The Oakland A’s took two out of three games from the Tampa Bay Rays this week, notching an impressive series win against a playoff contender. That wrapped up a 10-game road trip in which the A’s went 6-4, against two quality opponents and the Angels. Even despite playing four games in three days in the Texas heat, including being swept in a doubleheader, they still finished with a winning record on the trip.
There was plenty to like about the wins over the Angels, and the split with the Rangers, but let’s take a closer look at this most recent dip against the Rays. Here are the six best things about that series win in The Other Bay Area.
1. Beat a good team
The A’s haven’t faced many tests against the best teams in the league yet this season. They’re yet to play against the AL East-leading Yankees, or the Central-leading Twins. They’ve seen the West-leading Astros, but have lost seven of the eight matchups. Their biggest accomplishment had been going 6-3 against the Rangers, who hold the second Wild Card position.
The Rays, though, are part of that upper echelon right now. They’re neck-and-neck with the Yankees in the East, and even after losing this series they hold a five-game lead in the top Wild Card spot. It took until June, but the A’s finally beat a legitimate contender.
2. Tanner Anderson
Oakland’s starting rotation hasn’t been the disaster that many feared it might be, but the fifth starter spot is still up for grabs. The A’s have already cycled through the likes of Aaron Brooks, Daniel Mengden, and Paul Blackburn, but nobody has been able to perform consistently enough to hold it down.
Enter Tanner Anderson, the No. 24 prospect on our Community Prospect List. His stats in Triple-A looked awful, between a 6.26 ERA and a 7.30 FIP, but Oakland gave him a chance to prove himself anyway. He exceeded all expectations in his debut, which was also the first start he’s ever made in the majors. He fell one out short of a technical quality start, and the A’s eventually lost, but he held a good lineup scoreless into the 6th inning and more than kept his own team in the game.
The fifth starter spot will surely continue to evolve over the course of the summer, especially with elite prospect Jesus Luzardo back to health. But in the meantime, someone has to go out there every fifth day and compete, and Tanner has taken a huge step toward showing he can be that guy for now.
3. Beau Taylor
Not to be lost in the good pitching is the new catcher. When Nick Hundley hurt his back last weekend, Taylor got the call to fill in. The veteran minor leaguer made his MLB debut last year but still had only six career plate appearances to his name, and he’d never started a game in the bigs.
The 29-year-old finally got his chance this week. He started not one but two games, catching Tanner Anderson’s solid effort and then working with Brett Anderson in Wednesday’s finale. Brett carried a shutout into the 7th before finally yielding two runs.
Taylor chipped in with the bat as well. He went 0-for-2 on Monday, but then his next time out he reached base three times in four plate appearances — a clean line-drive single, a walk, and a HBP.
The A’s can use all the help they can get at the catcher position. They’re getting a standout performance from Josh Phegley, serving as their primary catcher, but he can’t play every day and all the other plans have gone wrong. Chris Herrmann, signed last winter to be their starter, hasn’t yet played due to knee surgery, and top prospect Sean Murphy is on the shelf for the same reason, on top of Hundley now being out.
Of course, this opportunity surely won’t last forever for Taylor. Herrmann has begun a rehab assignment in Triple-A, and Murphy presumably won’t be far behind him. But in the meantime, it’s great to see a long-time org favorite get some moments in the sun, and even better to see him actually help the A’s win games.
4. Don’t pitch to Ramon!
Ramon Laureano has gone through some struggles at the plate this year. His strikeout rate remains high, and he’s not getting on base as much as he did last season as a rookie. But he’s been hot for the last month, with a .904 OPS over his last 24 contests, and he used his whole skill set to carry the lineup to one of their victories last week.
After posting 0-fers in the first two games, Laureano came to life in the finale on Wednesday. He drove in the first run of the game in the 4th inning, beating out a grounder to score the runner from third base with two outs. The shortstop helped by botching the transfer from glove to hand, failing to even make a throw, but it’s fair to guess that Laureano’s speed could have played a role in the defender feeling rushed — and as if to prove that point, Laureano proceeded to steal second and third in the span of the next three pitches, though he was eventually stranded.
Then the big blow came in the 8th, with the score knotted 2-2. The A’s loaded the bases with one out, and Colin Poche entered to face Laureano. The Rays had intentionally walked the light-hitting Grossman to get to this matchup, but that turned out to be a mistake. Laureano made them pay with his first career grand slam, breaking the tie and propelling Oakland to a 6-2 victory.
Don’t Run On Ramon? Turns out there’s more advice: Don’t Pitch To Ramon. That’s one run from his speed, and another four thanks to his power.
5. Beating Pagan
Last winter, the A’s traded away Emilio Pagan. He’d put up a mediocre 2018 and found himself on the Triple-A taxi squad at times, and space was limited in the ‘19 pen, so Oakland flipped him in the Jurickson Profar deal. He ended up in Tampa Bay, where he’s now putting up absurd numbers to remind us all that relievers are extremely volatile — for better or for worse.
Pagan, entering series: 0.82 ERA, 22 ip, 30 Ks, 5 BB, 0 HR, 12 hits, 1.11 FIP
It’s great that he put it all together! But a bummer that it came for another team. Fortunately, his former teammates weren’t intimidated.
The Rays called on Pagan in the 6th inning on Tuesday, hoping to hold a slim 2-1 lead. He got the first out, and then watched the next batter reach on an error. But then Matt Olson homered. And then Khris Davis homered. And just like that, the A’s had taken a lead while essentially doubling Pagan’s ERA and FIP in the span of four batters. The dingers were the first he’d allowed this year, and the blown save/hold was just his second in 10 tries.
Pagan, now: 1.50 ERA, 24 ip, 32 Ks, 5 BB, 2 HR, 14 hits, 2.20 FIP
The error played a part, but any way you slice it, back-to-back homers will swing a one-run game.
Athletics Nation is familiar with the Curse of the Former A’s, but this time the script was flipped and the Current A’s won the day.
6. TnT get the job done
The A’s got three strong starts in this series, between the two Andersons and also a quality outing from Mike Fiers on Tuesday. But the thing that’s most held them back in 2019 has been the bullpen, which leads the AL in blown saves and relief losses.
The pen took care of business against the Rays, though. Granted, Liam Hendriks did blow his first save of the year on Wednesday, eventually bailed out by Laureano’s heroics, but he was never meant to be the setup man despite elevating to that role amid a wonderful campaign. No, the aces are Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, and they both came through in this series.
On Tuesday, the trio of Henriks, Trivino, and Treinen retired 9-of-11 batters to finish off the win for Fiers. Treinen did allow a small-ball run along the way, but not enough to change the outcome. Then on Wednesday, after Hendriks faltered and Laureano retook the lead, TnT came through once more. This time Trivino scattered a few hits, while Treinen was the one with a 1-2-3 frame.
The bullpen wasn’t perfect in Tampa Bay, but they did enough to get the job done. For much of 2019, that’s been the difference between losing heartbreakers, or hanging on for the wins we grew accustomed to seeing last year.