Brandon Moss #37 celebrates with Chris Carter #22 of the Oakland Athletics after Carter hit a solo home run during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
The Athletics and Orioles weren't supposed to be here, but they are and it's great.
At this point, you're aware that the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics are fighting for playoff spots. The A's are leading the American League's first wild card, at 82-61, and the O's are tied for the lead in the AL East; they hold a tiebreaker over the Yankees, but there's obviously a good chance the Orioles could finish the season behind the Yankees, and thus angling for one of the wild cards.
It hits home a bit more when we see the O's and A's matched up against each other, in mid-September, in a series with playoff implications. Look how much could change in a three-game series between these two, courtesy of MLB.com:
The A's now own the second-best record in the AL, but if the Orioles sweep them, that would propel Baltimore to, at minimum, a tie for the American League's top record, Non-Rangers Division. With a strong series from the Angels against the Royals, they could find themselves right back in contention. The same goes for the Rays and the Yankees, who are playing each other, and the Tigers, who get to face the AL-worst Indians.
Then there are the boring results: a weekend full of series won two games to one, with little in the way of deficits made up or gaps widened. That doesn't take away from the surprise factor here, though: If you were told, before the season, that teams three through six on the above list would be fighting for a playoff spot with mere days left in the season, you wouldn't have blinked. The Angels spent big, the Rays and Yankees are nearly always in it these days, and the Tigers were in last year's playoffs even before acquiring Prince Fielder. The Athletics and Orioles, though, weren't supposed to be here yet.
The Orioles weren't supposed to necessarily be terrible. In fact, we should have seen their improved play coming even before the season started. Maybe not to this degree, but between their always-changing roster, and their one-run wins already banked regardless of whether they were lucky or not, they've stayed competitive against the odds. Yet another one-run win -- a walk-off against the Rays on Thursday that netted them the sweep -- kept them tied for first in the East heading into this series with Oakland.
Even with all of that, though, the AL East was expected to be too tough for the Orioles to hang in there. The Red Sox faded through injuries, pitching woes, and eventually, a trade that gutted their lineup. The Rays just didn't play well enough when Evan Longoria was out, and while they've been better since, it hasn't been enough to put Baltimore away. The Yankees have dealt with their own injuries, and been up-and-down in the standings; a month ago, the Bombers were six games up on Baltimore, nearing a .600 win percentage. The Jays had their moments, but could never take advantage of the division in the same way the Orioles did, thanks to their own injuries.
This has been the perfect moment for the Orioles to be relevant again, given the problems of the rest of what is normally baseball's toughest division. Just one more win will clinch their first winning season since 1997.
The A's are a different kind of surprise. They traded established starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill for prospects (including Jarrod Parker), and sent closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox, along with outfielder Ryan Sweeney, for Josh Reddick and middling prospects. It had all the makings of a rebuilding year, but then the A's changed course. Yoenis Cespedes was signed out of Cuba, giving the A's one of the off-season's top available talents. Coco Crisp was re-signed, giving the A's yet another quality outfielder. Bartolo Colon signed a one-year deal, helping to fill the void left in the rotation by the departure of Gonzalez and Cahill.
Colon succeeded, until he was suspended for failing a drug test late last month. Maybe more importantly, nearly all of Oakland's young starting pitchers -- including the ones they picked up while trading the relative "old" starters away -- have contributed to the A's and their playoff effort. The lineup has had its problems, and is below-average on the year, but the likes of Reddick (114 OPS+, 59 extra-base hits), Cespedes (127 OPS+, 18 homers and 16 steals), and Crisp (101 OPS+, 34 for 38 in steals) have done well, and thanks to the emergence of Brandon Moss (.560 slugging percentage in 229 plate appearances) and Chris Carter (152 OPS+ in 211 PA), they're now fielding a lineup that can score runs through power.
Combine that with a pitching staff that leads the AL in ERA+, even after accounting for O.co's pitcher-friendly atmosphere, and the A's seem like a dangerous team, regardless of how they looked last winter.