Two 97-win seasons, two disappointing finishes for Oakland

The Oakland A’s have done some pretty incredible things over the past two seasons. After starting each year off slow, the Athletics went on outstanding runs to finish both 2018 and 2019 campaigns with 97 wins. Last year, they began their push in June following a 34-36 start, going 63-29 in the second half to finish with the fourth best record in baseball, yet just the second Wild Card spot in the top-heavy American League. Crazy, right?

This season was nearly a replica of last year. Oakland stumbled out to a 15-21 start into the second week of May, where they turned things around on a night where slugging Matt Olson returned to action and Mike Fiers hurled a no-hitter against the Reds. From that night, May 7 until the rest of the season, the A’s went 62-44 to conclude their second straight campaign with a 97-65 record. This time around, they had earned home-field advantage in the Wild Card game, something they hadn’t gotten in their first two trips to the winner-take-all game, in 2014 and 2018.

Here’s where things get ugly for the A’s. They’re not so good in winner-take-all games. Entering the 2018 Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium, Oakland had lost each of its last seven winner-take-all games. On the road in arguably the toughest environment to play in against the 100-win Bronx Bombers, the A’s entered that game widely expected to see their season come to an end. And they did. With the game getting off to a bad start from the beginning on Aaron Judge’s two-run shot parked in the left field bleachers, New York tallied seven total runs against the Oakland bullpen while Luis Severino and the Yankee bullpen held the A’s to just a pair of runs, both coming on a Khris Davis homer in the eighth inning. Oakland had been held scoreless up until that point, making the game feel like a blowout even though the A’s had made larger comebacks on several occasions during the regular season.

The Athletics fell to the Bombers, 7-2 in a result that even A’s fans could say didn’t come as a surprise. The Yankees were, and still are an elite club, facing an Oakland team who, at the time was battling several injuries to the starting rotation and carried many young players with zero playoff experience. They were simply outmatched by the Yankees, but held lots of hope for the upcoming season.

The Athletics got off to a disappointingly slow start to the 2019 season, but were able to turn things around again to earn another trip to the Wild Card game. This time around, facing the Tampa Bay Rays at the Oakland Coliseum, where they’d dominated to a 52-29 record throughout the regular season, the A’s were favored to win. They seemed to be more prepared this season than the last, having used only relief pitchers during the 2018 Wild Card game, and now having multiple reliable and healthy starters to start the game. Manager Bob Melvin waited until the day before the game to announce the Oakland starter, who turned out to be 27-year-old southpaw Sean Manaea. It was a tough decision between Manaea and Mike Fiers, who went 15-4 with a 3.90 ERA across 33 starts this season. But Manaea, who went 12-9 with a 3.59 ERA and a no-hitter last year before undergoing shoulder surgery, dominated in his return to the mound this September to earn the nod for the big game. Making his return on September 1st and starting five games for the Athletics, Manaea went 4-0 with a 1.21 ERA and 0.78 WHIP while Fiers, who’d manned the top spot in the Oakland rotation following the suspension of Frankie Montas, scuffled in the month of September with a 7.84 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in his final five outings of the year.

While some questioned Melvin’s decision to start Manaea over Fiers, who’d won 15 games throughout the season and had much more playoff experience, Manaea had been dominant in his returning five starts, and put together a strong campaign last year as the club’s top starter before season-ending surgery. Now with a strong and reliable starter in Manaea, and hosting the game instead of playing at Yankee Stadium, the Oakland A’s seemed well equipped to beat the Tampa Bay Rays and move on to the ALDS.

Just like last year in the Bronx, the A’s got behind early by allowing a first inning homer. Last year’s was a two-run shot by Judge, and this year it came off the bat of Tampa Bay leadoff hitter Yandy Diaz. Sean Manaea quickly rebounded however, striking out the side in order following the homer. The A’s pressured Charlie Morton in the bottom of the first, but stranded the bases loaded and went down without a run.

While looking like he could settle in following the first inning homer, Manaea was immediately back in trouble to start the second frame. After a Matt Duffy leadoff single, Avisail Garcia sent a two-run dinger out to center to give the Rays a 3-0 advantage. Once again, Manaea readjusted and retired the side in order following the blast, but then gave up another solo shot to Yandy Diaz to lead off the top of the third. With 54,005 fans at the Coliseum on hand for the contest, a Wild Card game record, Diaz and the Tampa Bay bats were silencing them early.

