases and hit for the cycle against the Orioles, following in the footsteps of his Hall of Fame father, Craig, who hit for the cycle against the Rockies in 2002. Cavan was the second player in 100 years to hit for the cycle and have multiple stolen bases, while he and his dad are only the second father-son duo to hit for the cycle, joining Gary Ward of the Twins in 1980 and his son Daryle for the Pirates in 2004. Then in Boston there were those two magical nights in which Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski got to see his grandson, Mike, hit a home run for the Giants in his first game at Fenway Park. The next night, the teary-eyed Fenway crowd was treated to grandpa Yaz throwing the ceremonial first pitch to Mike, who, as a 29-year-old rookie, has really come into his own with the Giants this year with 20 homers and 53 RBI while providing plus defense in right and left field. Which leads to this question: How could he have languished for seven years and 703 games in the minor leagues without getting called up for a single major league game by the Orioles? ... Derek Jeter hasn’t done a whole lot right in his two-plus years stewardship as owner of the Marlins, but deserves kudos for giving Don Mattingly a two-year extension as manager. It has hardly been Mattingly’s fault the Marlins are one of the worst teams in baseball after Jeter traded away all their best players. Though Mattingly has had little to work with, he’s instilled competitiveness in their young players and deserves the chance to see the rebuild through for at least a couple more years … As part of Orioles GM Mike Elias’ sweeping cleanout of the Orioles’ scouting and player development departments in favor of an army of analytics egg heads, I’m told there were gala celebrations within the Texas Ranger front office last week when he hired away Matt Blood, who had two more years on his contract with them, to be his new director of player development. The Rangers had hired Blood for that same job but quickly concluded he knew nothing about player development except what was in the computer printouts and kicked him upstairs to an administrative job.

Related slideshow: The 2019 MLB season (Provided by imagn) 

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