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Of the many possibilities, only one ballclub played Sunday afternoon to avoid elimination. And so it was that Felix Hernandez lifted his arms to the people of Safeco Field, and bowed to them, and held his hands to his heart. The Seattle Mariners were knocked out by a final score from some 1,700 miles away, after 161½ games, and it was Hernandez who said the thank yous, and the goodbyes.
The Mariners were out. Ten others were in. And chaos is overrated, unless you happen to regularly outfit yourself in northwest green and, every fifth day, a bedazzled paper crown.
A hit from Derek Jeter, a wave from Paul Konerko, a no-hitter from Jordan Zimmermann, a batting title from Jose Altuve, an aborted warm-up routine from Adam Wainwright, and the final Sunday of baseball's regular season ended pretty much as it began.
Oh, there was potential. There was drama. There were tears and celebration, regret and relief, trembling hands and promises for better. And that was just on the Oakland A's bus to the ballpark.
And, yet, by late afternoon, the teams that were ahead stayed ahead, and the teams that were so teasingly close behind stayed there, too.
So, no Monday games 163. No long, hard conversations about James Shields on three days' rest. Yet. And only a little bellowing about burning Gerrit Cole on a Hail Mary day in Cincinnati.
By the time the afternoon NFL games were letting out, the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers had held onto their division leads. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals were headed to wild-card games, and the A's had won a baseball game.
In Arlington, Sonny Gray, who is 24 and looks like he should have BB on his back, threw a 103-pitch, six-hit, gotta-have-it shutout. Nick Punto shredded his jersey. After double-checking his ID, teammates poured liquids over his head. The A's record was 21-33 the past two months. They were 15-30 since mid-August. They were tied with the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 25 and were the worst team in the American League after that. They were dreadful. So dreadful, in fact, that the Mariners got back into the wild-card race by losing 11 of 15 games from Sept. 9-24, and going 13-13 in all of September.
It was, then, atop loose knees and beneath foggy heads that the A's won Sunday afternoon, able to forget for a moment they'd had to equip their season with rear view cameras. For that, they will play in Kansas City on Tuesday, their Jon Lester against the Royals' James Shields.
"You know, it is, it's relief more than anything," A's manager Bob Melvin told reporters in Arlington postgame. "Some of these things, it nourishes character and makes you tougher and I think we're going to be that much better for it."
Or, as Josh Reddick said, "The last two months are forgotten now," at which point he danced around in some superhero undies and ensured there'd be a memory more indelible than the A's past two months.
Funny thing, by then, one may have swapped out the A's for the Tigers and had the very same conversation. Like the A's (Lester), the Tigers had drawn an ace at the trading deadline (David Price). Like the A's, the Tigers were favored in their division and, for a time, played as such. And like the A's, the Tigers did things like lose six of 11 games down the stretch, including losing Friday and Saturday nights by a combined 23-7 to the Minnesota Twins. At home.
On Sunday afternoon, hours before the A's were staggering across an infield to congratulate each other for not once passing out, the Tigers had held off the Royals by clinging to Price for eight innings and, against their better judgment, their bullpen for one. They beat the Twins 3-0, and then their TV guy was able to say, "It wasn't very easy…" without once throwing up in his mouth.
"It's been a battle of a season," Ian Kinsler said. "We're in. We're in."
In is in. Sure, some a little more than others. Wild-card in comes Tuesday for the Royals and A's, Wednesday for the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, what Dodgers manager Don Mattingly routinely called the "Russian Roulette round."
The alternative, however, is the groans from the crowd at Safeco Field, in the fourth inning there, when the A's pushed their lead in Texas to 4-0. The alternative is Lloyd McClendon in sunglasses and hoodie, sitting at the rail, rising slowly to go fetch Felix.
A party is better. A party with Reddick in his underwear is, well, better than no party, perhaps.
Sunday was, beyond all else, a very good show. Yeah, Jeter got a hit. Altuve got two. Juan Uribe managed a game in L.A. Bobby Abreu retired at 40, with nearly 2,500 hits. Zimmermann pitched a game, and Steven Souza made a catch, that captured a season in D.C. In their final 13 decisions, the Nationals' five starters were 13-0 with a 0.89 ERA.
Price was magnificent, as was the other Vandy guy, Sonny Gray. Joe Nathan saved the game in Detroit, and it sounded like the people there were chanting, "Let's go, Joe."
At the end, it was Josh Donaldson of the A's who made it all make sense. Over a sore knee, and with a bemused expression, and maybe a cup or two into the party, he said, "I really feel there's a reason we went through all this."
It's not just about the chaos, is it?
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