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The Weekend Takeaway
Yoenis Cespedes made a name for himself months before the Athletics signed him to a four-year, $36 million deal this past offseason. His workout video took care of that. But the 26-year-old rookie didn’t just want to be known—he wanted to be remembered. And, on Sunday, in the 126th game of his major-league career, Cespedes began etching his name in franchise lore.

The A’s went 4-6 on their recent 10-game road trip through Detroit, New York, and Arlington, doing just enough to avoid putting their hold on the American League’s second wild-card berth in jeopardy. They beat the Mariners in the first two games of a six-game, season-ending homestand, inching closer to a postseason spot that just months ago seemed unfathomable. But on Sunday, after the Rays had defeated the White Sox and the Angels had taken the first game of their doubleheader with the Rangers, the A’s came into the eighth inning of their series finale against Seattle in a 2-2 tie.

The stakes were high: a loss would thrust Tampa Bay and Anaheim, whose hopes had been dwindling, back into the race; a win would leave Oakland’s remaining competitors on life support. A loss would put the pressure on the A’s, with the Rangers, the best team in the junior circuit, coming to town the next day; a win would put the home nine on the doorstep of the playoffs and give Bob Melvin’s team control over its own destiny for a division title that no one thought it could win.

Cespedes had already left his stamp on Sunday’s game, showcasing his speed on a first-inning RBI triple and then again on Brandon Mossensuing sacrifice fly. His bat and legs helped to produce the A’s first two runs, the only runs they would score off of Seattle starter Erasmo Ramirez and reliever Charlie Furbush. With one out and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth, Cespedes launched a moonshot down the left-field line, waited to see if it would stay fair, saw it settle to the right of the pole in the BBQ Terrace, and began his 23rd trot of the season with the 21,057 fans at the Coliseum in a frenzy. Josh Reddick added a two-run insurance homer minutes later, and Grant Balfour closed out the 5-2 win, but it was Cespedes who fueled the most important rally of the season to date.

The 3-for-4 outing improved Cespedes’ triple slash to .291/.353/.509, which might have been good for Rookie of the Year honors in any other season. He is only the third player in the modern era to hit at least 23 home runs and steal at least 16 bases in his first tour of the majors, joining Darryl Strawberry (1983) and Marty Cordova (1995). And he may be the most dynamic offensive player to begin his big-league career in Oakland since Jose Canseco in the mid-1980s.

Geoff Young wrote about Cespedes’ impressive stateside debut three weeks ago, noting the similarities between his production and that of Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Ben Badler tweeted on Sunday that Cespedes has immediately lived up to all expectations that scouts had for him. And, perhaps most impressively, Cespedes has shown tangible improvements over the course of the season.

After striking out in 48 of his 218 first-half plate appearances (22 percent), Cespedes has done so in only 53 of his 309 trips since the All-Star break (17 percent), resulting in a 40-point hike in his batting average and a 100-point bump in his OPS. He has also improved as a base stealer, succeeding on 10 of 11 second-half tries after going 6-for-8 in the first half. And he has made smooth transitions between left field and center field, contributing to the A’s sixth-ranked PADE. With a .317 TAv and 4.0 WARP, Cespedes has earned his $6.5 million 2012 salary with plenty of room to spare, ranking among the best bargains of the past winter and the prettiest feathers in Billy Beane’s cap.

But as MLB’s slogan for the 2011 postseason said, “Legends are made in October.” And if Cespedes wants Oakland fans to remember the first chapter of his big-league career, now is the time to capture their hearts.

The A’s need one win over the Rangers—or one loss each by the Angels and Rays—to clinch a one-game playoff with the Orioles or Yankees. They need three wins to shock the world with their first West division title since 2006. Their first, and perhaps best, chance comes tonight, behind rookie Jarrod Parker, Oakland’s current de facto ace. Parker beat the Rangers with six innings of three-run ball on Sept. 26, when the A’s sent fellow first-year pitcher Martin Perez to the showers with only two outs to his name. Cespedes got the ball rolling with an RBI triple in the first inning that day, just as he did on Sunday afternoon, and he’ll try to set the tone for Oakland again tonight (10:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday

  • When the schedule makers set the Red Sox up for a visit to the Bronx to close out the regular season, they probably envisioned a three-game showdown for all the division marbles. Instead, the most the visitors can do this week is be a thorn in the Yankees’ sides, as New York tries to fend off Baltimore for the crown. CC Sabathia, who appears to have righted his ship with consecutive double-digit strikeout outings against the Athletics and Twins, coughed up six runs in as many innings in his lone meeting with the Red Sox this season, back on July 28. The southpaw will try to maintain his recent success in this final tune-up for the playoffs, facing Clay Buchholz, who has worked at least six innings in 18 of his last 19 starts (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • The Orioles punched their playoff tickets when the Rangers defeated the Angels last night, but Buck Showalter’s team has its sights set on bigger things, entering the last series of the season in a first-place tie with the Yankees at 92-67. Baltimore carries a four-game winning streak into its series opener at Tropicana Field, where the Rays must sweep the O’s to keep their postseason hopes alive. Tonight, Showalter will send Wei-Yin Chen, who has logged a 3.38 ERA in four starts against Tampa Bay this year, to the mound to take on Alex Cobb. That’s bad news for B.J. Upton, who homered twice in Sunday’s win over the White Sox but is just 1-for-12 with five strikeouts against Chen. Be sure to keep an eye on this one if it’s close in the late innings, as Rays closer Fernando Rodney is just one-third of an inning away from breaking Dennis Eckersley’s single-season ERA record (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • Preseason projections had the American League Central tabbed as the most lopsided of the six divisional races, yet despite all the twists and turns of the past 159 games, it appears that virtually everyone will have picked its winner correctly. The Tigers need just one win over the Royals or one White Sox loss to the Indians to make their fans forget a disappointing first six months. Prince Fielder’s eighth-inning homer on Sunday, his 30th of the season, was the difference in a 2-1 victory at Target Field that cut Detroit’s magic number to one. It capped a fine September for the portly first baseman, who managed only an 885 OPS before the All-Star break, but ranks second in the American League—behind his teammate, Miguel Cabrera—with a 987 mark in the second half. Fielder will try to back Rick Porcello, who must hold the Royals to no more than seven hits to avoid a rather dubious distinction. No pitcher has allowed 230 or more hits in a season of fewer than 180 innings since Paul Byrd in 2006, and only two others—then-starter LaTroy Hawkins in 1999, and Jack Lamabe, whose most notable achievement is wearing seven different uniforms in as many big-league seasons, in 1964—have done it since 1950 (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • Taking two of three from the Nationals put the Cardinals within a win of the senior circuit’s last playoff berth, but the Dodgers’ five-game winning streak prevented St. Louis from sealing its spot this past weekend. Mike Matheny’s team will likely have to earn its place in the wild-card playoff, because it wraps up the season against the Reds—who are even with the Nats at 96-63 and remain in the running for the number-one seed—while the Dodgers host the Giants, who are almost certain to be the third-ranked division winner. The biggest key for the Cards, though, will be getting Matt Holliday healthy and back on track. After a red-hot summer, the 32-year-old outfielder struggled to the tune of a 20-for-89 (.225 average) line last month, and he took a Christian Garcia fastball to the elbow in Friday’s win. Holliday is 12-for-41 (.293/.356/.585) lifetime with three home runs off Bronson Arroyo, who opposes Jaime Garcia in game one at Busch Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET).

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Thanks to GBSimons for pointing out via email that the A's opponent in the one-game playoff won't necessarily be the Orioles, since the AL East is still up for grabs. That's now fixed in the post.