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Hellickson Freezes Over, McCarthy ExtenZe A's Wild Card Run With 4-2 Victory Over Tampa Bay

Brandon McCarthy naturally enhances the Athletics' playoff chances.
Brandon McCarthy naturally enhances the Athletics' playoff chances.

At the end of July, the Tampa Bay Rays came to the Coliseum to face the red-hot A's. Oakland had won 18 of 22 games and was playing absolutely out of their minds. The Rays rose to the challenge and cooled off the Athletics by taking two out of three games.

This week, the A's returned the favor. Tampa Bay had won 13 of its last 16, and was looking ready to run away with the 1st Wild Card. The Rays hosted the A's for 3 games, and Oakland took two out of three, just as Joe Maddon's crew had done to them a month earlier.

Last week, Brandon McCarthy's wife made a joke on Twitter, asking MLB if the male-enhancement product ExtenZe would violate their drug-testing program. Well, if there was any question about the size of McCarthy's cojones, he answered them today with 7 gutsy innings of 4-hit ball. (Note: Yes, I know that isn't exactly how ExtenZe works. Just go with it.)

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay starter Jeremy Hellickson did about what you would expect: worked too many deep counts, gave up a couple dingers, and couldn't make it past the 5th inning. Chris Carter and Seth Smith provided the fireworks, and Oakland held on for a 4-2 victory, a series win, and a season series victory over the Rays. If these two teams finish the season as the two Wild Card teams and have identical records, the A's will get home-field advantage in the Wild Card playoff. Schwing! Read more about the game after the jump.

Let me start by getting this out of the way. I respect Jeremy Hellickson. He's had an excellent start to his young career, he's got the hardware to prove it (2011 AL Rookie of the Year), and his run-prevention (career ERA+ of 120) backs up the accolades he gets. He's young, he's got a filthy change-up, and he helps his team win games. I respect him, but I don't fear him. In the ultimate type of stats-vs-scouts debate, I look at his numbers and shrug my shoulders. Fewer than 6 strikeouts and more than 3 walks per 9 innings? 19 homers in 134 innings entering the game? An above-average line drive rate, with a below-average ground ball rate? As I said in the preview, all I see is a fly ball pitcher with questionable control who can't keep the ball in the park and has no ability to miss bats. I just copied and pasted most of that sentence from the preview, but I'm pretty sure it's not plagiarism if I wrote the original, right? Sure hope not!

So, Jeremy Hellickson. The dude loves to give up homers. He once threw 7 scoreless innings despite giving up two homers (no he didn't). Doesn't matter what his stats look like, though, because Rays. That's all the logic you need. Every pitcher who puts on a Rays cap is automatically awesome. It's in the rules.

I wasn't buying it today, though. If you can't put away hitters early in the count, this A's team will bury you, and that's exactly what happened today. Coco Crisp led things off by working a full count, before pulling the ball sharply into the right-field corner for a double. Stephen Drew followed with an infield hit up the middle to give the A's two baserunners with nobody out. Hellickson managed to retire Yoenis Cespedes, but he worked another full count to cleanup hitter Seth Smith. On the 3-2 offering, Drew was running on the pitch, expecting Smith to make contact. When Smith swung through a change-up for strike three, though, Drew appeared to be dead in the water. All that catcher Jose Lobaton had to do was complete the throw to second, and Drew would have been out by at least 10 feet. Drew even conceded the out, stopping short and preparing to get in a rundown in the hope that he could buy time for Coco Crisp to score from 3rd. However Lobaton's throw went at least a full Altuve over the head of shortstop Ben Zobrist, allowing Coco to score easily and Drew to trot all the way to 3rd.

On the next pitch, Chris Carter launched a 401-foot bomb to left field. 3-0 Oakland. By the end of the inning, Hellickson had thrown 41 pitches. This is pretty much exactly what I was envisioning when I pictured Hellickson facing the A's.

Unfortunately, McCarthy wasn't sharp in the 1st inning either. The leadoff batter, Desmond Jennings, drilled a liner up the middle. Luckily, McCarthy's glove was long enough to catch it. That was an ExtenZe joke. McCarthy then walked Sam Fuld. You know, the guy who can't really hit much, but once beat Usain Bolt in a footrace (that might have only happened in a dream I had, not sure). Fuld is the kind of guy you shouldn't ever walk, and McCarthy is the kind of guy who doesn't ever walk people. What an unfortunate statistical anomaly! To the surprise of exactly nobody, Fuld proceeded to steal 2nd base.

Evan Longoria followed by drawing another walk, and A's fans started to get nervous. Sure, it's one thing that the Rays had two runners on for the terrifying Ben Zobrist, but it's another thing entirely to see McCarthy walk two batters in one inning. Impeccable control is kind of McCarthy's thing, and when he's missing the zone it often hints at a bigger problem. The hope was that he was just rusty due to the half-hour top-of-the-1st that he had just sat through, and that his shoulder wasn't acting up again. Either way, he struck out Zobrist to end the threat.

Things weren't much better for McCarthy in the 2nd. In the WTF move of the day, Luke Scott laid down a bunt on the first pitch of the inning in response to the defensive shift that Oakland was employing against him. The element of surprise worked, and Scott beat it out for a single. McCarthy got ahead of Carlos Pena 0-2, but inexplicably hit him with a pitch to put two runners on with nobody out. Ryan Roberts then singled to load the bases. Gulp. Sure hope McCarthy is OK.

