We're on to our fifth SB Nation award. Here are the previous four; the polls will stay open until noon Monday.
Next, we'll look for the best A's pitching appearance of 2014. That means an individual game by an individual pitcher.
Sonny's shutout vs. Rangers in Game 162
Sonny Gray actually threw two shutouts against the Rangers this year. On April 28 in Arlington, he tossed the first of his career; that start was the best of Oakland's season according to Game Score, with a total of 88. He allowed just two hits and a walk, with six strikeouts. What's more, in his previous start a few days prior, he'd been on the losing end of Martin Perez's shutout, so this one had a payback angle to it as well.
But that's not the game we're talking about here. Rather, this is about his shutout in Game 162, the one that officially sent the A's to the playoffs. His pitching line wasn't quite as good -- six hits, only five strikeouts, Game Score of 80 -- but the win meant so much more. The A's entered just one game ahead of the Mariners for the second Wild Card, and a loss (plus a Mariners win, which did happen) would have meant a Game 163 tiebreaker in Seattle. Instead, Sonny put the team on his back and carried it to the playoffs. Well, playoff, singular.
Lester's shutout vs. Twins
In Jon Lester's first start for the A's, he posted a quality start in a win against the Royals. It was a solid game, but nothing to write home about. However, in his second game in Oakland, he showed us all what he was capable of by spinning a shutout against the Twins. And lest you worry about it coming against a last-place team, remember that Minnesota was somehow seventh in all of MLB in scoring this year.
Lester's gem featured three hits, two walks, eight strikeouts, and a Game Score of 87, making it the second-highest Game Score for the A's this year. Furthermore, it established Lester as the ace that the A's were hoping for when they acquired him.
Kazmir out-duels Sanchez
We talked about this game in the Most Important Hits poll, as this is the one that ended with Josh Donaldson's three-run walk-off homer in the ninth. However, leading up to that, Scott Kazmir and Anibal Sanchez were locked in a pitching duel for the ages. Sanchez held the A's scoreless on two hits through eight innings, but he let the leadoff man reach in the ninth and Joe Nathan was unable to close things out.
Meanwhile, Kazmir was busy putting up Oakland's seventh-highest Game Score of the season (79), and he didn't need to put his fate in the hands of his bullpen. He went the distance and allowed just a solo homer to Torii Hunter among his six hits (no walks, eight K's). He was looking at a tough-luck 1-0 loss against a primary AL rival until Donaldson stepped in and gave him the win he deserved.
Samardzija's 8 innings vs. Rangers
Jeff Samardzija caught fire at the end of the season, and in a six-start span from Aug. 25 to Sept. 22 he logged 45 innings with a 1.40 ERA and 47 strikeouts against only three walks. The A's won only two of those games, and this was not one of those wins. However, it was the third-highest Game Score of Oakland's season at 84, and it also earned the highest Win Probability Added (0.556) of any Oakland pitching performance.
In this game, Shark threw eight shutout innings and struck out 10 batters without a walk while scattering four hits. No Ranger even reached third base. Unfortunately, this was a 2014 A's game, so when Sean Doolittle came in to save the 1-0 affair things did not go as planned. He faced six batters and managed to give up four runs while recording only one out, and by the time the A's got out of the inning it was 6-1 Rangers.
None of that is Shark's fault, though. He threw a gem, and that's all we're concerned with here. At a time when the lineup couldn't do itself any favors and every win counted, he did everything he could to make one run hold up for a victory.
Milone's 8 innings vs. Nationals
The entire Nationals series was like an advertisement for why the A's won the Gio Gonzalez trade. In the series opener, Tommy Milone faced Doug Fister and posted the fourth-highest Game Score of Oakland's season (82). He struck out seven and allowed only two hits and three walks in eight shutout innings. No Nationals reached third base in this one, and this time the rest of the team did its part for an 8-0 victory.
Two days later, Gio started in the finale, and Derek Norris lit him up with a pair of three-run homers that both came on 3-0 counts. To top it off, in the second game of the series, John Jaso notched the walk-off hit -- although the A's got Jaso from the Mariners, that was a three-way trade with Washington and everything the A's sent away in the deal went to the Nationals.
So, it was a fun series.
Buck Mills wins a start
We all know the story of Brad Mills, the starting pitcher whom the A's acquired for one dollar after Drew Pomeranz got TKO'd in a boxing match with a chair. The best part of the story came when, in his second start for the A's, he actually won a game. Facing the Mets in New York on June 25, Mills notched a quality start by going 6⅓ innings and allowing three runs on nine hits with four strikeouts. Most importantly, after walking four in his debut, he didn't allow a single free pass against the Mets; without an overpowering arsenal, he can't really afford to put any extra runners on base.
