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Wild Card Game: A’s can’t break October slump, fall 7-2 to Yankees

Almost nothing went right for Oakland in the biggest game of the year.

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s won 97 games this season to storm into an unexpected postseason berth, but their October only lasted one evening. The offense didn’t manage to score until the 8th inning of the Wild Card play-in contest, and the New York Yankees came up with all the big hits and all of the fortunate hops. In the end the A’s fell 7-2, closing the book on their magical 2018 campaign.

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The game got off to a poor start almost immediately. Liam Hendriks opened the 1st inning, and the first thing he did was walk leadoff man Andrew McCutchen. The next thing he did was leave a fastball up to Aaron Judge, who absolutely destroyed it (116 mph) for a two-run homer. Nine pitches in, and with no outs on the board, the Yankees already led 2-0.

After going 8-for-8 in scoreless 1st innings in September, Hendriks had finally flinched at the worst possible time. Fortunately, the pitching actually settled down from there, for a while at least. Hendriks retired his next three hitters without further damage, and Lou Trivino came in to follow.

Trivino was absolutely on his game. His first two batters reached on an infield hit and a walk, but then he set down the next eight batters he saw (including a double play) to cruise through three scoreless frames. His stuff was as filthy as ever, and the TBS broadcasters were marveling at him by the time he was finished.

Next in line was Shawn Kelley, who tossed a scoreless 5th inning. Through five the staff had allowed only two runs, and if they’d received that effort from a starter like Edwin Jackson or Mike Fiers we would have considered that a successful performance.

However, on the other side of the ball the A’s just couldn’t muster anything. Yankees starter Luis Severino came out firing in the 1st, needing only 10 pitches to blow away the side in order.

Oakland had progressively better at-bats against Severino as the game went on, but they weren’t able to find the big hit to capitalize on any of it. They reached base via walk in both the 2nd and 3rd, but couldn’t build on either. In the 4th they reached on an error and a pair of walks, loading the bases with two outs, but Marcus Semien went down swinging to strand them all.

For some reason New York sent Severino back out for the 5th, and he responded by giving up singles to Jonathan Lucroy and Nick Martini — the very hits the A’s had needed in the previous inning. No matter, though, because Dellin Betances came in to strand those runners too by retiring the A’s three best hitters on 11 pitches. He and David Robertson then set down the side in order in both the 6th and 7th, and each progressive zero felt more and more helpless.

While Oakland was floundering at the plate, the Yankees delivered the knockout punch in the 6th. Or rather, perhaps it was the baseball gods who delivered it, because this inning did not need to go this way.

With Fernando Rodney on the mound, Aaron Judge led off with a weak grounder to first base. However, instead of finding a glove for an out, it stumbled down the line for the BABIPiest double that’s ever BABIPed. It literally took it’s first bounce in foul territory before somehow spinning into the right field corner.

It’s one thing to allow a homer to a superstar slugger like Judge, but if he also gets a hit like that then it’s gonna be a long night. The next batter, Aaron Hicks, knocked a more legit double to drive him in. Rodney didn’t even finish another at-bat, throwing Ball 1 to Giancarlo Stanton and getting pulled on the spot.

With the situation getting desperate, Oakland wasted no time turning to historically great closer Blake Treinen to quiet things down. But on this night, even that wasn’t enough. Treinen took Stanton to a full count and nearly froze him on the inside corner, but it was called Ball 4 instead. It wasn’t necessarily a bad call, but it was one of those 50/50 moments and it went the other way.

The next batter, Luke Voit, worked a tough nine-pitch at-bat and eventually launched a ball to the wall in right to drive home both runners. Stephen Piscotty made an admirable leaping effort, but he missed it by a matter of inches. It would have been an incredible catch, but he wasn’t that far from making it. It also missed being a homer by the same tiny margin, but still.

Didi Gregorius followed with a sac fly, but even that was close. Nick Martini made an excellent throw from left field, but Voit got his hand on the plate by a matter of inches, if not millimeters. The play went to review, and we’ve seen closer calls than this get overturned — like when the A’s go-ahead run was taken off the board in the 9th inning against the Yankees in May.

