Barber: What the A's 10-game trial by fire taught us

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OAKLAND — The A’s just played 10 games, in 10 days, against American League playoff contenders. It was a grueling little preview of what may lie ahead, and when it was done on Wednesday night, I asked catcher Jonathan Lucroy how he felt about the 10-game test.

“I feel great about it,” the veteran said. “The guys have responded well. We’ve gotten our butts kicked a few times here and there. I mean, we got our butts kicked (Tuesday), but the guys came back today and responded well, and kept grinding, and kept fighting and battling and put it on ’em. So it’s a fun thing to watch.”

It really is. And while the A’s didn’t dominate those 10 games, as they had through much of July and August, they held their own against the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. They won five games and lost five. They scored 50 runs and gave up 51. They hit 11 home runs and surrendered 11.

In essence, the A’s proved they belong in this fraternal order. The Astros and Yankees are the teams they trail by 3½ games — Houston in the AL West, New York for the top AL wild-card spot. The Mariners are the team chasing Oakland for the second wild card. The A’s broke even with them, collectively. And they did it at the tail end of a withering stretch of 20 straight days of action.

A confidence boost?

“I think we’re past that, personally,” third baseman Matt Chapman said. “I mean, it’s good to know that you can still come out on top of those games. But I think that what we’ve done here in the second half, and how we’ve been playing, we’re just accustomed to playing like that. It’s not a good run we’ve been on. We’re a good team.”

Makes sense, but I’m guessing some members of this team did a little internal fist pump after going toe to toe with the Astros, who are the defending champions; the Mariners, who went 6-3 against the A’s in the first half of the season; and the Yankees, the marquee franchise in baseball.

Just as important, that 5-5 push demonstrated the A’s legitimacy to the rest of the league. The Yankees, in particular, must be having cluttered thoughts about the AL wild-card game. Many strange things can happen between now and early October, but as it stands, the Yankees would host the A’s in a do-or-die game in Round 1.

To put an even finer point on it, it’s entirely possible that the pitching matchup for that playoff game would be Mike Fiers vs. Luis Severino — the fizzled duel we got Wednesday. Going into that night, it was a matchup that favored New York. Fiers was coming off his first awful start since he joined the A’s in an Aug. 6 trade. Severino is a two-time All-Star who was 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA and, at 24, is one of the bright young lights in the sport.

But while Fiers was frustrating the Yankees for six-plus innings, Severino and his catcher, Gary Sanchez, were putting together a slapstick reel of wild pitches and passed balls.

They had forgotten how to execute the most basic thing you can do with a baseball: playing catch. The A’s cruised, 8-2.

So how do the Yankees feel about that hypothetical wild-card game now? Yes, it probably will be in Yankee Stadium rather than the Oakland Coliseum, but how can Severino-Fiers generate certitude in the Bronx now?

After Wednesday’s win, I asked Fiers if he had allowed himself to look at that night’s contest as a potential playoff preview.

“Yeah,” he said. “It could be any of us (teams). We take every game right now as a playoff game. We’re a couple games back from a couple teams. Every game matters, every pitch matters, every at-bat matters. But we’re not locking up in these situations. The boys are playing ball and making it tough on those other teams.”

Unfortunately, in confirming the A’s viability, those 10 games also exposed the team’s possibly fatal flaw: starting pitching. As in, the A’s don’t have much of it.

Fiers, despite the one hiccup, has been superb in green and gold. Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson have been surprisingly not-bad.

After that, it all gets fuzzy. Sean Manaea is out for who-knows-how-long with shoulder tendinitis. Brett Anderson has a forearm strain but might be back soon. Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt strike no fear into the hearts of the Astros.

The A’s have been reduced to starting non-starters, with reliever Liam Hendriks getting the call twice during the Ten Game Challenge. In both of those, Daniel Mengden, typically a starter, came out of the bullpen. The first experiment was a disaster. The second worked much better, but the A’s still lost.

The “bullpen game” (featuring all relievers) and the “opener game” (with a reliever replacing a starter) may well be the wave of the future. But what does it say about the A’s if they are fiddling with such creative arrangements less than a month before the playoffs?

Prior to Wednesday’s game, I spoke to someone who knows a bit about relief pitching. It was Dennis Eckersley, once the greatest closer in the majors, who was being inducted as part of the inaugural class of the Oakland A’s Hall of Fame.

Eckersley noted that it must be difficult to manage a relief game and time up all those pitching changes, and expressed doubt that it could work over an entire season. Part of the problem: One ineffective pitcher is all it takes to ruin a game, and if each guy is throwing just an inning or two, well …

“I always said, the more guys you run out there, the more chance you have of something going wrong,” Eckersley said. “I need five guys to win instead of three.”

Still, The Eck pointed out that when the playoffs begin, every pitcher is on a shorter leash. If “bullpenning” is problematic over 162 games, it looks different in a best-of-seven series — or in a single wild-card game.

“That’s what the playoffs are about, pretty much,” he said. “It gives a team a chance. So it makes it exciting.”

After seeing them battle three of the best teams in the American League, that’s pretty much where the A’s are right now. Competitive. Flawed. Exciting. And quite possibly postseason-bound.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at (707) 529-5218 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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