Granted, that pitching line isn't amazing, but that's not the point. The point is who produced the line, and the circumstances (and bargain price) under which he came to be on the A's. They turned to an emergency option when they were in a pinch and he came through.
Also, that curveball. For those of us who desperately missed watching A.J. Griffin's slow loopy curve all year, Mills eased the withdrawals for a couple weeks. Also, check out that sweet double play turned by Moss in the video; that might have been good enough to crack the list of best defensive plays.
Mills threw another quality start his next time out, though the A's were shut out by Detroit's Rick Porcello in that one. Mills moved on to Toronto after that, but the good news is that he's back in the A's organization.
Francis' first career save
Entering the season, Jeff Francis had appeared in 228 games in the Majors and 216 of them were starts. He even received Cy Young votes in 2007. Injuries derailed his career by the time he reached his late-20s, but he's still hanging out and pitching in whatever roles teams will pay him to fill.
After making one start for the Reds in 2014, the 33-year-old Francis wound up in Oakland as a long reliever and mop-up man who could serve as a spot starter if needed. He found himself in an entirely different role on June 28, though, when the A's took a 7-6 lead in the top of the 14th against the Marlins. Sonny had gone only five innings, and by the end of the 11th Bob Melvin had used everybody except Jim Johnson and Francis. Johnson got through two scoreless innings, but after Oakland took its 14th-inning lead Miami loaded the bases against him with one out. It was time to make a change, and that meant that for the first time in Francis' 10-year career he was coming in to pitch in a save situation.
With the tying and winning runs in scoring position, he had no margin for error. He struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia for the second out of the inning, and then he got Donovan Solano hit the lazy fly that could have tied the game if it had been hit with fewer than two outs. Fortunately for Oakland, that flyout ended the game, and Francis had his first career save. His 100 percent career conversion rate (1-for-1) ties him for first in all of MLB history, ahead of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman and Dennis Eckersley.
Otero cleans up after Kazmir ejection
On May 17, umpire Jerry Layne ejected Kazmir in the second inning of his start for this:
Basically, Layne squeezed Kaz on the corners of the zone and then tossed him for ... some reason. Kazmir was visibly frustrated, but he wasn't causing a scene or even saying much at all. It was a curious judgment call by Layne, and I personally think it was a poor decision (especially so early in the game), but one way or another the A's had to patch together 7⅔ innings of relief pitching.
Enter Dan Otero. Oakland's jack-of-all-trades reliever put on his long-man hat and rode in to save the day. He entered with runners on the corners and one out, and it took him only one pitch to induce an inning-ending double play. He ended up throwing three more innings (3⅔ total) and allowing four hits, but thanks to two more double plays he needed only 32 pitches to get the A's to the sixth and he didn't allow a run in doing so.
Fernando Abad, Luke Gregerson, and Sean Doolittle finished off the last four frames and Oakland won the game 6-2, but it was Otero's clutch performance that really set the stage for this win. And hey, nothing demonstrates Otero firing on all cylinders better than three doubles plays in four innings.
Doolittle halts comeback vs. White Sox
How to pick just one game from Sean Doolittle? He had a few clutch two-inning outings in extra-inning games against the Angels, Phillies, and Mariners, but only one of those saw him finish the game (he got the win) and it seems like his entry should involve him earning a save. He had some dominant performances in which he struck out the side or shut down an important rival like the Angels or Mariners, but perhaps his most impressive escape job came on May 12 against the White Sox.
Jesse Chavez took a 5-1 lead into the ninth inning, looking for the complete game. However, Jose Abreu greeted him in the final frame with a leadoff homer, and just like that Chavez's day was over. Unfortunately, the bullpen wasn't up to the task. Abad walked Adam Dunn (who still played for Chicago), Jim Johnson gave up hits to both batters he faced, and Doolittle came in with runners on the corners and the lead cut to 5-3. Paul Konerko lifted a sac fly for the first out, and the score was 5-4. Then Doo struck out the next two batters on seven total pitches, and crisis was averted. I picked this one because it had a higher level of difficulty than a traditional save chance in which the pitcher starts his own inning, and the stats agree -- of all of Doo's saves this year, this one had the highest WPA (.295).
Alright, there are your nine contenders. Vote for your favorite in the poll!