Sports Athletics Continue Their Surge and Deal the Yankees a Setback
OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Yankees had a managerial opening last November, General Manager Brian Cashman contacted the Oakland Athletics and asked to interview their manager, Bob Melvin.
Permission was denied, which allowed Melvin on Monday to muse about the playoffs in a way that the manager who did get the job in the Bronx, Aaron Boone, is rarely caught doing.
“Look,” Melvin said. “If you asked me this in spring training, I’d have been thrilled to death to get to a wild-card game. So, things happen — your reality is where you are right now.”
Where the Athletics are at the moment is happily and unexpectedly charging forward, their surge toward the playoffs continuing Monday with a 6-3 victory over the Yankees.
A Labor Day crowd of 40,546 — large enough to merit opening the upper deck — watched as the two teams, who may meet in the wild-card playoff game, played to their recent form. The Athletics, whose 28-14 record since the All-Star break is the best in baseball, closed to three and a half games behind the Yankees, who are currently in position to hold home-field advantage in the one-game playoff.
“Any time you’re out there contending, it’s fun and more exciting,” A’s first baseman Matt Olson said. “To be in contention, to have these games matter — it’s awesome.”
The Athletics, though, still have plenty to play for beyond the wild-card game. They also remained within two and a half games of the Houston Astros in the American League West. The Yankees, though, fell to eight and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox in the A.L. East.
Such a large gap in the division, coupled with their languid play in recent weeks, has left the Yankees in a position where their most tangible goal the rest of the season is to regain their health and form for the wild-card game.
On that front, the best news they received Monday was that Aaron Judge, out since July 26 with a fractured wrist, hit 25 balls off a tee and reported no problems. He could begin taking live at-bats next week.
“It’s still broken so there is some soreness that comes with that,” Judge said. “But for the most part I’m feeling great, so it’s a good sign.”
The return of Judge — along with that of shortstop Didi Gregorius and closer Aroldis Chapman — might jolt the Yankees into resembling the team that looked every bit as good as the Red Sox for three months. But the return of Gary Sanchez and the addition of Andrew McCutchen in a trade have not provided much of a spark in the last three days. They are each 1 for 11, and Sanchez struck out against the former Mets closer Jeurys Familia with two runners on to end the eighth inning.
Trevor Cahill, who entered Monday winless against the Yankees with an 11.73 earned run average in five career starts, held them to four hits — one of which was a two-run homer by Luke Voit — in five innings. The Yankees had been the only A.L. team the 30-year-old Cahill, a journeyman right-hander, had never beaten.
“I didn’t want to bring that up, but I knew that,” Cahill said with a smile. “Definitely more adrenaline. I wanted to pitch well against them.”
It wasn’t just Cahill: The Yankees were held hitless by five relievers from the Athletics’ fortified bullpen.
The roots of the Athletics’ ascent began in the Bronx in May, when they lost two of three to the Yankees — one on a walk-off hit by Neil Walker — then went to Fenway Park and won two of three against Boston before sweeping four games in Toronto. A team with young talent began to believe.
“That was the start of when some of these younger guys realized that we had the ability to compete with the best teams in the league,” said second baseman Jed Lowrie, who is in his second tour here. “I think that was the first step in where we are now.”
A month later, it all came together. A team that was 34-36 on June 15 is 49-20 since.
“We know our strengths,” shortstop Marcus Semien said. “We hit the ball out of the ballpark, we’re playing pretty good defense, we’re athletic and the starters have been grinding and the bullpen has been elite.”
On Monday, the Athletics managed only a solo home run by Mark Canha, but they were better than the Yankees by virtually every other measure.
C.C. Sabathia’s fourth-inning exit was as premature as it was disappointing. It was not, however, unexpected. The 38-year-old Sabathia has rarely pitched well at the old Coliseum, a half-hour south of the town of Vallejo where he grew up. He is 5-8 with a 5.38 E.R.A. here.
“It just wasn’t my day today,” Sabathia said.
His afternoon, which began with Luis Cessa hurriedly warming up behind him during a rough first inning, ended when Semien lashed a double into the left-field corner leading off the fourth. It snapped a string of 10 hitless at-bats against Sabathia by Semien.
The Yankees still have a month to regain their groove, but on Monday it looked as if there was only one team that was roused by the crowd, and playing as if something were at stake.
“Once we win a ballgame, we usually check how the Astros did; that’s our division,” Semien said. “But you have to handle your business. It’s a long season, but when you win, you don’t feel as tired. You just want to keep going.”