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A’s can determine wild-card fate

OAKLAND, Calif. — Can two games played well offset five weeks of games played poorly?

That’s the question facing the A’s as they come off their final off-day of the regular season.

Wins Saturday and Sunday came at the right time — in Seattle with the Mariners chasing the A’s in the American League wild-card derby.

After losing 22 of 31, the A’s are feeling the easing of some of the weight of a monstrous collapse. There are 13 games left in the season, and 10 of them are against last-place teams Texas (seven) and Philadelphia (three).

“The A’s did what they had to do this weekend,” one American League executive said. “They put themselves in position to just play the season out to get to the playoffs. If they play their game, they’re in. They don’t need help.

“What they’ve done to Seattle is make sure the Mariners have to watch the scoreboard. The Mariners need help to get in.”

That’s because the Kansas City Royals are in the mix, too, and entered Monday a half-game ahead of the Mariners in the wild-card standings, and the Mariners have two series left with the hottest team in baseball, the Los Angeles Angels. The Royals’ schedule is no cakewalk, but they do have two series against a Chicago White Sox team that’s nothing special.

One could argue the A’s need help, too. They scored only seven runs in those two wins, about what they have been scoring (3.42) in the skid that has taken them from the best record in baseball to just another team hoping to make the playoffs. That “nothing special” White Sox team took three of four from the A’s early last week with the A’s still struggling to score.

Brandon Moss had not homered since July 24 until Sunday. Derek Norris has not gone deep in his last 31 games, 28 of them starts. Josh Donaldson began the A’s comeback with a solo homer Saturday. He has two homers in his last 29 games.

Analysts and fans have been quick to jump on the July 31 trade of left fielder and cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes, or as Stephen Colbert might say: “Yoenis Cespedes — a great left fielder or the greatest left fielder?”

Colbert uses that as a back-handed compliment. And so it is for the A’s, who would seem to be better off for having made the trade if they get to the postseason. Jon Lester, who came from the Boston Red Sox in the deal, is down to pitch the A’s wild-card game Sept. 30 should Oakland get there.

“The A’s made that trade and they talked like it made them better right away,” one AL scout said. “It didn’t. But assuming they get to the postseason, that’s when that trade kicks in. With Lester at the top of the rotation, they’re better. He’s a beast in the postseason.”

Lester has made 11 career postseason starts, all with the Red Sox, and has a 1.97 ERA. The last two seasons Oakland lost to Detroit in large measure because the A’s didn’t have any pitcher of that magnitude. At the cost of Cespedes, now they do.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about Lester, however, is that even in the lowest of their low moments in the last five weeks, the A’s have not pointed an accusing hand at that trade. They liked Cespedes, but they believe they are, or will be, better with Lester.

“I don’t speak for anyone else, but I started going bad before Cespy was traded,” Moss said. “I got away from what I was doing, taking what the pitchers were giving me, and I tried to go to my strength, trying to hit homers. It didn’t work, and it’s taken me all this time to get it right.”

Through the skid that took them from six games in front of the Angels to 11 games behind, one constant has been the A’s belief that tomorrow will be better. Panic could be expected, but it never showed up.

“Overall our morale and confidence has been good all along,” reliever Dan Otero said. “Even if we weren’t winning games, we were still in a lot of games. All it takes is a big hit, a big inning pitched. We know they’ll come.”

This weekend, they came. And now the A’s have 13 games left and a favorable schedule. Manager Bob Melvin poo-poos that.

“The schedule means nothing,” he said. “We just have to worry about ourselves. The standings mean nothing to us right now. We just have to win games and get on a run.”

Oakland's Brandon Moss is greeted in the dugout after he hit a home run against Seattle Sunday. AP PHOTO