Will the A's playoff hopes hinge on a Sonny Gray start?

Melvin on Gray: We have another quality starter

Will the A's playoff hopes hinge on a Sonny Gray start?
September 5, 2013, 10:45 am
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Wild card teams have their hands tied unless they can breeze their way in comfortably, which in this case, is unlikely. (USA TODAY IMAGES) 

Bob Melvin might well have to put all his chips on Sonny Gray. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

When baseball decided to get tough on wild card teams by creating a one-game-all-in format, the benefits of a team winning its division outright finally became clear, in that Eastwoodian “You feel lucky, punk?” kind of way.

Thus it is for the Oakland Athleticals, one of seven American League teams fighting for the three open postseason places. And that’s three with an asterisk because, after you promote Boston and Detroit for cause, a third place is reserved for either the A’s or Texas as the West winner.

[The Miserablist: Pierzynski at his best when wasp hive shoved into his Y-fronts]

In other words, games like Wednesday’s, which the A’s won by a touchdown and Yu Darvish and A.J. Pierzynski offered extra cabaret by having an early-game hissy, have greater than usual importance. The two teams are now dead even with 23 games to play, and we will not bore you by comparing their schedules down the stretch. That’s idiot’s play, despite the fact that the A’s play only three of those 23 games against teams with winning, or even non-rancid, records.

No, let’s play another silly game instead, and to do so we must decide that the A’s will blow their scheduling advantage and finish second. As a wild card team that would be likely scraping until the season’s final day, they would have some difficulty adjusting their postseason rotation, and if those conditions prevail, they might well have to put all their chips on . . . wait for it . . . Sonny Gray.

Not Bartolo Colon or Jarrod Parker, the preferred choices, but Gray.

Now this is a calendar-only decision, and one that manager Bob Melvin, pitching coach Curt Young and whoever else happens to be in the meeting room would have to war over, because Gray’s seven starts are well within the small-sample-size parameters, and falls equally well under the “Are you kidding?” rubrics.

[RELATED: AL Wild Card standings | American League standings]

In other words, there is still time for Melvin to push all-in with Parker or Colon or even A.J. Griffin instead, depending on the A’s dancing partner that day.

But here’s the thing. Wild cards have their hands tied unless they can breeze their way in comfortably, which in this case is unlikely given the knotty mass of teams involved now. So assuming this will be settled late in the season, and assuming none of the other wild card contenders can adjust their rotations any easier than Oakland, here are the pitchers against whom Gray (shown, below right) would likely contend:

TAMPA BAY: Alex Cobb, one of the Rays’ small army of young and nasty pitchers that includes Matt Moore and Chris Archer. Cobb, though has 17 starts and his metrics, while still limited as to matchups, are for wild card pitchers quite reasonable indeed.

BALTIMORE: Scott Feldman, the journeyman’s journeyman, with 2011 playoff experience (albeit relief work) but an understanding of the size of the stage that younger pitchers cannot have.

CLEVELAND: Scott Kazmir, the one-time big deal turned arm casualty turned spare part turned reclamation job under Terry Francona. A slightly milder version of Feldman, wedged within the thick middle of American League starters.

KANSAS CITY: Jeremy Guthrie. See above, twice, more or less.

NEW YORK: Likely Ivan Nova, though the Yankee rotation has been an internal argument all year long. He is a better-than-average American League starter, though, and worthy of a do-or-die game.

None of these names suggest that teams would go all-in with their best guy in a wild card game, only because last year was the first time the new format was used. But if it helps, the four starters last year were Kyle Lohse, the emergent Yu Darvish, Joe Saunders and Kris Medlen, who between them combined for one fifth-place Cy Young vote (Darvish). And if you think Darvish was Texas’ undisputed ace last year, Matt Harrison had roughly equivalent numbers except for strikeouts, and got a fourth place vote. This year, obviously, Darvish is that undisputed ace, and would probably be nowhere near that wild card game.

Which, in the end, is exactly where the A’s want to be, whether it’s Sonny Gray’s turn or not.

In line photo of Sonny Gray provided by USA TODAY SPORTS IMAGES