The 1980s were a long time ago in terms of baseball years: performance-enhancing drug use wasn’t the big issue in terms of chemical substances, most MLB teams played in multi-purpose municipal stadiums, and the uniform pants were really tight.
It also was the last decade that the 2014 American League Wild Card participants — the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics — each won a World Series. Here are a the story lines going into Tuesday night’s Wild Card matchup.
1. Feels like Game Seven
The Royals host the Athletics in the AL wild-card game that will feel like a Game Seven, even if it isn’t. Kansas City will be rocking with its first playoff appearance since winning the Series in 1985. And if you thought the O.co Coliseum in Oakland was loud for AL Division Series games in 2012 and 2013, Kauffman Stadium might get louder. (Have you ever been to a Kansas City Chiefs’ game in nearby Arrowhead Stadium? Enough said.)
2. Long time coming
It’s been a long time since the Royals or the A’s won it all — the two teams used to do battle in the old AL West. The Royals won the division seven times between 1976 and 1985, culminating in the World Series championship 29 years ago with a seven-game thriller against in-state rival St. Louis. The A’s have won the AL West 16 times since divisional play began in 1969 — but Oakland has emerged victorious just twice in ten postseason series since winning the Bay Bridge matchup over the San Francisco Giants in 1989 with a four-game sweep.
3. Small payrolls
The A’s and the Royals are linked by this singular reality in 2014: they have small payrolls, and they’re trying to unseat the big boys at the table the old-fashioned way. Kansas City started the season 19th in payroll, Oakland 25th — yet here they are now. Seven of the 10 teams in the playoffs have $100 million-plus payrolls, leaving the AL’s underdogs to fight it out in the wild-card round for early playoff scraps.
4. Big-name pitchers
Both teams will start big-name pitchers tonight. Kansas City’s James Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA) and Oakland’s Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46 ERA) were acquired in big trades for just such an occasion: “Big Game” James won a game for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2008 World Series, while Lester was 3-0 in his Series starts for the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and 2013. Those are guys you want on the mound for a Game Seven, too.
5. What’s at stake
It will feel like a Game Seven because the loser goes home, literally: the winner advances to the ALDS to face the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday in Anaheim for the start of a five-game series. For the A’s, they may just feel lucky to be here after their 16-30 finish to the season, while the Royals are just happy to be here after a 29-year postseason drought.
6. Momentum coming in
This is Oakland’s third straight playoff appearance after losing in Game Five of the ALDS two years in a row to the Detroit Tigers at home. The A’s were midseason favorites to win it all, but they posted the worst second-half winning percentage ever for a playoff team. Meanwhile, Kansas City went 41-27 in the second half to almost overtake the Tigers for the AL Central title.
7. Matching up
Single-elimination games like this are a coin flip, though: the Royals won the season series (5-2), but they faced the A’s when Oakland was mired in a deep August slump. Oakland has the better run-scoring offense and better team ERA overall, but Kansas City’s defense is stellar — and the Royals steal bases like they own them.
Take your pick for the winner here, but keep this in mind: both teams are capable of being very good in a short series, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the winner of this game go all the way to the World Series.
That’s how you know it’s October baseball even if the calendar still says September.