Home-field advantage on the line in A's final stretch
Oakland vies to overtake Boston while fending off Detroit among AL division champs
SEATTLE -- While the A's have been chasing the Red Sox all week, with home-field advantage throughout the postseason still within reach, they've also had a target on their own backs, too.
Oakland's second consecutive loss to the Angels on Wednesday, coupled with Boston's win in Colorado, gives the Red Sox a cozy two-game lead over the A's for the American League's best record and the right to play the winner of the AL Wild Card Game, with just three games to be played by both clubs following Thursday's off-day.
All the while, it's been the Tigers making the most movement, albeit quietly, up the standings. In clinching the AL Central on Wednesday, Detroit also positioned itself within just one game of the A's for home-field advantage in at least the AL Divisional Series.
The A's -- playing in Seattle this weekend against a Mariners club they haven't been able to figure out this year, winning just six of their first 16 games vs. the fourth-place team -- need to win at least two games to lock down home-field advantage for the ALDS. In that scenario, even if the Tigers win three and finish with the same record as the A's, Oakland holds the edge thanks to a 4-3 showing with Detroit this year.
Even if they get swept by Seattle to finish 94-68, the A's would still have home field against the Tigers as long as Detroit only wins one of three in Miami. But to lose three games and watch the Tigers win two against the Marlins, well, that's exactly how the A's could lose home-field advantage altogether.
And that's why Oakland's focus on this final weekend of regular-season play hasn't strayed. That's why manager Bob Melvin continues writing out his lineup the same way he's done every other game that preceded Sunday's clincher.
"We know how important these last few games are," said catcher Stephen Vogt. "Yes, we've clinched, and yes, it's nice to know we've clinched, but at the same time, we want home-field advantage. The fact that everyone is still playing every day, going out there trying to win just the same, we want to treat these games as if they're playoff games. You want to maintain that mindset and not let up, because you want to keep the same feeling you have, you want to ride that into the playoffs, rather than back down a few days and then try to pick it back up."
"We're not playing these last few games just to play them because the schedule tells us to," added lefty Brett Anderson. "They're meaningful, so you can't just have a couple days to let down. You want to play well now to position yourself well throughout the postseason, and I think it could be really beneficial."
Anderson understands firsthand just how significant home-field advantage can be, pitching -- and winning -- in front of a deafening home crowd at the Coliseum in Game 3 of last year's ALDS against the Tigers.
This isn't anything groundbreaking. Any team would prefer to play at home, to remain in the confines of a park they know better than their opponents, and to avoid travel -- particularly of the long-distance kind, like the A's and Tigers are primed to do -- if possible at the start.
But does home-field advantage even matter? Recent history suggests we may as well just flip a coin.
Going back 10 years to the last 20 ALDS matchups, the team with home-field advantage has won exactly 50 percent of the time. Even clubs that enter it as the top seed have had their struggles. Of the 10 top seeds that have entered the postseason over the past five years, accounting for both the AL and the National League, only the 2009 Yankees won their league pennant. Six were gone by the end of the Division Series.
Is there a more intimidating stage than Yankee Stadium? Following last year's Division Series win against the A's, Detroit's Prince Fielder said he was more than ready to play in New York for the AL Championship Series after experiencing postseason play at the Coliseum.
That's right. Oakland's antiquated ballpark, which doubles as a football field and has its share of sewage issues, can be a real hazard for opposing players -- but for other reasons unrelated to its obsolete facilities.
"The way the fans are, you have to think that level of noise affects them some," said Anderson. "The atmosphere last year was something I had never seen before. I kept telling people it was more like a college football game. Baseball, for the most part, even in the playoffs, there's some downtime, time that's subdued. But last year, from the first pitch to the last out, it was constant audible noise. It was crazy. And then you hear the other team saying that was the loudest place they'd ever played in, above and beyond other places, that says a lot.
"Obviously it didn't affect [Justin] Verlander too much, but other guys, maybe."
Verlander had no trouble fending off the green-and-gold fanatics to secure his Tigers a Game 5 victory at the Coliseum last year. He did, however, pick up a loss in his own home park just last month to an A's team that promises it's much more equipped to push past the ALDS this year.
Oakland hasn't won an ALDS since 2006. It hasn't won a game in the ALCS since 1992. And, of course, the A's last World Series win dates back to 1989.
"I feel that all around, we're a better team than last year," said Josh Donaldson. "I feel like we have a bunch of guys that have a little bit more savvy to them, knowing we've been here, we've done that a little bit. These guys understand the situation and understand what it takes to go out there and win a game."
Even the outsiders are catching on.
"They became a champion last year. It's amazing what happens when you become a champ," said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "They believe. They show up every day and bring that attitude. They had nothing to do but get better."
"Last year was remarkable," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "I think that the transformation of that team from the first half of the year to winning the division was incredible. They've all pitched incredible baseball last year and they're carrying it over this year. They're getting a great mix on the offensive side with power. It's a great run, and you have to tip your cap to them. They've certainly put together two seasons that are championship caliber. Bob Melvin has done an incredible job. I think he has a great feel for how he is using guys, how all the pieces fit in, and they're playing great baseball."
In fact, the A's were playing like a team possessed before dropping two of three to Scioscia's Angels this week, winning 21 of their previous 27. That's the type of club they aim to be this weekend.
"We're playing to win, because home-field advantage is very important," said Melvin. "I really don't see a letdown, and I wouldn't expect one with kind of the carrot that's still out there."