OAKLAND — Baseball happens today.
Sure, it's been happening for months. But today is different. The Texas Rangers come to Oakland to play the A's, to play for supremacy in the American League West — more on supremacy in a moment.
Know this. It is September. The teams that matter have dashed past the clubhouse turn and they're into the final straightaway, breathing hard, giving everything. And although the playoffs have not begun, this feels like playoff ball — the A's and Rangers playing three games in Oakland starting today and three in Texas starting next week, six out of the A's next 13 games against the Rangers, no interleague nonsense anymore, the A's one game behind the Rangers for the division lead, the issue between Texas and Oakland white hot, sizzling, the essence of baseball.
The A's have 26 games remaining and they play other teams and those games matter. But now they are playing the Rangers head to head. They can take the lead. They can bury the Rangers.
Texas lost 4-2 to the Twins on Sunday. The A's beat the Rays 5-1, swept the Rays, made a statement against Tampa Bay, currently second to the A's in the AL wild-card race.
This certainly is the "statement" part of the season, but I have to admit something. I just wrote a dirty word. "Wild card." It's as dirty as any word you can think of, even @#$%.
Why is wild card a dirty word when there are such obvious benefits to being a wild-card team? You get into the postseason, something the Giants won't do. Getting into the postseason is good any way you work it.
But you don't want to get into the postseason as a wild-card team if you can do it the preferred way — as a division winner. Any team with an instinct for self-preservation wants to avoid being a wild card at all costs.
What's wrong with being a wild card?
Way too risky. The game is one and done between the two wild-card teams, the consolation teams. It's more spectacle than sporting event. It's do or die, win or you don't matter. You win, great, you continue. You lose, see you in spring training. It is drastic — and exiting — when a team's entire season comes down to a one-game playoff.
If it's the A's vs. the Rays, one team will have a very long road trip. The A's do not want that road trip.
Even if you win the game, you're at a disadvantage. You had to use your best pitcher in a mere qualifier. Now, he's unavailable early in the first round of the playoffs when you need him most. You probably used your bullpen, stressed your closer. You did all that while your first-round opponent rested and played video games.
And there's something about the A's, something specific about their makeup that makes a one-game deal scary. The A's are a team built for the long haul. They will do well over an entire season. They will do well in a five-game postseason series or a seven-game postseason series. They will not necessarily do well in one game, in that one killer game between the two wild-card entrants.
Because they have no stud hitter in the lineup. Although they have hitters and hits up and down their batting order, they don't have Miguel Cabrera or anyone like him to take over that one game with an exclamation point. The A's thought Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes would be that guy. Not quite.