Despite striking out five across two innings, Manaea had given up four runs on three homers and was replaced by Yusmeiro Petit in the top of the third. In the bottom of the frame, the A’s got on the board thanks to a Ramón Laureano sac fly after Rays third baseman Michael Brosseau’s throwing error allowed Marcus Semien to get all the way to third to lead off the inning. This unearned run was all the Athletics could manage in the entire ballgame, as the Rays went on to score once more on a Tommy Pham solo shot in the fifth inning. That turned out to be Tampa Bay’s last run also, as the 5-1 score in the fifth was the final. While the deficit was just four runs for Oakland, it felt like a blowout, much like last year’s Wild Card game against the Yankees. The Rays pitching was terrific, but the A’s certainly had their chances to score. Stranding a total of 20 runners on the evening, Tampa Bay received five strong innings while weaving through traffic from Morton, then two scoreless from Diego Castillo, 1.1 IP from Nick Anderson and the final two outs from Emilio Pagán, who was traded by the A’s last December.

This year’s Wild Card game and last year’s are very similar for the Oakland A’s. In both, their electric and powerful offense was held quiet by sharp opposing pitching, and wasted away nearly all of its opportunities to score. The pitching staff yielded runs early, putting the A’s behind quickly and quieting the Coliseum crowd. With this happening two years in a row now, Oakland has unfortunately been held to just two games in October. They’ve now played three Wild Card games since it was implemented in 2012, losing each one. The A’s have yet to win a winner-take-all game this century, dropping nine straight, a major league record.

The A’s have a boatload of young talent, both in their pitching staff and offense, and are more than capable of putting together another 97-win season next year. While those are lots of fun to watch, especially from a club that ranks in the bottom of baseball’s payrolls, they’re pointless if they’re unable to get past the Wild Card game. It’s been their enemy through their first three chances, and while they can certainly contend for the AL West next season, the Houston Astros don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. This likely leaves Oakland in a similar boat next season, which means they’ll need to step up in the Wild Card game should they get there. Although a third straight Wild Card game is the most likely option for the A’s, a run at the division isn’t out of the question.

One highlight of this year’s Wild Card game was the performance of 22-year-old lefty Jesús Luzardo, who struck out four over three scoreless frames in relief for Oakland. Luzardo entered this season as baseball’s top LHP prospect, and after spending stints on the IL this season in the minors, Luzardo got the call-up and allowed just two runs over 12 IP with 16 strikeouts over six relief appearances this September. While he didn’t make a start this year for Oakland, he’s expected to earn a spot in the rotation to start the 2020 campaign. The A’s will also get Frankie Montas back in the rotation, who dominated to a 9-2 record and 2.70 ERA this season before his PED suspension, and struck out nine over six innings of two-run ball in his first start back against Seattle.

The Athletics will likely carry a similar offense next season, and will make it an offseason goal to fix up a bullpen that was inconsistent and unreliable all season. After the ‘pen was arguably the strongest part of the club in 2018, it saw lots of struggles this year that cost the A’s many winnable games. This was highlighted by the severe struggles of Blake Treinen, who was unbelievable last season with a 0.78 ERA as the team’s closer, but posted a 4.91 ERA and 1.62 WHIP over 57 games this year and lost his closer role to Liam Hendriks. Hendriks has been the main man keeping the Oakland bullpen together, posting a 1.80 ERA and 0.96 WHIP with 25 saves this season. While the Athletics hope Treinen can turn things around next year, the A’s will undoubtedly keep Hendriks in charge as their closer for the 2020 season.

The future is bright in Oakland, but the A’s and their fan base are gloomy at the moment. While the A’s seem to be on the right track to success with young, talented players in Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano, Jesús Luzardo, A.J. Puk and several others, it’s questionable whether or not they’ll be able to perform when it matters most. Last season was full of unexpected success for the A’s, and when they made an appearance in the Wild Card game, fans were less frustrated and more satisfied with what the team had accomplished. Entering this year, A’s fans had high expectations and witnessed their club achieve another 97-win season, but expected some success in the playoffs. Packing the Oakland Coliseum with a Wild Card record attendance, the Athletics were unable to get the job done and leave A’s fans wondering how they’ll perform in the postseason next year, should they get there. Now with a major league record nine consecutive losses in winner-take-all games, it’s evident the A’s have a problem with games that matter most, and will need to correct that next season in order to prove they’re capable of performing in the postseason, not just the regular season.

Photo Source: Getty Images

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