Pitching wins in October. Heck, pitching wins from April through September, too. So, you can understand why the Oakland Athletics pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade this summer to land ace lefty Jon Lester.
Since the move was made Lester has been just fine. The problem for the A’s lies in what they’ve been missing from the guy they shipped to Boston. That something is more than just offensive production and flashy assists.
Yoenis Cespedes provided Oakland with a big bat. All signs suggest his departure from the team had a direct impact on their monumental slide that almost cost them a playoff spot. Since July 31, the day of the trade, the Athletics have been shut out in seven games. They went from one of the top offensive teams in Major League Baseball to one of the worst. The lack of punch post-Cespedes shows in the wins and losses. Oakland’s second half winning percentage of .433 is the lowest of any postseason team since 1933. The slide started before Cespedes was shipped to Beantown but it really snowballed since he’s been gone.
Luckily for the A’s, their hot start to the season coupled with Seattle’s inability to take advantage of their near epic swoon was just enough to get them into the postseason. But now a team that once had dreams of home field throughout the playoffs will have to win a do or die game just to get into the ALDS.
The Athletics’ run production has hit the skids since Lester came to town. They were averaging about 5.0 runs per game prior to the much ballyhooed transaction. That number has hovered around the 3.5 runs per game mark ever since. The stats clearly show the club has suffered offensively without the Home Run Derby champion, but it goes beyond that. Cespedes is one of the most capable outfielders in the game. His highlight reel contains not just the long ball but his cannon arm. Cespedes’ gun would make Colavito and Clemente smile. Bo Jackson should be proud. There’s more. Cespedes wasn’t just the team’s best slugger and a defensive guru, he was in many ways the heart of the group. Cespedes exuded confidence. He had that gravitas that gave the A’s their once mighty swagger. Pitches feared throwing to him while fans and teammates loved his passion for the game. Moving Cespedes almost cost Oakland a postseason spot. Almost. They avoided being grouped with the 1969 Cubs and 2007 Mets. Oakland is in it (no matter how ugly the journey) and they’re here to win it.
Adam Dunn was picked up by the A’s in a late season move with the White Sox. If he can get a hold of a pitch here and there it may be just enough to fill the Cespedes void. But even if Dunn comes through, Oakland will need more. Besides losing Cespedes, other hitters that are still in the green and gold have struggled mightily. Brandon Moss has hit only two home runs since late July. Josh Donaldson has also been sub par. Both are playing hurt. Unless Oakland goes on an unexpected tear at the plate, their chances for their first pennant since 1990 will rely heavily on pitching. Enter Lester.
Since taking his talents to the Bay Area, Lester has done his part. He’s 6-4 with a tidy ERA of 2.35. Oakland is 7-4 in games Lester starts. They are well under .500 in games started by others. Not only is he pitching well now, he’s done this before. The veteran has six career postseason victories, three of those in the World Series. His postseason ERA is a sparkling 2.11. He’s done it in pressure situations again and again. Against Kansas City in the American League Wild Card game he’ll have a chance to do it again. The Athletics are counting on him. The franchise known for Money Ball expects Lester to be money when it matters most. They wouldn’t have traded their biggest offensive threat for him if they felt otherwise.