The Royals and Athletics hooked up last season for the most thrilling Wild Card game in the event's short history, and one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent post-season history. The game really represented the Athletics season in a microcosm. They got off to a great start, only to deflate in the second half and come down with a thud in the final moments. Salvy's ground ball was literally the A's post-season chances, whizzing inches past the outstretched glove of Josh Donaldson.
But that Athletics team may as well have been from 30 years ago. In true Billy Beane fashion, the roster was completely overhauled in the off-season. Of the 25 players on the active roster for the Wild Card game last year, only seven are on the active roster for this weekend's games (two starting pitchers - Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir - were not active for the Wild Card game). The A's lost Wild Card starting pitcher Jon Lester to free agency, but surprised everyone by shipping starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox and third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays. Brandon Moss, who thumped two home runs in that Wild Card game, was sent to Cleveland, and catcher Derek Norris was sent to San Diego.
The A's rebuilt with a lot of players coming off suspect seasons in 2014. If you thought Dayton Moore was gambling on upside with his off-season moves, the A's are betting the house. The most notable gamble was on former Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, who quickly signed a three-year $30 million deal with the A's last winter. Butler is off to a scorching start in Oakland, with a hit in each game (including this monster home run), setting the franchise record for best hitting streak to being an A's career.
One trait that many of these new players share is a trait synonymous with Billy Beane - the ability to get on base. Guys like Ben Zobrist and Ike Davis have always shown an ability to draw walks and get on base, and the team may have found a gem in Rule 5 pick Mark Canha. Canha was stuck in the Marlins organization, but the former first baseman-turned-outfielder is off to a hot start as a regular in Oakland, hitting .324/.342/.486 so far. The A's as a team are fourth in the league in runs scored per game and fourth in OPS, behind the Royals in both categories.
Note: 2014 statistics
*-numbers in AAA with the Marlins organization
The A's have finished in the top three in the league in runs allowed for the past three seasons, and that strong pitching has continued this season. Former first round pick Sonny Gray has emerged as the new ace for Oakland, replacing the void left by Lester and Samardijza. The right-hander is off to a great start this year, giving up just one earned run in two starts for an ERA of 0.59. The Royals have struggled against Gray in two starts, hitting just .184/.231/.265 against him, giving him a 1.93 ERA. Kansas City has fared much better against lefty Scott Kazmir, who has a 5.11 ERA in 17 starts against the Royals. Right-hander Jesse Hahn was acquired from the Padres this past winter, and the right-hander features a plus curveball, but a mediocre fastball and not much else in the secondary offerings.
Note: 2014 statistics
The A's bullpen imploded against the Royals last year in the Wild Card game, but many of those relievers are gone. Last year's closer Sean Doolittle is out with a strained rotator cuff, leaving closing duties to former Nats closer Tyler Clippard. Eric O'Flaherty returns from injury last season to serve as a lefty-specialist with Fernando Abad, with Dan Otero and Evan Scribner pitching from the right-handed side. Former Royals pitcher Jesse Chavez fills out the pen as the long man, despite a 3.44 ERA in 21 starts last year.
There should be great crowds at the K all weekend so plan accordingly. Billy Butler receives his American League Champions ring on Friday, and they'll hand out Gold Gloves to Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Eric Hosmer. On Saturday, the first 10,000 fans receive a replica American League Champions trophy. Sunday will be Scout Day with scouts such as my son in attendance.
And just in case you forgot what happened last time these two teams faced off.
I never tire of watching that.