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Oakland A’s top plays of 2018, Part 2

A few more gems that MLB Network missed on their list.

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, we took a look at some of the best plays by the 2018 Oakland A’s. Specifically, there were five that made MLB Network’s Top 100 plays of the year. Here they are, including which spot they landed in the rankings, and you can click here to read more about all of them:

  • Matt Chapman tarp catch (#79)
  • Ramon Laureano Spiderman catch (#70)
  • Trayce Thompson robs a homer (#31)
  • Sean Manaea completes no-hitter (#8)
  • Ramon Laureano catch-and-throw (#1)

That’s a nice collection, and it’s even better to see the national media give the A’s their fair share of attention — 30 teams can each expect three spots in a Top 100, and Oakland notched nearly twice that many. The Laureano play at the end was an all-timer, and it deservedly earned the top spot.

However, there are some other memorable moments that didn’t make MLB’s list. Not all of these were truly snubs from the Top 100, but a couple were and the rest are worth taking one last moment to appreciate before the calendar flips to 2019. Here are my picks for the Other 5 Best Plays of the A’s season, in no particular order.

Chapman fields bunt from SS

MLB Network chose one of Matt Chapman’s tarp catches for their big list, but frankly that wasn’t even close to his best play of the year. After all, he’s the undisputed best defender in the sport, so he’s got quite a few highlights to choose from. It’s nice that he made the Top 100 at all, but it should have been with this play. (Or the next one, spoiler alert.)

You see, Chapman is a third baseman, technically. But that’s only because humans don’t have a precise translation for the more all-encompassing position he actually plays. In his native android language it comes out to something like “one who can cover the entire left side of the infield but has to pick somewhere to stand so he usually goes to third base.” We shorten it to “3B” because our puny mammalian brains can’t easily process the full truth.

However, when the A’s employ a defensive shift against a left-handed batter, Chapman’s full range finally becomes apparent. Marcus Semien shifts from SS to the right side of the infield, and Chapman moves to a traditional SS position and covers the whole left side on his own. That’s what happened on this play, with Yangervis Solarte of the Blue Jays as the lefty hitter at the plate.

Solarte did exactly what fans always hope to see from their hitters: He bunted against the shift, trying to sneak in a cheap single. And he nailed it, too, dropping a beauty in the neighborhood of the foul line, directly toward the no-man’s land where Chapman would usually stand but had presently vacated. It should have easily been a hit. Instead, this happened.

That’s a play I’ve never seen before. It’s essentially a shortstop charging in to field a ball that the 3B usually gets, then throwing to a base that is more or less behind him as he sprints the wrong way. On the other end, Matt Olson helped out with an excellent dig at 1B to corral the big bounce.

Granted, Solarte is one of the slower players in the game, but that doesn’t take away from what happened here. It’s not like we normally see shortstops make this play but miss the out by a step, or skip the throw past the 1B. The fact that he got to the ball, made a throw at all at that angle, and put it within reach of Olson, is simply stunning.

Chapman robs Solarte again

My favorite part of this next play is that it happened in the same game as the last one, and to the same batter as well. Chapman made two of the best plays in MLB this year within about an hour of each other.

The shift was on once again, though not nearly as heavily this time. Solarte had learned his lesson about bunting against Chapman, so instead he swung away and slapped one down the 3B line. As before, it should have easily been a hit. Instead, this happened.

I’ve seen a lot of third basemen make great plays moving toward the line, but not running toward the outfield like that. It was like a Jeter jump-throw, but from 3B instead of SS. For some reason Solarte gave up at the end and stopped running — possibly his soul was simply crushed at this point? — but I don’t think that changed anything. He didn’t slow up until Olson was already squeezing the ball, with two full steps left to go.

Overall I like the bunt play better, but Olson played a huge role in that highlight. If I’m picking my favorite solo-Chapman gem, then this is the one, complete with range you’ve never heard of before and an arm designed by Cyberdyne Systems.

With all due respect to MLB Network, the tarp catch was a terrible pick for their list. It’s like introducing someone to Green Day by playing their 2004 recording of I Fought The Law. I mean, I guess that’s a decent track, but it’s just a cover version of something we’ve seen a bunch of times before. Why not play one of their legendary original hits?

Solarte took the oldest advice in baseball and “hit it where they weren’t.” Twice. And it didn’t matter, because Matt Chapman.

