The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays played about as weird of a game as you would expect between baseball’s top two strategic innovators. Two relievers started, two starters relieved, and the team with eight hits defeated the team with 13 hits. The A’s kept it close all night, but the Rays held on for a 7-5 victory.
This game was billed as the first ever between two “openers,” with each team starting a short reliever in the 1st inning with a traditional starter scheduled to come in later. For the A’s that was Liam Hendriks ahead of Chris Bassitt, and for the Rays it was Ryan Stanek ahead of Yonny Chirinos.
As it turned out, the team that stuck to the strategy properly is the one who ended up winning. Tampa Bay got a scoreless 1st from Stanek and then pulled him, and Chirinos came in and pitched into the 7th. He may have stayed in slightly too long, which we’ll get to in a moment, but he was generally effective and fulfilled his role.
The A’s, on the other hand, did something else. Hendriks made it through his scoreless 1st, but then instead of bringing in Bassitt for the 6-7-8 batters they turned to another reliever. The Rays had seven lefties in their lineup, including the first five of the 2nd inning, and so Oakland brought in lefty specialist Dean Kiekhefer for his second MLB appearance of the season. The southpaw needed only five pitches to allow an infield single and a homer, digging the green and gold into an early 2-0 hole.
I think the A’s blew it by getting too cute with the bullpen game. The whole lineup was lefties, so Bassitt was going to have to face some of them eventually. Instead, they turned to one of the worst and least experienced pitchers on their roster, in a tie game, and he allowed early runs. To compound the problem, Bassitt eventually entered in the 3rd inning to face the 3-4-5 heart of the lineup, which is the exact opposite of what the opener strategy is supposed to achieve; by the time Bassitt exited, the only batters he’d faced twice were that heart of the order, while seeing all the other inferior hitters only once.
To their credit, though, the A’s fought back. Nick Martini, Matt Chapman, and Jed Lowrie put together three straight singles in the 3rd inning to recoup one of the runs, and Matt Olson launched a solo homer in the 6th to tie it. Olson’s blast came off of Chirinos, in his third at-bat against the long-man, at the end of a lengthy nine pitch battle — if there is now a renewed focus on avoiding having the same pitcher face the best hitters three times in a game, then that would have been the moment to pull Chirinos and have a new reliever face Olson.
Ray Fosse cackling is all of us. pic.twitter.com/IWHNjzp2Ad— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) September 16, 2018
The Rays answered back quickly in the bottom of the the 6th. Joey Wendle worked a leadoff walk to chase Bassitt, and Yusmeiro Petit was greeted with an RBI triple by Kevin Kiermaier. A sac fly capped the rally, putting Tampa Bay back on top 4-2.
The seesaw continued in the 7th, as the A’s moved their way back up. Marcus Semien singled, and Mark Canha entered as a pinch-hitter against a lefty and delivered a double to drive him in. A couple batters later, the Rays catcher let a pitch through his legs and Canha trotted home, though Chapman followed with a single that presumably would have scored him anyway. Either way, the game was once again tied.
Oakland had a chance to finally take a lead in the 8th, but they couldn’t quite find the big hit. They loaded the bases with one out, but Semien was rung up on what was frankly a missed call by the umpire. The pitch was several inches off the plate and should have been Ball 3, but instead it was Out 2. Canha followed with a groundout, and the A’s missed their best chance to take control of the game.
Unfortunately, the Rays did find their own big hit in the 8th. Jeurys Familia came in to hold the tie, but he walked two of the first three batters and then served up a three-run dinger to Jake Bauers. Earlier in the evening Bauers had successfully bunted against the shift for a single (despite an amazing effort by Chapman on defense), so he pulled off the impressive combo of a bunt hit and a homer in the same contest.
Oakland didn’t give up in the 9th, as Chapman swatted a solo dong off Sergio Romo to cut the lead, but they couldn’t find enough for one last comeback after Bauers’ dagger.
This was a winnable game. Maybe the pitchers would have given up a bunch of runs in any arrangement, but I would have liked to see what could have been if Bassitt had entered for the 2nd inning. Maybe Semien would have gotten out anyway even with a proper Ball call in the 8th, but I would have liked to see if he could have made enough contact on the 3-2 pitch to drive in the go-ahead run. Maybe Familia would have blown it anyway, even if given a lead instead of a tie. Maybe. The point is, the A’s were in this one until the end with plenty of chances to win it, and that’s exactly where you want to see your team as often as possible.
Shake it off. Learn a lesson about how best to operate the bullpen opener strategy. Keep fighting at the plate like we saw on this night, and as we see in just about every game. Then go get ‘em tomorrow.