It’s a great day to be an Oakland A's fan.
Tonight, A’s ace Jon Lester takes the mound in Kansas City against “Big Game James” Shields in a do-or-die, one-game playoff.
In July, A’s fans certainly weren’t thinking Wild Card. First-place Oakland sent seven players to the All-Star Game, led by MVP candidate Josh Donaldson and now two-time defending Home Run Derby champion Yoenis Cespedes.
Through my wild, summer-long journey around the United States, I had the pleasure of catching six A’s games in five ballparks.
In planning my trip, I swear I wasn’t coordinating schedules; I just happened to find myself in the stands a half-dozen times for the team that, to me, has to be this October’s feel-good story.
Here’s my Oakland six-pack:
GAME 1 - I first caught the A’s in Baltimore on June 6 -- a game that marked the return of Jim Johnson to Baltimore (back when that mattered). The A’s took the series opener, 4-3 in 11 innings, surviving a towering (and, apparently, PED-enhanced) Chris Davis homer to left that landed about 10 rows in front of me and my friend Jeff.
A couple of pre- and mid-game Natty Bo’s (I’m told that’s a thing in Baltimore) added extra excitement when Donaldson (who hit his 17th homer of the season in the 1st) assertively tagged Manny Machado in the third inning -- the spark to what has become a season-long, multi-chapter rivalry. The next day, the hot-headed Machado would fling his bat at the pitcher’s mound, leading to a lengthy suspension for the young O’s slugger.
A’s - 38-23 overall (best record in majors), 1-0 (Strub games)
Donaldson homers seen: 1
GAME 2 - After a month of westward interstate travel, I arrived at one of the best pitchers' duels of the season: Jeff Samardzija vs. Felix Hernandez, just three days before the All-Star Game. A modest hangover from a thrilling Seattle pub crawl the night before couldn’t deter my excitement for these aces; I was particularly pumped to see Samardzija, who I’d never seen throw for my Cubbies. (As it turned out, this wouldn't be the last time I saw the big lefty this summer.)
The red-hot A’s took the wind of out of the crowd early, taking a 2-0 lead in the top of the first that left me and many others feeling a little underwhelmed.
But then Felix settled in. The yellow K placards out in left field appeared early and often, as The King followed his rocky first inning with seven scoreless. With three hard-earned runs giving the M’s a one-run cushion, Fernando Rodney’s entrance music electrified a thrilled Seattle crowd. Rodney pitched into and out of a jam for his 27th save, to help the AL Cy Young frontrunner improve to 11-2.
P.S.: If you ever make it to Safeco, go out behind center field and buy yourself a set of cantina tacos. Without question the best stadium food I've ever had.
A’s - 58-35 overall, 1-1 (Strub games)
GAME 3 - My journey brought me to the Bay Area in mid-July -- timed conveniently with the arrival of the aforementioned (and hated) Orioles. At the time, this series certainly looked like a possible ALCS preview, and if all goes well this week, it still could be.
The series opener on Friday night was Bark at the Park night -- and it was AWESOME. My friend Matt and his girlfriend Paty brought along their bite-size mutt, Howey, whose love for snuggling is only superseded by his hatred for loud noises. (More on that later.)
This game was just incredible. His five-game suspension long since served, Machado -- perhaps the most hated man in Oakland -- drilled a two-run shot off of, who else, Samardzija, to give the AL East-leading O’s a seventh-inning lead.
The two-run cushion wouldn’t be enough for O’s closer Zach Britton. After the game’s most menacing pure home-run hitter, Cespedes, legged out a Jeterian dribbler off the plate to lead off the inning, Brandon Moss’s single set the table for Donaldson.
First pitch. Bottom of the ninth. Eight hundred canines and their drunk owners filling the outfield. Donaldson drills a laser to dead center.
Game over. A walk-off, three-run home run to beat the rival O’s. The crowd went berserk.
