If not for the addition of a second wild-card team to the postseason, the A's would've been answering questions about one of the great collapses in baseball history instead of facing the Royals on Tuesday night in Kansas City, Mo.
The A's had the best record in baseball the first half, added two top starters in Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, and then went 16-30 down the stretch, nearly blowing a 10-game wild-card lead. Their .433 winning percentage in the second half is the worst of any postseason team in history, and they had to grab the last playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
But that's all history, and now the A's get a fresh start in a winner-take-all game for a shot at the Angels in the best-of-seven division series.
"All the naysayers and the negative vibes, they're all gone now," A's outfielder Josh Reddick said after Sunday's clincher. "We got in."
Royals ace James Shields will face the A's Lester in a matchup of two veterans with plenty of playoff experience.
The Royals won five of seven matchups this season and have no pressure on them because, well, they're the Royals. With an anonymous lineup and a manager in Ned Yost who's best known for being fired by the Brewers with his team on the verge of clinching a playoff spot, the Royals are the proverbial Cinderella.
The Royals' last postseason experience came in 1985, when they beat the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series marred by a controversial, game-changing call by umpire Don Denkinger in Game 6. Replay challenges should prevent a recurrence of that infamous moment.
As the least-known entity in the postseason, having been ignored by the national media most of the season, could the Royals win the hearts of baseball fans across America?
"I don't go out much, so I don't really know," Yost said. "I'm sure there's a lot of buzz and excitement (in Kansas City). … They've been waiting a long time for this."
The Royals are so bereft of actual stars their three relief pitchers at the back of the bullpen — closer Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis — are the team's nucleus. The three combined for a 1.28 ERA and 258 strikeouts in 2051/3 innings, offsetting a mediocre offense. The Royals are 72-1 when leading after seven innings and 79-1 when leading after eight.
"We've struggled offensively at times this year, but we're going into the playoffs because of our starting pitching and the back end of our bullpen and our defense," Yost said. "When you've got all three (relievers) where they haven't thrown three days in a row, it makes it, quite literally, a six-inning game.
"So if you feel you have the lead by the sixth inning, you feel really, really good about putting yourself in position to win that game.
The Royals were fourth in the majors in hitting with a .263 average. But with only 95 home runs they were the only team not to finish in triple digits. With 985 strikeouts, however, they were the only team under 1,000, and had 492 fewer strikeouts than the Cubs (1,477). They also ranked dead last in the majors in walks (380), while the A's hitters led everyone with 586 walks.
In other words, it's a power-free lineup that doesn't take a lot of pitches and probably doesn't scare opposing pitchers.
"It's a matter of timely hitting for us," hitting coach Dale Sveum said. "We'll get our guys on base. When we won 22 out of 30, we hit .322 with men in scoring position. But we get out of the zone a little bit. We're not going to pop three-run home runs or those kinds of things. When we get men out there, we need to get them in.
"We play good defense, and our outfield cuts down a lot of runs, especially late in games when you put (Jarrod) Dyson in. And when you've got a back end of the bullpen like that, it just shuts teams down."