The Oakland A’s made yet another statement this week, in a season that’s been full of them. This time they went to Houston and took three of four games from the Astros, who entered the series with the best record in MLB. Oakland is locked in a tight Wild Card battle with two other clubs and they need every win they can get to keep pace, so their clutch performance against an elite opponent was especially timely.
Here are the eight best things about this series win.
1. Beating the best
The A’s and Astros are both in the AL West division, which means they play each other 19 times every year as part of the league’s unbalanced scheduling. In their first 11 meetings, the A’s went 2-9, failing to find any answers against the Houston superteam. Since then, Oakland won six of the final eight matchups.
Back in August the two clubs faced off for four games in the Coliseum and the A’s took three of them, only falling short in the finale against Zack Greinke. Fast forward a month and they had a rematch at Minute Maid for four more games and the result was the same, with the green and gold capturing three of them and losing only to Greinke in the opener.
Overall the A’s finish the season series 8-11 against the Astros. That’s still a losing record, but it’s much closer to an even rivalry than it is to the lopsided domination we witnessed in the first half of the season.
And that’s the worst the A’s fared against any of the AL contenders. Here’s Oakland’s record against the other top teams, from both leagues:
- NYY: 4-2
- MIN: 4-3
- TBR: 4-3
- CLE: 5-1
- STL: 4-0
- CHC: 1-2
- MIL: 2-1
The A’s won the season series against every AL playoff team except the Astros. They also swept the NL-leading Cardinals in interleague action, both home and away. They did fall to the Cubs, but they also only played them in Chicago and didn’t get to answer back in the Coliseum, and on the other hand they did beat the Brewers, who are currently tied with the Cubbies for the last NL Wild Card spot.
None of this will mean anything when the postseason starts, as the slates will all be wiped clean. But the point is that this A’s team has been tested against the best and has passed virtually every time, often with flying colors. This squad has proven they can hang and has earned some fan confidence entering October — assuming they make it there.
2. Last real test
With the final Astros games out of the way, the rest of the schedule looks favorable for the A’s. They’ve got six against the Rangers, four against the Mariners, three against the Royals, and two against the Angels. None of those teams are above .500 (though Texas enters the series right at .500), and Oakland is 31-18 against them combined.
Of course, the A’s still need to win those games. The opponents aren’t going to lay down, and every also-ran hopes to be a spoiler in late September. But the opportunity is there to put this race away if they can take care of business, and meanwhile the Indians have nine more games against contenders (Twins, Nationals, Phillies) and the Rays have a pair each against the Dodgers and Yankees.
Entering Friday, Oakland holds the top Wild Card spot by a half-game over Tampa Bay, with Cleveland another half-game behind them. The more important measure, though, is that the A’s have one fewer loss (60) than the Rays/Indians (61 each), plus the head-to-head tiebreaker against both of them (which would earn Oakland home-field in any Game 163 situation).
3. The 21-run revenge
This week’s series got off to a disastrous start, as the Astros annihilated the A’s 15-0 in the opener on Monday. It was an inauspicious beginning to a crucial late-season series, and a general buzzkill for Oakland fans during a playoff drive.
But the next night, the script got flipped. The A’s put up 21 runs on Tuesday in a 21-7 victory, clapping back in epic fashion against the previous night’s embarrassing loss. Nothing makes you forget a 15-run defeat faster than a 14-run win the next night against the same opponent.
Every A’s starter had at least two hits, reached base three times, scored a run, and drove in a run. They combined for six homers, set their season-high in hits, and set a franchise record for most total bases. And to top it all off, Daniel Mengden earned a save at the end despite winning by two touchdowns, thanks to the silly three-inning save rule.
4. Luzardo debuts
On Monday the A’s called up their best prospect, pitcher Jesus Luzardo. He’s a Top 50 national prospect, and arguably Top 20, and he’s got a chance to be an ace starter.
Due to some injury setbacks this summer, it took longer than expected for Oakland fans to get a look at Luzardo. But the left-hander finally debuted on Wednesday, and it was everything we could have hoped for. His powerful fastball had tons of movement, his secondary pitches looked promising, and his control and command were strong as advertised.
He entered in a high-leverage situation, with a three-run lead in the 6th inning, and he retired nine of the 10 batters he faced. The one mistake did turn out to be a solo homer, so he wasn’t perfect, but it was a hell of a first impression and he got the job done in terms of holding the lead.