It was one of the best moments I’d ever seen at a baseball field. But my summer was far from done.
A’s - 60-36 overall, 2-1 (Strub games)
Donaldson homers seen: 2
GAME 4 - I made it back to O.Co -- oh, lovely O.Co -- the next evening for Game 2 of the three-game series with Baltimore.
This game wouldn’t go quite as well for the A’s. The much-maligned Jason Hammel got lit up early and often, and mop-up man (and the pride of Union-Endicott) Jim Johnson didn’t help matters late.
But this game was tremendously special nonetheless. A couple nights prior, I had met a pair of Australian sisters, Annie and Jess, during a pub crawl around downtown San Fran.
They’d never been to a baseball game before, and so I offered to show them around the Coliseum and teach them the ins and outs.
As far as first impressions go, perhaps O.Co isn’t the best overall representation of a top-notch Major League Baseball park.
But despite the concrete jungle and the poor performance by the home team, it was a night the Aussies and I will never forget.
A’s - 60-37 overall, 2-2 (Strub games)
GAME 5 - The eastward leg of my journey brought me to Minute Maid Park in Houston, where the A’s post-ASG slide continued thanks to former Cub Jason Hammel.
In an early afternoon matchup -- absolutely nothing I love more than day baseball -- the righty got lit up for eight runs, including six in the first inning, leading MLB reporter Jane Lee to prognosticate that the start might be his last in an A’s uniform.
Hammel -- the pride of Greenville, South Carolina! -- pitched a smidge better down the stretch, and preserved his spot in the A's rotation, but this day belonged to the Astros. Ironically, AL batting champion Jose Altuve made both the first and last out in the fateful first inning, with the rest of the Houston lineup picking up the slack.
Minute Maid Park was alright; in general, I’m not a fan of domed stadiums, and there was nothing particularly special here in downtown Houston. This game turned out to be a bit of a laugher, but there’s never anything boring about seeing a new park for the first time, which I would do again just a few weeks later in Atlanta …
A’s - 66-41 overall, 2-3 (Strub games)
Donaldson homers seen: 3
GAME 6 - Thanks to interleague play, my first trip to Turner Field was my sixth time seeing the not-exactly-rival Oakland Athletics.
For this Saturday night contest, Oakland handed the ball to Sonny Gray, looking to break a three-game losing streak.
Despite having lost six of seven, the A’s still had the best record in the majors (and, of course, the lead in the AL West) -- but this night would belong to the Braves, who desperately needed a sweep to gain ground on the division-leading Nationals.
Gray was outpitched by Julio Teheran, but more memorable than the 4-3 final score was the performance of a comically tanned male streaker, who burst over the first-base dugout and made it all the way to center field before being detained by security (and ignored by B.J. Upton).
The Aug. 16 loss, on Throwback Night in Atlanta, gave the division lead back to the L.A. Angels, and continued to pry the door open ever so slightly for the surging Mariners in the Wild Card race.
A’s - 73-50 overall, 2-4 (Strub games)
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Thanks to a Sonny Gray gem on the final day of the regular season, the A’s clinched a spot in the AL Wild Card game tonight in Kansas City. The Home Run Derby champ, Cespedes, will be left watching with a beer somewhere, but his replacement, Jon Lester, brings to the mound the third-best ERA in playoff history (2.11).
Having seen Oakland play six times, and with my woeful Cubs surely golfing today, I can’t help but root for the suddenly-underdog A’s this October. Seeing Samardzija succeed in October would be a great feeling, and as the hopefully-soon-to-be newest resident of Greenville, I’m sure Jason Hammel has got quite the hometown story to tell.
No matter what happens with the A’s, though, I couldn't be more excited for what’s shaping up to be an awesome October. (And if the Royals win tonight, well ... I guess I can say I was there, too.)
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Remember, to see photos from 24 ballparks and all 48 states, follow @ChrisStrub on Instagram.