Imagine the weight Sonny Gray carried on his shoulders on Sunday afternoon. How much do 30-plus ballplayers weigh? Add in a coaching staff and front office and all the other personnel that help a team through a season. Add in the losses the Oakland Athletics have accumulated of late, one after another after another, many by one run, 20 out of their last 29 games all told as Oakland plummeted from a division lead to desperation. If you want, add in the history of the A's over the past 15 years, with a lot of good ballclubs that couldn't get the job done.
The A's still have a lot of work to do, but thanks to Gray they'll have that opportunity. The right-hander pitched a six-hit shutout, recording 17 ground-ball outs, as the A's beat the Texas Rangers 4-0 to clinch the second wild card. With the Seattle Mariners later beating the Los Angeles Angels behind Felix Hernandez, it was a win Oakland needed to avoid a tiebreaker game on Monday.
When the A's scored twice in the top of the ninth, there was little doubt Gray would return in the bottom of the inning to close it out. He probably would have been out there even if the lead had remained 2-0. It was the kind of starting pitching performance the A's never received in a must-win game from Mark Mulder or Tim Hudson or Barry Zito back in the Moneyball days. It was the kind of performance Justin Verlander delivered for the Detroit Tigers the past two seasons in eliminating the A's from the postseason in the division series. It was what the A's needed.
Now they can wipe out the past six weeks of bad baseball, forget the blown leads and tough defeats. They have to win only one game to get where everyone thought they would be back at the All-Star break when they owned the best record in the majors: Playing in the division series. It will be Jon Lester versus James Shields, Tuesday in Kansas City. This is a reason why the A's acquired Lester in July and why the Kansas City Royals acquired Shields two years ago.
For what it's worth, Lester has an impressive postseason history, with a 1.92 ERA in 11 career postseason starts. He allowed just six runs in five starts last October for the Red Sox. So he's a guy who has come up big in big games. Shields, on the other hand, has a 4.98 ERA in six playoff starts, the last one coming in 2011.
Of course, one win doesn't cure some of the ills that have plagued the A's down the stretch. Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp and power bat Brandon Moss have remained in the lineup despite struggling through injuries. Crisp has hit .191/.272/.258 in the second half while Moss has hit .173/.310/.274. Adam Dunn, making his first postseason appearance after 2,000 games in the majors, hasn't done much in his limited time with the A's, hitting .212 with two home runs in 25 games. Josh Donaldson twisted his ankle on Friday night, but he played over the weekend and had three hits, including a home run, on Saturday.
If the A's get by the Royals, you have to like their chances to keep advancing. Their rotation depth means they can line up Jeff Samardzija in Game 1 of the division series against the Angels, followed by Gray in Game 2 on regular rest. The Angels, meanwhile, are still hoping that Matt Shoemaker -- he says the pain from his rib-cage strain is almost gone -- will be able to join Jered Weaver and an erratic C.J. Wilson in the playoff rotation.
After spending all of September facing "What's happening?" questions, the A's can finally face "How's it feel?" questions.
Now they get to face the ultimate question: How are you going to fare in the postseason?
Maybe, after all the frustration in the early 2000s, after the tough losses to Verlander the past two years, after all these losses in September, maybe this will finally be the year for the A's.