A's wrap up year of great achievements
AL West title, berth in ALCS among team's 2006 highlights
DETROIT -- This was supposed to be the year for the Oakland A's, the year they rose back to the top and perhaps even above what they'd done earlier this decade -- and it was that kind of year.A great year. The best year in this run of talented A's teams, in the sense of its total accomplishment. A championship year. A year when the A's did rise above. Finally, the A's got past the American League Division Series and into the AL Championship Series after what seemed like endless dead ends, including a couple of abrupt halts when 100-win seasons were spoiled by three October losses. Playing in the ALCS for the first time since 1992 was an accomplishment in itself, a huge step forward for the franchise. But, as the Tigers showed, it takes a lot of things coming together in a season -- and a postseason -- to really make a great year the year. In the end, all those things didn't come together for the A's, and they couldn't take it all the way to where teams of previous decades had gone -- the World Series. They were mowed down by Motown in four games, reduced to a speed bump on the Motor City team's joyride to the Fall Classic. But 2006 was more than just the last four games, much more. It's hard to think beyond the recent past while you're still in the moment of being on the wrong end of a sweep, but 2006 can't possibly be defined by the ALCS, because 2006 was about so much more. It was about overcoming physical adversity -- shortstop Bobby Crosby and starter Rich Harden missing significant time, third baseman Eric Chavez never quite being healthy, and on down the line. It was about another new and exciting mix of young and old -- 38-year-old Frank Thomas becoming the latest and greatest veteran to contribute his expertise to a team that included a lot of twentysomethings. It was about reaching higher, and reaching the ALCS was higher ground, indeed -- with ace Barry Zito and Chavez finally getting to that next round. When it comes right down to it, 2006 was what it was supposed to be, or at least what it was hoped to be when the biggest transition of Team Transition took place two years ago. Really, 2006 was just what the team's architect had predicted. It's one of those statements that keeps resounding, not only because it ended up being true, but because it was shocking coming from its source, general manager Billy Beane. When the A's dealt away Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in a matter of days in the latter part of 2004, Beane had to admit the deals might not help the A's in 2005 -- but 2006, now, that could be a good year. Sure enough, it was. The A's won the AL West after the Angels had stood atop it in back-to-back seasons, and with a stirring sweep of the Twins in the Division Series, they made it where their predecessors had not -- the ALCS. They had team ace Zito on the mound for Game 1, and the anticipation was thicker than the marine layer at the Coliseum. But the southpaw, coming off the best regular season of his career since his Cy Young season in 2002 and a gem in the Division Series, didn't have it in Game 1, and the rest of the series followed in step with that rough beginning at McAfee Coliseum.
In the end, the toughest loss in the ALCS aside from the four on the scoreboard might have been that of second baseman Mark Ellis, who suffered a broken finger in the Division Series finale. The quintessential quiet key to success, Ellis was missed immensely in the ALCS. His generalship in the infield was missed. His scrappy presence in the lineup was missed. And his ability to make everything else around him fit together was missed.Milton Bradley had a huge series, but there wasn't enough help to go around. Rich Harden and Dan Haren put up starting performances in Detroit that were commendable, but they weren't quite enough to shut down the Motown momentum. Everything the A's could muster just wasn't enough this time. So, after this year of reaching new heights, Team Transition will be back at it again. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Zito will re-sign with the club, and there is a big decision to be made on Big Hurt. Beane and Co. will have their hands full to reinvent this team around a young and talented nucleus but, hey, what else is new? Actually, there is something new. The 2007 A's will be coming off a year in which they advanced in the playoffs, a year when they claimed a division championship. It just wasn't the year.
John Schlegel is the Executive Editor, West Divisions for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.