The Oakland A’s finally did it. For the first time since 2006, they finally won a postseason series to move on to the next round, snapping a streak of six straight eliminations over more than a decade.
The A’s beat the Chicago White Sox 6-4 on Thursday in one of the most tense, thrilling games they’ve played in recent memory. The victory in the deciding Game 3 of the Wild Card Series means Oakland advances to an ALDS matchup with the Houston Astros, while the White Sox go home for the winter.
The last time the A’s won a series was the 2006 ALDS, against the Minnesota Twins, but they were then quickly swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS. Since then, they lost the ALDS in 2012 and 2013, and then the Wild Card Game in 2014, 2018, and 2019. That’s five consecutive postseason trips without ever moving on in the bracket.
What’s more, this was a winner-take-all elimination game, and Oakland has been especially cursed in those for longer than many fans have been alive. They last won such a sudden-death contest in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series.
From the very first pitch, every moment of this four-plus-hour game was drenched with drama and suspense. The White Sox pulled their starter after four batters, and the A’s pulled theirs in the 2nd inning, making it effectively a bullpen game for both clubs. They combined to use 17 pitchers.
This is the first winner-take-all game in postseason history where neither starting pitcher completed 2 innings.— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) October 1, 2020
As for the scoreboard, the lead changed multiple times throughout. Chicago took an early 3-0 lead, but the A’s stormed back in the 4th inning with four runs. The Sox quickly tied it in the 5th, but then Oakland added two more to retake the advantage. Then it went quiet, as both pens bore down and posted zeroes the rest of the way for seven more nail-biting half-innings. Liam Hendriks finished it off with a 98.4 mph fastball for a called Strike 3 against Nomar Mazara.
It’s impossible to sum up this game in writing in any meaningful way. You really had to be there. I could explain the play-by-play to you, but you still wouldn’t feel your heart pumping on every 1-1 fastball near the zone, nor the anticipation of every frequent pitching change, nor the catharsis of those moments when each lineup finally broke through. For now, let’s split it into separate looks at the A’s hitters and their pitchers.
Oakland simply couldn’t go quiet on offense again. Not after doing so the last two years in the Game That Counted, nor on Tuesday in Game 1. They had to win or at least go down swinging.
Chicago opted to go with a full bullpen game. Their starter, Dane Dunning, faced four batters and put two of them on base, then was yanked for a reliever — who himself lasted only two batters before leaving injured. Bullpen games can go either way, as you can either baffle the opponent with a bunch of different looks in every inning, or doom yourself if a couple of the many arms are off their games that day.
The A’s threatened a couple times early, but Matt Olson struck out with multiple runners on base to end both the 1st and the 3rd. Finally, down 3-0 in the 4th, with the earliest wisps of dread beginning to creep into everyone’s minds, they broke through.
It began with some power. With one on and two out, rookie catcher Sean Murphy went yard. It didn’t quite tie the score, but it felt like a whole new ballgame, and A’s fans were finally able to take a breath knowing the team was going to put up a fight after all.
Murph keeps the A’s in it with one swing of the bat pic.twitter.com/ffbyBlg388— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) October 1, 2020
Then Chicago encountered the downside of a bullpen game. A new pitcher issued a walk, and then allowed a double, then gave one more intentional pass to load them up. He was then removed for another new pitcher, Matt Foster, who couldn’t find the zone at the worst possible time. It took him only 10 pitches to walk both Mark Canha and Olson, each time forcing home a run — one to tie it, and another to give Oakland the lead. Who needs hits with runners in scoring position if you can just walk with the bags juiced?
The Sox soon tied it back up, so the green and gold kept the pressure on. With two outs in the 5th, Murphy drew a walk, and Tommy La Stella reached on a catcher’s interference. Marcus Semien walked to load ‘em up, his third time on base.
