Maybe we won't top last year's final day for drama, but the story of the 2012 Oakland A's is no less miraculous and astounding and whatever other adjectives you can use to describe this bunch.
On June 30, the A's were 37-42, having just lost their third game in a row to the Texas Rangers. Not only were they 13 games behind the Rangers, they were 4.5 games worse than the Red Sox. Oakland was a young team that hadn't hit at all the first two months and was coming around a bit at the plate but still had this young rotation with four rookie starters. There were no expectations. Dan Szymborski's preseason projections had given the A's a 1.4 percent chance of making the playoffs and 0.4 percent chance of winning the division, and they weren't much higher at this point.
Note: That's still higher than zero percent.
Nothing special really happened on July 1. Travis Blackley and the bullpen shut down the Rangers in a 3-1 victory. They went home and swept the Red Sox, including a 3-2 victory with two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Took two of three from the Mariners. Swept the Twins. Split with the Rangers when Brandon Hicks (!) hit a walk-off home run off Michael Kirkman. Then came the series that really turned the A's into contenders: They swept four games with the Yankees, all by one run, the finale coming on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Oakland. Seth Smith's home run in the ninth tied it and the A's won in 12 innings, one of their major league-leading 14 walk-off victories.
Still, with nine games remaining, the Rangers still led by five games -- the best-in-baseball Rangers, No. 1 in ESPN's Power Rankings much of the season. But it happened: The A's won these final three games in Oakland, their fans loud and delirious and wearing masks and dancing in the stands, Evan Scribner pitching three scoreless innings in relief, Josh Hamilton dropping a routine pop fly, Grant Balfour once again getting the final out in the 12-5 victory. For the first time all season, the A's were in first place all alone, a feat shared only with the 2006 Twins and 1951 New York Giants.
I'm not an A's fans, so it's hard to say if this is more exciting than the 20-game win streak in 2002. It certainly seems more improbable, considering where the A's where in June and the fact that they've started a rookie pitcher in 103 games.
As Brandon Moss said after the game on the A's TV broadcast: "It's surreal. Something you work your whole life to get to. To play in the big leagues and then get the chance to compete in the playoffs. ... We've enjoyed every step of the way. There was never any pressure on us. We were supposed to lose 100 games."
Designated hitter Jonny Gomes, wearing a huge pair of ski goggles in the midst of the postgame celebration: “Once we got going, we were like a freight train. ... Pedal to the metal.”
As they head to the Division Series, the A's could use the days off. Balfour and Ryan Cook each pitched the final five games, after not having pitched even four games in a row all season. They'll have to find a way to keep all this emotion on their side. It reminds me a little of the 2001 Mariners, who expended a lot of energy down the stretch going for the all-time single-season wins record. When the playoffs hit, the Mariners looked drained and a little flat, maybe burned out by the hard push down the stretch.
But that was a veteran team with the pressure to continue its regular-season success. This is a team with an all-rookie starting rotation, a rookie star outfielder, a rookie catcher. There isn't pressure on the A's. There's nothing but magic going on here.