For those who don’t know the San Francisco Giants–Oakland Athletics rivalry, it follows a course of heavy ups and downs, hitting its peak at the 1989 World Series (Bay Bridge Series). Since then, the rivalry has come up short with the more recent playoff droughts and the usual season-by-season downturns for each respective team. But that all might end, come October. For the first time in over two decades, the Giants and A’s have a reasonable chance to renew their rivalry to the greatest-of-all heights.
The Athletics (84-63) are one of the stronger teams in the AL West, which stocks such title contenders as the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels. They produce a tough matchup problem for any team. First, Oakland boasts the league’s second best ERA, behind the NL East Washington Nationals, all with a nondescript roster that highlights the lowest payroll in all of the league. In fact, they have a bit of a who’s-who of emerging starters, which include four rookies and their lone veteran Brett Anderson.
“It’s remarkable what happens when you can pitch like the A’s and have players who are letting it hang loose,” Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “They have nothing to lose, and they’re playing like it. They have no fear. That’s how you win.”
The A’s have been the hottest team since the Midsummer Classic, posting an unfathomable 41-19. In the last ten games, they’ve posted a 8-2 record, all of which have been against playoff-caliber teams. It seems they’ve hit their stride at just the right time.
“We feel with our pitching staff, we can compete with any lineup — and we’ve proved that so far,” said catcher Derek Norris. “It is remarkable that these guys have come in and put up numbers. It’s very nice to see.”
But their Achillies’ heal lies in their hitting. The A’s have a troubling .236 batting average (29th in majors), on-base percentage (25th), runs (19th) and slugging percentage (18th). Their lack of run support could very well break up their Cinderella season, marking the end of Moneyball: The Second Coming.
However, the A’s match-ups through the American League are a bit more lax than that of the National League. Their division rival –the Rangers — poses the hardest matchup problem. Currently, Texas leads the AL-West with a three-game lead over the Athletics and are the offensive juggernaut. While slugger Josh Hamilton has imploded into a shell of his former self, regular contributions from Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre have buoyed their offensive efforts.
The Angels also make for some tough post-season competition. With the resurgence of Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and rookie Mike Trout, the Angels have climbed out of their early season slump to become a legitimate World Series title contender. And let us not forget about the rest of their starting rotation, which includes an NL Cy Young candidate in Jared Weaver.
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are a far cry from a once formidable, offensive powerhouse. The loss of first baseman Mark Teixeira, the steady decline of third baseman Alex Rodriguez and a slew of uneven pitching performances from their starting staff make them easy targets for a first-round playoff exit.
As for the Giants (84-63), they’ve been blessed with some timely hitting and some brilliant late-season acquisitions. The team has almost produced two NL MVP’s, Melky Cabrera and Buster Posey. Although the latter never cheated (and is not currently serving a 50-game suspension for PEDs). They’ve received some unlikely contributions from ex-Athletic Marco Scutaro and hot-hitting Joaquin Arias and Brandon Belt. But it’s their pitching that makes them a nasty threat in the playoffs.
In fact, their pitching staff ranks in the top ten in most every pitching category. Matt Cain has had another stellar NL Cy Young-caliber year, while Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have continued their 2011 dominance into the first-half of the 2012 season. Even Tim Lincecum is starting to settle down, winning two of his last three games.
But unlike the AL, the NL boasts some tougher competition. First, they’ll have to contend against the MLB’s best team, the Nationals. While the team might be reeling from the shutdown of starting ace Stephen Strasburg (due to off-season Tommy John surgery), Washington still boasts the league’s best ERA (without their 24-year-old prodigy), along with a 19-win season from Gio Gonzalez. They even out their contributions with NL Rookie of the Year candidate Bryce Harper and power hitting Adam LaRoche to give them a steady diet of run support.
Moreover, the Cincinnati Reds have one of the more balanced teams in the majors. It boasts Cy Young candidate Jose Cuerto (2.92 ERA) in its arsenal, along with developing arms Bronson Arroyo and Matt Latos. On the offensive side of the ball, Jose Bruce has slugged his way into NL MVP consideration with a 33 homer, 96 RBI, 84 run season thus far. And Ryan Ludwick and Brandon Phillips give the team a consistent offensive boost.
The Athletics have emerged as the best team in the second-half of the season, beyond all odds. Their pitching staff will keep them in tight ball games as they hope to position themselves into the first wild card spot. If they upend Texas for the AL-West crown, their road to the World Series would be significantly impacted, forgoing a fickle, one-game playoff for the inevitable final wild card spot. But if the standings hold, then their route to the playoffs will be much tougher, but they still remain the hotter team than their cross-town rivals.
On the other hand, the Giants have surged up the NL-West standings and sit comfortably in first place with an eight-game lead over the second-place Dodgers. However, they might be tested early in the playoffs with superior NL competition. And questions still remain on whether the Giants can weather the storm of slumping Bumgarner, Vogelsong and third baseman Pablo Sandoval. But the Giants have a better overall team on paper. Set with two-time Cy Young winner Lincecum, 2012 Cy Young candidate Cain and likely NL MVP Posey, San Francisco has the ingredients (and the playoff experience) that sets them apart from the Athletics.