Olson flips to Manaea

We could make a full post of just Chapman highlights, and actually I’ve done exactly that many times already. But let’s move on to the rest of the roster.

Matt Olson is an elite defender in his own right over at first base, and he has a Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible to prove it. We already saw him dig a tough throw in the first highlight on this list, but this time he shows off some of his mobility as well as his top-notch instincts. This was a proverbial “baseball IQ” play, requiring situational awareness, rapid problem-solving, and a relatively creative solution. There wasn’t time to transfer the ball from glove to hand, so he thought of another way to make it work and pulled it off.

Of course, we’ve seen plenty of players flip the ball out of their gloves before. That on its own isn’t terribly special. But usually it’s an agile middle infielder doing it, not a 6’5 corner slugger, and this one was particularly long-distance. And that’s before even considering that Olson was running away from his target, rather than toward it or lying stationary after a diving stop like you usually see on such flips.

The cherry on top is Manaea’s bare-hand catch on the other end. There’s something extra fun about a play in which the throw was made with a glove and the catch was made with a bare hand. You’re doing it backward, fellas!

None of the individual pieces of this play are unique on their own. Mobile first basemen, glove flips, bare-hand catches ... we’ve seen all of that before. But the combination of the three was something special.

Piscotty knocks the snot out of it

One of the major story lines around the A’s season was the passing of Stephen Piscotty’s mother. She had long been fighting against ALS, and her worsening health was oft-cited as one reason why the Cardinals found a way to trade him home to the Bay Area in the first place. Gretchen Piscotty passed away on May 6 at the age of 55.

Stephen went on the bereavement list a few days later and missed four games. He returned to action on May 15, flying across the country to join the team in Boston. After a long day of travel and little sleep, he stepped up to the plate for his first at-bat and launched a ball deep into our hearts.

It was as emotional of a moment as you can hope for in sports. There’s nothing special about the homer itself — it wasn’t notably long or impressive, and it wasn’t a high-leverage game-changer. It was just the perfect result at the ideal time, a fairy tale amid real life. Piscotty has mentioned that Gretchen’s catch phrase was to “knock the snot out of it,” and he did just that.

Oh, and as a bonus? Almost immediately thereafter, Piscotty began to hit like Nelson Cruz for the final four months and morphed into one of the A’s best players. Knock the snot out indeed.

Khrush stuns Texas

One of the hallmarks of the A’s season was comeback victories. Especially in the first half of the year, they made a regular habit of falling behind and then storming back to win. Sometimes they erased a big early deficit, and others they waited until the last moment to overcome a razor-thin margin. But one way or other, no lead was ever safe against the green and gold.

This one was my favorite. Coming off a dramatic extra-inning win the night before that featured its own eight-run comeback, the A’s once more found themselves down 5-1 in the 7th. Khris Davis homered to make it 5-4, but that was all they could muster until the 9th inning. With a runner on base and two outs, Khrush came up again. He got down to his final strike, and Oakland was one pitch away from losing the game. Instead, this happened.

That dinger gave the A’s the lead, and they finished it off in the bottom of the 9th to seal the win. It was Khrush’s sixth homer in four games, itself an Oakland record, and it was the second straight day that he won the game with a late-inning tater.

Now, there are several other similar highlights you could choose in this spot. Perhaps you prefer Chad Pinder’s grand slam in Toronto, turning a late three-run deficit into a victory. Or Piscotty’s long ball off Brad Hand in San Diego, also down to the last strike of the game. Or there was Nick Martini doubling in Ramon Laureano in the 9th inning against the Astros, which itself was followed by Olson hitting a walk-off homer against a lefty pitcher. Or any number of others, and you can click here to read all about Oakland’s best comebacks of the year.

However, there is a statistical basis for choosing Khrush, and it’s Win Probability Added. The Rangers had a 91.4% probability of winning when he stepped to the plate, but only 21.3% after he went deep. That gives his dinger a 70.1% WPA score, which was the highest of the A’s season. There were at least a dozen higher scores around MLB this year, so it didn’t lead the league or anything, but in a campaign marked by dramatic comebacks this was the A’s most valuable hit of the year.

The A’s had an incredible 2018 season, one that we’ll remember for a long time. Between these five plays, the five chosen by MLB Network, and all the other moments that led to a Wild Card berth, it was a hell of a ride. Let’s do it all again next year!