5. Murphy flexes power
Luzardo isn’t the only blue-chip, impact prospect to arrive in Oakland this month. Catcher Sean Murphy also got the call in September, and had already opened eyes in his own debut last week by hitting a homer and catching a shutout.
Murphy took it up another notch in Houston, though. He contributed two homers on Tuesday in the 21-run blowout, and then the next night he went yard again. The Wednesday dinger eliminated an Astros lead in the 6th, after which his teammates rallied to take their own lead in an eventual close victory.
Granted, two of Murphy’s taters were Crawford Box specials, going only about 360 feet each and benefiting from the dumb left-field porch at Minute Maid Park. But they still count, and his other homer was an absolute moonshot — at 448 feet it’s the second-longest dinger by the A’s this year (after Matt Chapman at 453).
Overall in the series, Murphy started two games and went 4-for-9 with 3 HR, 5 RBI, and a walk. He’s got a 229 wRC+ through his first 20 plate appearances in the majors.
6. Bullpen holds up
Before this series, the A’s played the Tigers, and last Friday’s game continued the summer’s running theme: Blown saves. Oakland’s bullpen has blown the lead in 28 games this year, which isn’t quite as bad as it looks due to their high number of opportunities (good teams build more leads) but is still a problem that has cost them some extra wins. It was even worse to see them give up a close lead against the worst team in the majors, featuring a lineup full of players you’ve never heard of.
The pen bounced back in Houston, though. The first two games were decided by the offenses, which each took their turn exploding, but the next two were much closer affairs. On Wednesday they skipped the setup crew entirely and let Luzardo bridge the gap from starter Brett Anderson to closer Liam Hendriks, which was a huge boost for the staff. Then on Thursday, starter Homer Bailey pitched well but only made it into the 6th, requiring 11 outs from the relievers.
Hendriks successfully shut the door in the 9th inning both times, though on Thursday he made things interesting by putting the first two runners on base. But an extra shoutout to Jake Diekman, who has been shaky since his acquisition in July (15 BB+HBP in 15⅔ innings) but got four big outs in relief of Bailey.
The A’s had a few great defensive highlights in Houston. First up is Ramon Laureano, who threw out yet another runner at the plate on Wednesday. This time he channeled his inner Cespedes, by bobbling the ball and then nabbing the runner when he tried to capitalize on the miscue.
For some reason, teams keep running on Ramon. Since his MLB debut last August, his 18 outfield assists are the most in the majors.
On the other hand, second baseman Jurickson Profar has struggled mightily with his own throwing this year. He’s not making as many errors as he did in the first half of the season, but his throws to first base are still visibly shaky. Fortunately, his glove still works fine, and he made another nice running catch on Thursday.
Here’s a view from another angle. Profar has quietly been excellent at catching pops and tough flies this year — maybe he really could have a future in LF?
Of course there’s also a Chapman highlight, as he went all-out to make this tag on Jose Altuve, who was picked off by Diekman (technically goes down as just a caught stealing).
Live look at Chappy stopping Altuve just short of the first down marker. pic.twitter.com/xpDahit3Xj— Dallas Braden (@DALLASBRADEN209) September 13, 2019
(Both players are OK, thank goodness.)
8. Beat Verlander
A’s fans know about Justin Verlander. He was the obstacle they couldn’t get past in their last two ALDS appearances, making him one of their biggest arch-nemeses of the 21st century so far. They haven’t had any answers during the regular season, either, as the last time they hung a loss on him was in August of 2013.
From 2014-18, Verlander faced the A’s five times. His team won each of them, he earned the win four times, and he put up a quality start four times. He also won the first two matchups of 2019 with two more quality efforts.
Oakland finally overcame in August, but only because they held him to a tie through seven innings and then beat the Astros bullpen. On Thursday, they finally beat him outright, tagging him for three runs in six innings in a 3-2 victory. He was still technically quality, but it wasn’t enough on that day and he was tagged with the loss by the A’s for the first time in over six years.
Honorable mention to Matt Olson (3 HR, 8 RBI) and Marcus Semien (8-for-16, 2 HR), who both had huge series. We’re used to them doing great things at this point, but that doesn’t make them any less amazing.