Inside the A's first-half dominance and how they plan to make it last all season

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Tuesday, August 25, 2020

David Forst watched the first five innings of Major League Baseball's 2014 American League wild-card game from one of the suites at Kauffman Stadium. He made his way down to the visiting clubhouse for the sixth and seventh and hoped to remain there for a celebration. Then came the bottom of the eighth. The Oakland Athletics possessed a four-run lead. Jon Lester, the midseason acquisition who helped lift them into the postseason, quickly ran into trouble. With two on, one out, the tying run at the plate and Lester's pitch count at 111, A's manager Bob Melvin turned to his setup man, Luke Gregerson.

By then, Forst had disappeared. He walked out of theKansas City Royals' home ballpark and made his way to neighboring Arrowhead Stadium, where the NFL's Chiefs play, far enough to no longer hear the crowd. Forst kept up with the rest of that game -- the Royals' game-tying sac fly in the ninth, Oakland's go-ahead single in the top of the 12th, Salvador Perez's walk-off hit in the bottom half -- by refreshing an app on his smartphone.

It's a night Forst still identifies as "the lowest" of his 20-plus-year stint in the A's front office.

"It was brutal, just the way that game played out," said Forst, now in his fifth season as general manager. "When I want to torture myself, I'll still go back and look at the play-by-play in that game."

It wasn't just a stinging loss; it was the finality of a thrilling, maddening run that saw the A's compile 278 regular-season victories and lose three consecutive elimination games. Two months before the abrupt end to their 2014 season, the A's sent Yoenis Cespedes, a beloved star with an extra year of team control, to the Boston Red Sox for Lester, who was nearing free agency. It was a move that signaled the organization's desire to go all-in on the present and cut costs thereafter.

Before the end of November, Josh Donaldson, the face of the franchise, was gone, shipped to the Toronto Blue Jays before the first of four arbitration years. Fans were enraged. It became one of the most painful trades of the Billy Beane era. But what followed was a series of subtle moves that ultimately yielded one of the best, most exciting A's teams of this century -- a team that, halfway through this 60-game season, sports a 20-10 record and a plus-32 run differential.

It was a byproduct of good drafts, savvy acquisitions, opportunistic trades and, Forst admitted, a little luck. It also was rooted in the lessons from 2006, which predated a half-decade of irrelevance. The A's, Forst said, "didn't recognize where we were in the success cycle" then and continually tried to augment a group that was noticeably trending downward.

Given another chance, they vowed to remain competitive but not remain so attached. They traded for Ben Zobrist at the start of 2015, then used him to acquire Sean Manaea when the team fell out of contention seven months later. They signed Rich Hill four months after that, then paired him with Josh Reddick to acquire Frankie Montas on the first day of August in 2016. When they fell out of it again by the midway point of 2017, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle were used to acquire Jesus Luzardo.

In the meantime, the A's watched Matt Chapman and Matt Olson blossom as first-round picks. They saw Marcus Semien and Liam Hendriks come of age. They plucked Mark Canha out of the Rule 5 draft, acquired Ramon Laureano for an unheralded pitching prospect, signed Robbie Grossman for $2 million and got Khris Davis for two relative unknowns. They came out on the other side, transitioning into a new contention window without the complete teardowns necessitated by the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros -- two franchises with far more resources.

"Rebuilding" is not a term Beane and Forst particularly entertain.

"It's not an ego thing," Forst explained. "It's just -- this job's a lot more fun when you have a chance to win. What Jeff [Luhnow] went through in Houston, what Theo [Epstein] went through in Chicago -- it's not a lot of fun. I give them credit for sticking through it and coming out on the other side with championship teams, but it's not something we wanna do. And honestly, it's not something this market can sustain. There's certainly a ceiling in this ballpark, in this city, as to what we can do attendance-wise. But there may not be a floor if we have a really ugly season, and that's not good for the franchise."

Semien suffered a wrist injury that kept him out for nearly 12 weeks in 2017. By the time he returned, Chapman had come up, Olson was there for good, and the A's -- coming off back-to-back 90-plus-loss seasons -- began to show signs of promise. They swept a four-game series against the Astros in the early part of September and won 17 of their last 24 games. Through that, they began to show signs of the identity that would define them.

"The way we win now, where we hit a lot of home runs, we play good defense, we pitch well, we have a good bullpen -- those were the ways we were starting to win games," Semien said. "Before that time, we didn't really have an identity. The games we won, it would be all different kinds of ways, and it really wasn't consistent in anything we were doing. You watch us now, you see that that's the style of play we have. We hit a lot of home runs; one through nine in the order can hit a home run. Our defense has been great. The pitching has been phenomenal. And now that we have a starting rotation that we can lean on too, it's a good combination."

The A's have hit the eighth-most home runs, have drawn the second-most walks and have seen the sixth-most pitches per plate appearance. They lead the majors in defensive runs above average. And their bullpen -- a bullpen that will soon add A.J. Puk, one of the game's brightest pitching prospects -- ranks within the top five in ERA, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. The biggest difference, however, is the top of their rotation, which features Montas and Luzardo, two potential frontline starters with showstopping stuff -- the type of rotation anchors that have eluded this franchise since Lester left it.

