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Lowell Cohn: A's never recovered from Game 4 ALDS loss


Technically, the A's lost the series on Thursday night. But you know that's not true. They lost it Tuesday in Detroit when they had the Tigers dead, when they had the bases loaded with nobody out in the eighth and they didn't score and the Tigers won the game. The moment — that moment — which had been the A's moment, simply went away.

By losing Tuesday, they guaranteed themselves Verlander on Thursday. For them it was a bad guarantee. And it meant Game 5 was an anticlimax, a foregone conclusion, the end.

A's shortstop Jed Lowrie disagreed with the interpretation I just put forward. "It's low hanging fruit to say Game 4 was a disappointment," he said. "They deserved that win. They fought for it. We didn't give it to them."

Lowrie is entitled to his opinion, but Game 4 was a disappointment, a soul-sapping disaster. And the A's never recovered.

Game 5 turned, as you surely know, in the top of the fourth when Miguel Cabrera hit a long, high, elegant two-run homer to left field. On the radio, Vince Cotroneo, who was doing play by play, had just said, "Cabrera has gone 52 at-bats without a long ball."

The words were not even out of his mouth when Cabrera crushed the pitch, an inside fastball, out of the yard. There had been so much talk about Cabrera's power outage, about his hurt groin and how he couldn't get around on pitches. He got around on that one. How long did the world think the best hitter in baseball wouldn't get around?

Afterward, A's manager Bob Melvin said of Cabrera, "It looked like his approach the whole series was to hit the ball up the middle and he didn't have the leg drive that he normally does. So, a little surprised he pulled it for a home run. I don't know how surprised you can be when Miguel Cabrera hits a home run."

And after that, the degree of difficulty for the A's ratcheted up exponentially. "You're down two runs, guys. Now, take back that lead from Verlander." Good luck.

A's starter Sonny Gray pitched well, but not as well as Game 2. In Game 5, the game of the season, the A's started a rookie pitcher. A beginner. A latecomer. Someone who had been in the majors fewer than nine weeks. They got at least five executives together, maybe more, and studied charts and tendencies and handed the ball to a rookie.

I am not questioning starting Gray over Bartolo Colon. The five men had their reasons. But this is what the A's had and what they are. Their best pitcher is defined as a raw youth and raw youth is defined by making mistakes — like the killer home run to Cabrera. Gray's fastball was working but his curve, which drove the Tigers crazy in Game 2, was imprecise and wholly hittable.

Gray's story was a good story but it wasn't a winning story. It was a fantasy expecting him to control the Tigers, this great batting order, a second time after the Tigers' hitters already had looked him over for an entire game.

And this is the perpetual issue with the A's. They are young and they are overwhelmingly inexperienced. The feeling persists the A's will get better. After the game, catcher Stephen Vogt said, "It's frustrating, no doubt about it. We're a better team than that. We deserve better."

"Why do you deserve better?" I asked.

"Because we're a great team," he said. "We're a World Series-caliber team."

All respect to Vogt, but a World Series-caliber team is a team that goes to the World Series. The A's, who have the bad habit of losing Game 5 of the division series, are, by definition, not a World Series-caliber team.

I come back to the A's prevailing theory that they are young and developing and will be champions. Are they developing? The A's are always young. They always are a young team that almost moves ahead in the playoffs but never quite does it. The players' names change, but they are always the same players and it is always the same team, a team in a perennial moment of promise — promise not quite fulfilled.

A's ownership, which has a certain approach, trades the young players for even younger players. The team never is building toward a crescendo, never thinking dynasty or even continuity.

After the A's got eliminated and the players returned to the clubhouse, the clubhouse guys started handing out boxes. They were flat and needed to be assembled. Along with the flat boxes, the clubhouse guys gave the players strapping tape. You could hear tape pulled and boxes assembled. The boxes were for all the cleats and gloves and deodorant and vitamins and jocks and extra caps and assorted player paraphernalia. The players were packing up and moving on.

When you get eliminated, you get the boxes.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.