For one more week, baseball will have Sunday all to itself. On September 7 comes the NFL, and the summer game's annual retreat from back pages around the country. The climax of the baseball season will come, as it has for decades, when most of America isn't watching. The eyeballs will return—some of them—in October and November, but for the next few weeks, baseball fans have their sport to themselves.
This is a very good thing, since national television is too clumsy a medium to access the fragile pleasures of playoff-chase baseball. For the next few weeks, the most important games of the season will be played between Oakland and Anaheim, St. Louis and Milwaukee, Detroit and—magnificently—Kansas City. ESPN and MLB Network will drop in on these rivalries occasionally, but for the most part, they will remain unobserved, invisible only to those in the cities concerned, or neutral fans who have MLB.tv and aren't afraid to use it. As summer rushes away, and the 2014 season wraps up, baseball fans are in a rare position. The most important games of the year are, somehow, under-hyped.
This weekend gave us three games between the A's and the Angels, the first of seven they will play as August bleeds into September. The Angels came to Oakland on Friday with a two-game lead in the West—and when second place will probably mean a wild card match against King Felix and the Mariners, the stakes are high. The game began with a wallop, as Mike Trout did his usual impossible thing, tapping a low breaking ball with the end of his bat, an obvious pop-up that, because of his deal with the baseball devil, crashed over the left-field fence to clatter around in some forgotten part of the Coliseum. Half an inning later, Coco Crisp did the exact same thing. Trout's home run went 385 feet. Crisp's went 386. The division race is on.
Friday's game, between two strong defensive teams whose offense has recently deserted them, was exactly what we expect from playoff baseball. Sonny Gray and Hector Santiago pitched beautifully—Gray with a precise 12-6 curve, Santiago with a sinister cutter—and whenever they stumbled, their defense picked them up.
As happens in important games, little moments became magnified. In the fifth inning, down by one with two men on, Gray gave up a line drive to short center field. In a flash I saw ruin for Oakland—the game blown open, the playoffs impossible, the Coliseum reduced to burning rubble—but shortstop Andy Parrino caught the ball just before it hit the ground, and stepped on second for the double play.
The tension rolled on, as Oakland tied the game and then inched ahead. In New York it was grey, the first chilly weekend of summer, and the air blowing into my window smelled like autumn. It was as captivating as anything October will offer us, but with none of the barriers that playoff baseball puts between us and the game. The MLB on Fox means half-baked graphics, asinine commentary, and guitar solos written for the NFL. On Friday in Oakland, the only music came from the drums in the Coliseum's right field.
Sonny Gray fell just short of the second complete game of his career, and the crowd said goodbye to him with a pristine roar. He tapped his cap, but did not smile. A's closer Sean Doolittle slogged through a save, allowing a run and loading the bases but finally winning 5-3. Accepting high fives, Gray stared past his teammates into the greasy light of the Coliseum, his mouth hard, looking like a teenage boy desperate to tell you about his knife collection.
The next night, Jon Lester controlled the Angels just as fully as Gray had the night before. It was a capacity crowd in Oakland, but because of the tarps on the upper deck, that means around 36,067. When the park is empty, this is heartbreaking, but when it's "full," the Coliseum offers the best atmosphere in the majors, with the kind of wild passion that comes from narrow concourses and cheap tickets.
Oakland led by one for most of the game, and Lester was good enough that this looked to be enough. In the bottom of the sixth, Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson was thrown out at home trying to add a second run. "Nooooo!" bellowed a fan, loud enough for the on-field mic to pick it up. "He was blocking the plate! Definitely blocking the plate! I bet it's overruled." The play was challenged, but after four and half minutes' deliberation about the home plate collision rule—long enough for the original play to have happened eighteen times—the play was upheld. It made me fear for the playoffs, when I expect I'll have to take up smoking again in order to keep myself occupied during the endless reviews.
Inspired by their video-certified play, the Angels tied the game in the seventh. In the eighth, Crisp singled, and then moved to third after a pair of groundouts. Angels reliever Joe Smith—who compensates for his vanilla name by throwing sidearm—threw a series of near-wild pitches, finally hitting one batter and throwing a ball to the backstop that let Crisp take the lead. Doolittle was back in the ninth to save it, his fans in right field headbanging to his walk-up music, and any Angel fan expecting him to struggle was disappointed. He was sharper than he had been the night before, and Oakland's 2-1 win tied the division.
Little connections between pitches, innings and games make this kind of series worth savoring. Sean Doolittle has a tough save Friday, an easy save Saturday, and an intercostal strain Sunday—another useful player lost to the disabled list. Mike Trout hits a home run, so Coco Crisp hits one farther. These incidents lend structure to a chaotic division race, and can be amusing to people who remember that they don't really mean anything. None of those people work for Fox.
In the playoffs, narrative is forced upon us, as broadcasters and columnists hammer home meaningless storylines like a presidential candidate selling talking points on the Sunday morning shows. A compelling narrative is a fragile thing, and only in the regular season is it given time to sprout naturally, to be appreciated only by those who are paying attention.
Balanced and delicate, these two games made me think of some Julia Child soup—a consommé enhanced by one or two lightly cooked vegetables, six ingredients crafted with love into something warming and perfect. Nationally broadcast baseball is brought to us by Guy Fieri—a triple-fried, Jack Daniel's-infused cheesy-blasted chicken explosion, so over-branded that we can hardly see the ingredients.
When I turned on Sunday night's game, the first thing I heard was John Kruk wheezing, "Shadows are going to be a factor today," and I knew I was watching national TV. The shadows were there because ESPN insisted the game start at 5 PM Pacific—a rotten time for a baseball game—and Kruk was talking about it because national baseball commentators are perversely compelled to spend five minutes an inning tracking the movement of the sun.
After two sublime games, we were in for a mess. Scott Kazmir got blown out, and the A's were down by nine in the bottom of the seventh. Two home runs woke up the crowd, who cheered like they had forgotten the score. The A's lost, 9-4 in the end, but the Oakland fans never stopped howling. This is August. It matters.
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