With Luzardo still developing and Montas ineligible because of a prior suspension, Manaea took the ball for the AL wild-card game against the Tampa Bay Rays last October and allowed three home runs before recording the first out of the third inning. Seven innings later, an A's team that won 97 regular-season games lost once and went home for the second consecutive year. The postgame conversation quickly developed a theme: Next year, we're winning the division.

"We were at the point then when we were like, 'Look, we're sick and tired of this game. We just won 97 games. We're gonna get together next year and we're gonna win 115,'" Hendriks said. "That was our goal."

The A's, historically slow starters, are now on a 108-win pace. On Sunday, after taking two of three from the division-rival Los Angeles Angels, the A's amassed their 20th victory in their 29th game, the fastest the franchise had reached 20 wins since 1990, which also marked the last time they reached the World Series. They did so on the strength of their major league-leading fourth walk-off victory this season, a statistical oddity that might reveal something about the confidence and maturity of this ascending group.

"We're not rattled by anything," Hendriks said. "We've been told we're the underdogs the entire time, and we're sick and tired of being told that."

The A's are one of only four teams with a .500 or better record when trailing this season. From the seventh inning on, they have outscored opponents by a combined 32 runs. Their season began, fittingly, on Olson's walk-off grand slam, which highlighted an unmistakable cruelty of a season staged through a pandemic -- that the city of Oakland can't experience all of this with them.

"I feel bad for the fans that can't be here," Semien said, "but we're seeing a lot of support, whether it's through social media outlets or just people who reach out to me that watch the game. Everybody's watching the games every night. That's great. I hope we're providing entertainment for those who are in a tough time right now with all the stuff going on. That's the main focus."

Hendriks, Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria -- three of the most important members of a bullpen that is remarkably deep, talented and versatile -- watched a lot of soccer on the clubhouse televisions last year. They took their love for the sport outside, first with a Hacky Sack and then with an actual ball, kicking it around as a way to get the blood flowing before stretching.

The activity has grown to include nearly a dozen pitchers on a daily basis, the soccer skills varying greatly. With two minutes left -- usually at 3:13 p.m. local time -- corner kicks begin and the intensity increases. Hendriks, in his 10th season and with his fourth organization, usually acts as the goalie. The game is symbolic of a culture he considers rare.

"We actually like being around each other, which is very hard for a bullpen because there's usually nine guys who are together for 162 games," Hendriks said. "The fact that we still like each other is a testament to our chemistry out there."

The A's clubhouse is famously loose. Tony Kemp arrived there from the Astros and Cubs and told Hendriks how stunned he was to be on a team that joked around and ragged on one another as often as this one does. It works, Hendriks said, because the mutual respect is prevalent. It began with guys such as Chapman, Olson and Chad Pinder, who followed a similar trajectory through the A's system. They began to establish themselves in 2017, and the culture gradually formed around them.

"You could see it, you could feel it," Hendriks said. "The more guys came up, the more confidence they got in the league. It had that innate ability to move forward. But it was one of those things where you didn't really notice it moving forward; it just would gradually every year get a little bit better, get a little bit better, and this year everything's going perfect."

Hendriks and Semien headline a group of upcoming free agents. Given the revenue streams of a franchise that has held a bottom-six payroll for nine straight years, both are expected to play elsewhere next season. The youth of Chapman, Olson, Laureano, Montas, Luzardo, Puk and Sean Murphy seem to indicate that the A's will stay competitive for a while. But Hendriks has evolved into one of the game's best closers, and Semien turned himself into an MVP candidate last year. Their potential departures might make this the pinnacle of the A's window, which, in a way, is perfect.

Who better to win the championship of such a weird season than the perpetually unconventional A's?

When Forst wants to torment himself, for whatever reason, he'll pull up the 2014 AL wild-card game on and scroll through the play-by-play. He does this once a year, usually, as you might expect, when he is in a bad mood. Forst still seems bothered by the decision to use Gregerson in that eighth inning. He thinks about what that team, with that rotation, could have done in five- and seven-game series had they advanced. And he remains miffed by the fact that everything went according to plan -- they traded for Lester, he pitched well with their season on the line, Doolittle got the ball with a lead in the ninth -- and the A's still lost.

The game has evolved into what Forst considers to be a valuable thought exercise.

How much, really, do you trust the process?

"There's a sickness involved in this job," Forst said. "Trust me."

He's here again, with an A's team that once again has a real shot of winning it all -- with a core group that might once again have to break up. Chapman and Olson, the new cornerstone players, will become arbitration eligible this offseason. Soon -- if not this offseason, then the one after that or the one after that -- they might price themselves out of Oakland the way Donaldson and Cespedes once did. Only a new stadium can interrupt that course, a reality Forst readily acknowledges.

This season, odd as it might be, represents an opportunity that can't be taken for granted.

The A's know that well.

"There's always urgency here," Forst said. "Every year, there's always somebody who's either a free agent or may not be here long term. It's part of the challenge here. It's also part of the excitement when you get [to the postseason] -- because there's urgency. We never just think we can recycle and return. You never take for granted that you're gonna get to the postseason. You always celebrate it when you do get there.

"Everything about this season is urgent. There's only 60 games, every game feels important and who knows what kind of postseason we're looking at. It certainly feels like this team has a window here to do something special, and it'd be great if we came through."

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