That brought up Chad Pinder. The super-sub hadn’t started the game, but he pinch-hit in the 3rd inning for Jake Lamb against a lefty. He didn’t come through that time, with a grounder that went for an infield single but didn’t score any runs, and his next time up (also against a lefty) he was handed an intentional walk. This time he was at the platoon disadvantage, facing a righty, but he notched the big hit anyway. A sharp grounder through the SS-3B hole on the left side was enough for a single to bring home two runners, and marked the biggest hit of Pinder’s career so far.
The White Sox retired 10 of the next 12 batters, keeping Oakland silent the rest of the way, but the damage had been done. Six runs, all scored with two outs, were enough to earn a celebration.
Finally, after three years of being the A’s most consistently reliable starter, Mike Fiers got the call to start a playoff game. It was only the second postseason appearance of his career, and the first start.
The identity of the starter didn’t end up mattering, though, because this turned out to be a bullpen game for Oakland as well. Fiers was clearly on a short leash, and was allowed to go just barely into the second time through the lineup. In fact, another starter ended up coming in later in Frankie Montas, though the lefties Sean Manaea and Mike Minor remained on the bench when the A’s did their homework after Game 1 regarding Chicago’s success against southpaws.
Fiers got hit hard for two innings, but managed to limit the damage to just one run. He stranded a single and a double in the 1st, and then led off the 2nd by serving up a solo homer to Luis Robert — at 487 feet, the longest ball ever hit at the Coliseum since Statcast began in 2015. Sorry, have to show the highlight for that.
Good grief 487 feet but geez that was such a bad pitch pic.twitter.com/h3OfRLE0RP— Julian McWilliams (@byJulianMack) October 1, 2020
Fiers bounced back to strike out the next two batters, but then a single, double, and walk loaded the bases. Manager Bob Melvin wasn’t waiting around, and he got the bullpen parade started.
First up was Yusmeiro Petit, who retired star slugger Jose Abreu to end the rally. But then Petit faltered in the 3rd, allowing a few hits for two more runs, capped by an RBI double from Nomar Mazara. That proved to be the low point of the game for Oakland.
While Montas was tossing his two innings in the 4th and 5th, the A’s had their big outburst to take the lead, but Chicago tied it back up in the 5th against Montas with a small-ball run — single, steal, single. The pesky rally almost got worse with a two-out pop-up to no-man’s land, but this was a day when the hops and bounces were going Oakland’s way for the first time in recent October memory.
That’s the kind of play the A’s usually lose on in the playoffs. This time, La Stella held on.
Next up was J.B. Wendelken, who pitched a perfect 6th, one of just four 1-2-3 frames in the entire game by either club. It was one of the few moments of the game that wasn’t sheer terror.
Lou Trivino began the 7th, but was put in a hole right away by a Semien throwing error. A subsequent walk upped the pressure, but Trivino got the next two outs before being lifted for lefty Jake Diekman, to face the lefty hitter Mazara. Diekman walked him to load the bases, but got a groundout to escape the jam.
The 8th was more of the same — trouble, and then a Houdini act. Joakim Soria put two on with one out for Abreu, but then induced a double play from the MVP candidate to get out of it. Abreu went 1-for-5 with five runners left on base.
Finally, the 9th. Liam Hendriks had thrown a season-high 49 pitches the day before in Game 2, largely because he had been uncharacteristically ineffective. But he came back for redemption in Game 3, and earned it. There was a leadoff single because of course there was, but then the next three batters struck out, ending with Mazara looking at a fastball.
A mighty roar from Hendriks, and the A’s had done the seemingly impossible — won a playoff series.
Bob Melvin called Liam Hendriks “Hercu-Liam” after his save today following 49 pitches yesterday. Hendriks says he’d like a shirt with that on it, stat.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) October 1, 2020
The only pitchers who didn’t appear were the four other starters, and lefty T.J. McFarland.
Drink it in, Athletics Nation. A postseason series is over, and we’re not explaining what went wrong and how it could have gone differently. We’re celebrating an actual victory, and looking forward to a new opponent instead of back at the ghosts of the past. This is a new feeling, but I think it’s one we can get used to.
The ALDS begins Monday, a best-of-five against the division rival, national villain, and defending AL champion Houston Astros. They’ll play at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Let’s do this.