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Wild Card Game: A’s elimination game woes continue in 5-1 loss to Rays

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Oakland Athletics lost the 2019 American League Wild Card Game to the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 5-1. More than 54,000 fans were in attendance at the Oakland Coliseum to watch the loss, but if you weren’t there, don’t worry — you’ve seen this one before.

The A’s were something of a broken record this season, their usual slow start followed by a red-hot summer supported by shrewd deadline moves. The team finished with 97 wins and, despite falling short of the division title, claimed a playoff spot. If the 2018 season was a success for Oakland, then objectively, the 2019 season was one too.

But this game mirrored the 2018 Wild Card Game in too many ways. The A’s fell behind their AL East foes early on a first-inning home run, and despite plenty of traffic on the bases and impressive individual performances from their top relievers, they were unable to claw their way back.

By some measures, the A’s did everything right. They put at least one runner on base in each of the first eight innings. They worked opposing starter Charlie Morton for 32 pitches in the first inning and knocked him out after just five. Lefty Sean Manaea struck out half of the batters he faced, Yusmeiro Petit provided much-needed long relief and rookie Jesús Luzardo was electric over three scoreless innings. But in the end, none of that matters. The only thing that does is that the five runs the A’s allowed was more than the one they scored.

In many ways, Jurickson Profar’s night at the plate embodies the many A’s playoff teams of the 21st century. The decision to start Profar at second wasn’t without controversy, but a glance at the box score — and Profar’s two line drive singles to right field — would suggest it was the right call. Unfortunately, they didn’t come when Oakland needed a hit the most.

Analytics will tell you that hitting with runners in scoring position isn’t a skill. More often than not, it’s sequencing luck, which should even out given a large enough sample. But no matter how accurate that may be or how strongly you may believe that, it doesn’t change the emotional reaction when Profar follows a two-out, bases-loaded lazy fly ball with two meaningless singles, either of which would have changed the complexion of the entire game had they been hit in his first plate appearance rather than his second or third.

No matter what the numbers say, no matter how small the sample, you still can’t shake the feeling that maybe these post-Moneyball A’s teams are just cursed.

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As was the case last season with opener Liam Hendriks, the decision to start Manaea will likely be debated for months to come. He wasn’t as sharp as he’s been in the past, and his entire outing ultimately came down to three pitches.

The first came against leadoff hitter Yandy Diaz. The first baseman was playing just his second game back after fracturing his foot in late July, but Rays manager Kevin Cash had enough faith in the slugger to bat him first. It paid off in a hurry. Diaz crushed a 3-1 fastball onto the shelf above the right field out-of-town scoreboard and put his team ahead early.

Manaea settled down, striking out the side in order, and it was time for the A’s to take their first hacks against Morton. The offense showed some fight early, spitting at a handful of nasty curveballs and loading the bases with two outs. Profar stepped to the plate, and with a 1-1 count, he instinctively jackknifed out of the way of a curve that looked like it was headed for his left leg. A hit-by-pitch would have driven in a run and left the bases loaded for designated hitter Khris Davis, but instead, Profar’s flyout to center ended the inning, as well as one of the A’s best chances of the night.

Third baseman Matt Duffy led off the second inning for Tampa with an infield single that shortstop Marcus Semien almost converted into an out. Unfortunately, Manaea’s second mistake would follow — another high fastball that Avisail Garcia obliterated to straightaway center field for a two-run homer. After just over an inning, the Rays already led 3-0.

The A’s went down in order in the bottom of the second, as a Robbie Grossman single was erased by a double play. That’s when A’s manager Bob Melvin got too greedy with Manaea, trying to push him through a third inning. Instead, the young lefty made his third and final mistake of the night, giving up another solo home run to Diaz on another up-and-away fastball. This ended his night after just two-plus innings, as Melvin turned the ball over to Petit — just one batter too late.

Down 4-0, the A’s finally showed some life in the bottom of the third thanks to some shoddy Tampa Bay defense. Rays rookie Michael Brosseau, who took over at third base after Duffy was pinch-hit for in top half of the inning, fielded a routine grounder from Semien and threw the ball past first base and into Oakland’s cavernous foul territory, sending the A’s leadoff hitter all the way to third base. Ramón Laureano sent the first pitch he saw into shallow right field for a sacrifice fly, driving in Oakland’s only run.

After three quick outs from Petit, the A’s were threatening again. Singles from Profar and Grossman put two on with one out and Melvin got aggressive, pinch-hitting with left-handed slugger Seth Brown and burning talented defensive catcher Sean Murphy in the process. It didn’t pay off, as Brown tapped into a fielder’s choice and Semien hit a routine grounder to second base to strand two more baserunners.

The Rays scored their fifth and final run on a solo homer by designated hitter Tommy Pham, and another double play helped Morton complete the fifth inning. That’s when, despite the score, Luzardo stole the show.

Just two days after turning 22 years old, Luzardo entered the biggest game of his life — and he shoved. He struck out four batters over three scoreless innings, touching 99.8 MPH with his fastball and teasing the A’s with what could have been, if he had just been healthy enough to pitch in the first five months of the season. He did everything he could to keep Oakland in the game, and left everything he had on the mound.

Unfortunately, the offense couldn’t do its part. They didn’t advance a runner past second base after missing out in the fourth inning, and right-handed relievers Diego Castillo and Nick Anderson held the A’s off the board into the ninth. With one out, the Rays added a little insult to injury, turning to former A’s righty Emilio Pagan to record the final two outs of the game and end Oakland’s season.

In 2018, it felt as if the A’s were playing with house money. Nobody expected them to win 97 games, and they clearly weren’t as talented as the powerhouse New York Yankees. It was disappointing to see them lose the Wild Card Game, but there was plenty to be proud of and plenty of reason for optimism.

This time, it’s different. There were expectations heading into 2019, and even higher expectations heading into Wednesday night. The A’s had home field advantage and looked like Tampa Bay’s equals, if not a slightly better team overall. But, the same result. Just another addition to the team’s MLB-record nine game losing streak in winner-take-all games.

In due time, maybe we’ll be able to look back on this season with as much pride as we did in 2018. After all, the A’s window is far from closing. Three huge pieces of their young core — Luzardo, Murphy, and lefty A.J. Puk — just reached made their MLB debuts in the late weeks of this season. The future is still insanely bright in Oakland.

But after a 162-game grind, the A’s fell short once again. In the moment, this loss is yet another gut-punch to a fanbase that has taken more than its fair share since the turn of the century. That fanbase keeps thinking that, one of these years, the A’s have to break this October skid. They really had a great chance to do so in 2019.

But instead, once again, we’ll just have to wait until next year.