Three batters later, McCarthy was out of the inning, having allowed only a sacrifice fly to Lobaton. The A's maintained their lead, 3-1, but it sure didn't feel safe.

Seth Smith led off the 3rd inning with a solo homer to make it 4-1. After that, both pitchers finally settled down. They would combine to retire 16 straight batters, until Desmond Jennings homered in the bottom of the 5th to cut the lead to 4-2. If you read the headline of this recap, then you know that this would be the final score. Don't get cocky, though. There's still stuff to talk about.

Despite the rough start to his afternoon, McCarthy got in enough of a groove to complete 7 innings. He struck out 7 batters while allowing only 4 hits and two walks. One particularly impressive aspect of McCarthy's season has been that he hasn't put up two poor starts in a row. If he struggles (which is rare), then he's been a good bet to bounce back in his next start. That's exactly what he did today, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Game ball goes to Brandon #1.

Sean Doolittle entered in the 8th, and struck out two batters on his way to a 1-2-3 inning. He has struck out 45 hitters in 29.1 innings this season, against 7 walks and zero homers. That's just...that's not even fair.

With a two-run lead in the 9th inning, a save situation was upon us. Bob Melvin called on his "closer," Grant Balfour, since MLB Law states that you must bring in your designated closer for a 9th inning save situation regardless of situation. Even if that "closer" is really just a set-up man, he nearly blew a save last night, he's a right-handed fly-ball pitcher, and there are three powerful lefties coming up (Zobrist, Scott, Pena). Of course, was there a more preferable option? Ryan Cook wasn't available. Jerry Blevins is a lefty, and he's good, but I wouldn't have felt any better about him. Calling on Neshek to face only lefties would have been a fireable offense. So, while you could question the choice of Balfour in the 9th, the fact is that there weren't really any better options, just equally shaky ones.

As it turned out, Balfour took less time to record the save than I did to write that paragraph questioning him. It took him only 7 pitches to record the fastest save in Australian history (pending confirmation by Elias Sports Bureau), and just like that the A's had an improbable series win.

So, what should we take from this game? Here are some thoughts:

  • I don't mean to play Buzz Killington here, but the A's would not have won these games without some key mistakes by the Rays. Don't get me wrong; capitalizing on mistakes is impressive in and of itself. Not every team makes the most of their opponents' gaffes, but the A's made a whole series out of it. Last night, Longoria failed to score on a play in which the A's had already conceded his run (and was ultimately stranded on 3rd), and his team lost by 1 run. In the same game, Pena ranged too far to his right to field a grounder, allowing a run to score on an infield single that should have been an inning-ending putout. Today, Lobaton's errant throw in the 1st turned what could have been a scoreless 1st frame into a game-changing disaster-inning. Two things here: The A's needed Tampa Bay to make mistakes, BUT they also did an excellent job of capitalizing on those mistakes. I'm going to say that that nets out as a positive.
  • After occupying the 3rd spot in the lineup for virtually the entire season, Josh Reddick was dropped to 6th today. He has been in a terrible slump in August (.175/.221/.300, not counting his 0-for-14 to finish off July), and Melvin needed to shake things up and get him going. Reddick went 3-for-4 today, and all three hits were on sharp line drives (one to the opposite field, no less). His three hits matched his total from his last 6 games combined. Welcome back, Josh!
  • The Smith/Gomes platoon has combined for 27 homers in about 600 plate appearances. Josh Willingham has 31 homers in just over 500 plate appearances. Willingham's OPS is about 100 points higher than Smith/Gomes combined, but he's also having a career year, costs twice as much, is signed for 2 more injury-prone years, and the A's got two high draft picks for letting him walk. Everyone has their own opinion on whether the A's should have re-signed Willingham (instead of, or in addition to, Coco Crisp), but you can't deny that they have replaced his production admirably and cost-effectively.
  • Oakland is now a half-game behind Tampa Bay for the 1st Wild Card, and they have the 2nd-best run differential of the AL Wild Card contenders (+37, second to Tampa's +72).
  • Remember that daunting September schedule which was supposed to terrify us all? It's still tough, but it no longer scares me. Beginning with the upcoming series in Cleveland, the A's still have: 4 games against the Indians, 3 against the Red Sox, 6 against the Mariners, and three at home against the Orioles (you have to be excited about hosting a series against your top competitor). That's 16 games left that I'll feel really good about. Of course, that 10-day road trip to Detroit, New York, and Texas is still scary, but I feel a lot better about the stretch run than I did a few weeks ago.
That's a wrap, folks. Tomorrow is a rare Sunday off-day while the team travels to Cleveland. It's tempting to look past the Indians, but be careful. When a team has lost as many games as they have lately (22 out of 26), they are bound to turn it around eventually. Oakland can't get complacent and allow the Tribe to play spoiler next week. Even the Astros win a game occasionally.

Tune in on Monday for the opener of a 4-game set against the Indians. Brett Anderson faces Fausto Carmona Roberto Hernandez in the opener at 4:05pm. Let's hope that customs took Hernandez's breaking ball along with his pseudonym.