Barry Bonds‘ greatness. The Milwaukee Brewers’ futility. Lots of baseball on television. The Oakland A’s owning the second half. All just some of the things we’ve come to know as the core elements of 21st century baseball.

Not this year. With Friday night’s loss to the Mariners, the A’s are just 7-9 in September, dropping them to 38-23–still quite good–since the All-Star break. Instead of taking control of the AL West, though, they’re just one game up on the Angels in the division, and in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 1999.

This is highly unlike recent A’s teams, which have treated the AL in the second half as their own personal playground:

         Second half     September/October

2003        42-27              14-11
2002        53-21              18-8
2001        58-17              23-4

The 2003 record understates the case, as the A’s lost some games after locking up the division in the season’s last week. This year’s team, however, despite having a better offense than the last couple of editions, is struggling to find third gear and take control of the division. They haven’t won a game by more than one run since September 4.

While last night’s loss was a failure of the bullpen–allowing five runs in the seventh inning to one of the worst lineups in baseball–the A’s real problem right now is their vaunted rotation. Even after Barry Zito‘s effective start last night, A’s starters have allowed 69 runs in 89 2/3 innings this month, a 6.92 R/9. In the second half–even tossing out three starts with a 9.00 R/9 by Kirk Saarloos–they’ve given up 194 runs in 270 innings, a 4.72 RA. Compare those figures to the numbers put up by the regular rotation–excluding spot or end-of-season starters–the last couple of seasons:

         Second half     September/October

2003         3.87               4.02
2002         3.35               3.34

(I can’t access 2001 data. Sorry.)

Typically, the A’s stop allowing the opposition to score in the second half, with a a run of excellent starts leading to long winning streaks. To a certain extent, they got that in August, going 20-8, but even then they weren’t getting consistent pitching. With the exception of a stretch at the end of August against the Devil Rays and Orioles, the A’s haven’t strung more than three quality starts together in the second half.

What has to be frustrating is that the A’s aren’t taking advantage of their best offense in years. They’re sixth in the AL with a .265 EqA, and only second base has been a year-long problem. They’re getting on base better than any A’s team since the 2000 edition, posting a .346 OBP that’s fourth in the league. Given the problems the A’s had scoring runs last year, to have the offense right itself only to have the pitching go south can’t be easy for their fans to watch.

As I was working on this article, it was pointed out that the A’s teams who ran roughshod in the second half the past few seasons were also the ones that lost in the first round, so maybe this wasn’t such a bad sign. The problem with that is the A’s poor September play is actually endangering their chance to reach the postseason. They’re down to playing for one spot, and with a one-game lead for that spot, and six games left with the Angels, this race has basically no favorite.

My bigger problem with this notion is that there’s no evidence for the idea that teams which enter the playoffs hot do worse than teams that enter cold. We know that clinching early has tangible benefits–think the A’s wouldn’t have like to be able to set their rotation for the Division Series back in 2000?–but there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between how you play in September and how you play in October.

The A’s have to get their rotation together, or they might find out that there are worse fates than losing in the Division Series.

I understand blackout rules. However, the fact that I and millions of other baseball fans can’t see great matchups today like Yankees/Red Sox and Giants/Padres reflects a short-sighted fealty to antiquated concepts like exclusivity periods. Baseball needs to get its most exciting games in front of a national audience, and not doing so on a weekend like this is a huge mistake.

This comes on the heels of consecutive Saturdays–September Saturdays–on which there was no over-the-air national baseball presence.

Take less money and more control, MLB. It’s a long-term outlook that will do more for the game than the extra bucks you make in exchange for letting Fox treat you like…well, like the A’s used to treat the AL in September.

Thank you for reading

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