When the A's signed Jason Vargas last winter, he looked like a good bet to fill some innings in their young rotation. No one could ever have imagined that seven of those innings would come in Game 1 of the 2018 World Series, with no runs attached.
The 35-year-old southpaw shut down a powerful Brewers lineup without ever throwing a pitch over 90 mph, and Renato Nunez provided the offense once again with a three-run dinger for the only scoring Oakland would need. Game 3-0, Series 1-0. If you haven't blinked yet, don't start now.
Baseball delights itself with circuitous career paths and surprise storylines, and an opening matchup of Vargas against Milwaukee's Ubaldo Jimenez was a whopper for the ages. Of course today all we see is a couple of obvious Cy Young candidates, and perhaps that wasn’t so unlikely entering the season — after all, Vargas was an All-Star in 2017 with his new arm slot, and we all saw Ubaldo's unbelievable workout video on YouTube last winter. But it wasn’t long ago that the former was recovering from Tommy John surgery and the latter was leading the sport in earned runs. Last October, just 12 short months ago, a thousand bloggers at a thousand laptops couldn't have predicted this pairing. And yet here we were, watching these two phoenix-like veterans rising to battle for immortality.
True to Oakland form, the one thorn in Vargas' side was a former Athletic, back to haunt us through all four of his eyes. Even at the platoon disadvantage, Eric Sogard managed to pound out three extra-base hits, with the good news being that none of them were homers and none of his teammates mustered so much as a bloop single nor even a sac fly. The nerd powered his way to third base on multiple occasions, only to be stranded by a barrage of changeups so perfect they’d make a spreadsheet blush.
Not to be forgotten, the A’s league-best defense chipped in one big highlight as well.
Milwaukee Sogard was threatening in the 4th, having led off with a double and moved his way to third, and with two outs Travis Shaw put just enough wood on the ball to potentially cause trouble. Despite being thoroughly fooled by an offspeed pitch, Shaw doinked a slow chopper on the left side of the infield toward no one in particular. And then, as we’ve seen so many times all year, Matt Chapman teleported over from his spaceship, fielded a ball he had no business reaching, and then lasered the fastest pitch of the night toward first base to end the inning. Just like that, the National League’s RBI leader was denied the biggest steak of his career.
Chapman’s routine wizardry kept the game scoreless, and it took until the 6th for the pitchers’ duel to draw first blood. Ubaldo had kept Oakland guessing to that point with the deceptive new arsenal the sport has come to know and fear, but the A’s got aggressive and finally broke through. Max Schrock drilled the first pitch up the middle for a single, and Jaycob Brugman laid down a bunt so perfect that his intended sacrifice turned into an outright hit. Up stepped Renato Nunez, and the newly minted ALCS MVP continued his torrid postseason by giving us another all-time franchise highlight.
Like with the pitchers, perhaps we shouldn’t be so shocked about Renato. He displayed more than his share of postseason heroics during his minor league career, and was the engine of the playoff lineup the year he won a ring in Double-A Midland. He hasn’t panned out as the best of Oakland’s young hitting crop, but he did enough to get himself onto the big stage where he thrives. After all, three of his 22 homers this year were walk-offs, which led not just the club but the entire league. Make it four if you include the one he hit last week in Game 5 against Houston.
One way or other, the postseason doesn’t care about history, or peripheral stats, or woulda and coulda and shoulda. All that matters is what happens that day on that field, and on Tuesday the amazing Nunez got the job done yet again. As the RF bleacher crew says: ¡Viva Renato!
After Vargas’ departure, the A’s needed only to record six more outs to seal the victory. They made the easy call to bring in setup man Raul Alcantara, and were rewarded when he breezed through the 8th in just six pitches.
But then Bob Melvin got bold — rather than once again call on his overworked and suddenly unreliable closer, the skipper stuck with the red-hot Alcantara and gave him a crack at the 9th. It didn’t go as smoothly the second time around, as he allowed a one-out double to pinch-hitter Stephen Vogt (who else?) and then a walk to bring the tying run to the plate. But all ended well, as his first pitch to Brett Phillips resulted in a 5-4-3 double play with Matt Olson squeezing the final out at first base.
This unexpected ride through October keeps getting wilder and wilder, and in ways that no one would have guessed. The modest offseason addition aced another test, the also-ran rookie further cemented his new legendary status, and the team that for years couldn’t field its way out of a wet paper bag made all the plays once again. Just plain crazy.