I’m not saying it was wrong to uphold this one, but just like with the Ball 4 to Stanton, and Piscotty’s almost-catch, it was one of those coin-flip moments that could have gone either way. Just like everything else on this night, the arrow pointed toward the pinstripes.

Treinen eventually got out of the inning, but not before the score jumped up to 6-0. The A’s had played their best card, and even that hadn’t done the trick.

Oakland’s lineup finally did something in the 8th, to at least avoid the embarrassment of being shut out on the national stage. During the regular season they averaged five runs per game, ranking fourth in the majors, but for seven innings they’d done nothing. Finally, Khris Davis came to bat with a runner on base and dropped a dinger the other way into the short porch in right field.

It was too little too late, though. Zach Britton recovered to finish off the inning, and the Yankees got one of the runs right back in the bottom half. Giancarlo Stanton blasted an utter moonshot to left field, which was the first homer allowed by Treinen to a right-handed batter since April 6.

Aroldis Chapman came in for the 9th, and after a leadoff single by Semien the A’s went down in order. The game ended with a matchup of Chapman vs. Chapman, and Matt grounded out to seal the 7-2 final.

Final thoughts

What can you say about a game like this? Two things are simultaneously true: The Yankees played a better game, and they also got incredibly lucky over and over from start to finish.

The two teams both put exactly 11 runners on base — the A’s had five hits and five walks and reached on an error, while the Yankees had seven hits and four walks. On top of that, three of New York’s hits were absolute jokes (Judge’s double, and two well-placed infield singles). But the other hits were a pair of homers, a triple, and another double, with all of it sequenced to perfection to maximize scoring, while the A’s managed only one extra-base hit and scattered all of their other runners instead of bunching them together.

Furthermore, so many plays in this game could have gone the other way. Judge’s grounder could have been an out instead of a double, Stanton could have been rung up, Piscotty could have caught Voit’s drive, Voit could have been called out at home. It was unreal, but also exactly what we’ve come to expect out of the A’s cursed reputation in the postseason.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing was that Oakland’s lineup went silent for far too long. Even removing New York’s entire 6th-inning rally, they still had enough to win just on the two monster dingers. But dang, when hard contact like the video below gets you nothing, and the best defensive play at third base is made not by the impending Gold Glover but rather an out-of-position shortstop, there’s just not a lot more you can do.

Many will blame Hendriks and the bullpenning strategy, but that’s not why the A’s lost this game. They lost because the lineup got shut down, because the 6th inning went to ice-cold Rodney against the heart of the order while vastly superior setup man Jeurys Familia went unused until garbage time at the end, because their elite closer finally got broken, and because every close call and every bounce went the other team’s way. It was a perfect storm of everything going wrong all at once, from the team’s tepid performance to some poor strategic decisions to outright bad luck.

Making it all even worse is the club’s seemingly endless October slump. Since the year 2000, they’ve played 15 postseason games in which they had a chance to advance to the next round, and they’ve won only once (2006 ALDS vs. Twins). They’ve played eight winner-take-all matchups, whether an ALDS Game 5 or a one-game Wild Card play-in, and lost all of them. They’ve lost 9-of-10 series, including Wild Card contests, and whether they enter as a juggernaut or a scrappy Team of Destiny the results are always the same.

Nevertheless, this is still a time for A’s fans to be proud. We were never supposed to be in this game in the first place, and the fact that we got even one night of October baseball is a bonus. Now that we’re here it’s easy to want more, but it’s hard to complain about the big picture of 2018 no matter how familiarly disappointing the ending turned out. And, on the bright side, this loss will never hurt even one percent as much as an ultra-close heartbreaker like 2014, or like the Cubs suffered on Tuesday in 13 innings.

Oakland is out of the playoffs with barely a whimper, but the season was a massive success by any reasonable measure. This was one of the most fun rides we’ve had in recent memory from the green and gold, and if you focus too much on the destination without enjoying the journey then life will be a dark place. Congrats to the Yankees, go A’s, and we’ll do it all again in 2019.