The unorthodox Oakland Athletics. Under the supervision of general managing guru Billy Beane, they found themselves with a very good ball club, albeit with a lot of players the rest of the league deemed unable to efficiently contribute to a big league club. After the major names of Oakland departed, like Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, things looked bleak. That is, until Beane spun some magic and brought in a bunch of outcasts that ultimately meshed and formed some good baseball clubs.
Coming into play on September 4, 2002, the Oakland Athletics had seen themselves winning 19 straight games, tying the 1906 Chicago White Sox and the 1947 New York Yankees for the 7th longest winning streak in MLB history.
Following an off day, the A’s went into a Wednesday night game in Oakland against the Kansas City Royals, seeking a two game sweep. The Royals certainly weren’t an intimidating opponent to face when seeking to make history; Kansas City went into that night holding on to a record of 55-83, but of course, as we all know, the best team in baseball doesn’t always win. In fact, the best team usually loses about 62 games.
Starting the game for Oakland was Tim Hudson, who was in his fourth season at the time, and who will likely see his way into Cooperstown at some point. Then for Kansas City, Paul Byrd, who was a veteran by that time, and was in the middle of his career, and was actually having a pretty good season (3.90 ERA, 17-11).
The veteran righty, though, couldn’t see his way into any deeper than the 1st inning. While he did ultimately make it out of the 1st, Byrd faced 10 batters, giving up six hits and six runs along the way, all earned.
Ray Durham got things started for Oakland with a leadoff triple to right field. John Mabry approached the plate second in the inning, singling and easily bringing in Durham to score. 1-0, Oakland. Miguel Tejada strolls up third, gets hit by pitch, so Mabry advances to second. Eric Chavez singles to left, Mabry scores, and then Tejada subsequently scores on an error in right field, advancing Chavez to third. 3-0, Oakland. Jermaine Dye triples to right, scoring Chavez. 4-0, Oakland. Following a David Justice strikeout, Mark Ellis hits a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Dye. 5-0, Oakland. Terrence Long doubles, and then Ramon Hernandez doubles, as well. 6-0, Oakland. The Athletics bat around and Ray Durham concludes the bottom of the 1st inning with a fly ball to deep left field.
By this point, Oakland had altered its probability to win from 50% to start the game to 93% by the time they took the field to begin the 2nd inning. Oakland would go on to score once more in the 2nd, and then four times in the 3rd. Going into the 4th inning, the A’s led it 11-0, at which point the statistics read that they had a 99.9% chance to win the game.
Going into the 4th, Hudson had pitched three scoreless innings, but that wouldn’t last for long. In the 4th, Hudson gave up 5 runs, only of 2 of which were earned. Oakland’s probability to win doesn’t change much, though, dropping to 97%. Regardless, they still lead 11-5, and teams don’t often post comebacks after facing such large deficits.
The game then saw three straight scoreless innings through the 5th, 6th, and 7th. Chad Bradford entered the game for Oakland, still holding an 11-5 lead. His task was simple: don’t give them hope. Don’t give them an opportunity to make a game of this – just get some work in; just play catch. But it ended up not being so simple. To begin the inning, Bradford issued two walks, and then a single, loading the bases. On a fielder’s choice that didn’t yield an out, one run scores. 11-6. That signals the end of Bradford’s night, and then Ricardo Rincon came in to make an appearance. Rincon didn’t end up having a stellar year, posting an ERA close to 5 out of the bullpen, but Oakland was working with a five run lead still, so it was a relatively low risk move, despite having runners on. Rincon picks up a strikeout of Michael Tucker, bringing the out total to one. After that, Carlos Beltran hit a sacrifice fly, which scores the runner, Brown, from third, and advances Perez to third. 11-7. Jeff Tam then replaces Ricardo Rincon, becoming the third pitcher of the inning for Oakland. But he would face Mark Sweeney with two outs and two on. On a 3-2 count, Sweeney gets a pitch he likes, and with a crack of the bat, sends the ball sailing over the fence for a three run shot. 11-10. Micah Bowie comes in and gets Raul Ibanez to ground out after that to end the inning, but the Royals are firmly placed back in this game. Oakland Athletics chance to win: 86%, which is still good, but in an 11-10 game, it feels a lot closer to 50/50, especially after such a deflating experience watching Kansas City come back.
Oakland fails to do anything in the bottom of the 8th, so all eyes are on Kansas City. Can they score and tie the game, or maybe take the lead and end Oakland’s winning streak? Billy Koch came in the top of the 9th to try to save the game for Oakland. A game in which a few innings ago they certainly wouldn’t have thought they’d need a closer. Koch ended the 2002 campaign with 44 saves, but this wouldn’t be one of them. Joe Randa led off the inning with a single to center, and then Kit Pellow pinch ran for Randa at first. Brent Mayne got the sacrifice bunt down, which advanced the tying run Pellow to second. Dee Brown struck out swinging. Two outs. Neifi Perez was slated to hit next, but Luis Alicea pinch hit for him, lining a 1-2 pitch to center. Pellow scores from second. 11-11. Alicea advanced to second on a wild pitch, and then is caught trying to steal third. But the damage is done. The Athletics massive 11-0 lead in such an important game is now gone. Kansas City utilized two five run innings, and then a little bit of small ball to take the wind out of the sails of the city of Oakland.
Jason Grimsley came into the bottom of the 9th and gets Dye to fly out. Then stepped in was Scott Hatteberg, who most, prior to his stint in Oakland, had cast off as a catcher that was injured and could never be an effective player in the big leagues again. But Billy Beane saw something in the numbers that interested him, and made him want him on his team. That move paid off overall, but it definitely paid off in this at-bat. Hatteberg saw a 1-0 pitch he liked and drove it. When it came down, it was in the right-center field bleachers. 12-11. The Oakland Athletics had done it. In a wild game in Oakland, they emerged victorious, extending their winning streak to 20 games. An incredible feat. The closest to reaching that tally in recent times was the 1987 Brewers, who won 16 straight.
Of course, this is where the Athletics streak would end. Following an off day, they lost 6-0 in Minnesota to the Twins.
The Oakland Athletics ultimately finished the season 103-59 (.636), finishing 1st in the American League West, and they finished only behind the Yankees in terms of win percentage and losses (.640, 103-58). The Yankees only played 161 games because their final game was postponed, and they were never able to make it up, not that it would’ve mattered because they had a 10.5 game lead in the American League East. The A’s ended the season in a 3-2 American League Division Series loss to the Minnesota Twins. Not only did Minnesota end the winning streak, it ended the season for a stellar Oakland team. While going on to win the West in 2003, 2006, 2012, and 2013, Oakland hasn’t seen the same amount of success since the 2002 season, They made it to the American League Championship Series only once, and that was in 2006, but they were swept by the Tigers that year. The Athletics enter play September 4, 2016, with a 57-78 record, and aren’t competitive in any sense.