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3 former White Sox players led Oakland A’s to postseason series win over Chicago

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Two trades worked out really, really well for Oakland

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

On December 9, 2014, the Oakland A’s traded star pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the Chicago White Sox for four younger, up-and-coming players.

On December 9, 2015, the A’s traded infielder Brett Lawrie to the White Sox for two pitching prospects.

On October 1, 2020, the A’s won their first postseason series in 14 years, in the Wild Card Round over the White Sox.

All three of these events are connected, and you don’t have to study the back of a dollar bill to see why. Three of the players the A’s received in those deals played critical roles against their old team, standing among the many heroes who mercifully ended the green and gold’s long series drought in the playoffs.

Of the four players Oakland received for Samardzija, in the trade known around these parts as Sharknado 2*, all of them are on current postseason rosters. Corner man Rangel Ravelo never made it with the A’s but was picked up by the Cardinals, where he is now a bench bat. Catcher Josh Phegley spent five seasons in the Bay Area as a solid backup catcher, and is now with the Cubs.

* the hurler known as Shark had been acquired months earlier from Chicago’s other team, the Cubs, in Sharknado 1

The other two acquisitions are still enormous parts of the A’s roster. Shortstop Marcus Semien has been the starting shortstop ever since and has improved every year, to the point that he finished third in AL MVP voting last season. Statistically he took a step back in 2020, but in this series he came through when it counted.

Semien’s two-run homer in Game 2 proved to be the eventual game-winner in a 5-3 victory, and in Game 3 he reached base three times including twice to help spark run-scoring rallies in a 6-4 win. In the 4th inning he doubled to help load the bases and later scored on Matt Olson’s walk, and in the 5th he himself walked to set the table for Chad Pinder’s two-run single.

Semien, series: 3-for-12, BB, HR, double, 2 RBI, 2 runs

Then there’s pitcher Chris Bassitt. It took a while for this part of the swap to pan out for the A’s, as the right-hander went down with Tommy John surgery early in 2016. He made it back to the majors in 2018, but despite consistently solid work he was often relegated to the bullpen or even the minors. Other than his injury season, he’d never posted an ERA over 4.00, nor a FIP over 4.50.

In 2020, he put it all together and took off, cementing himself not only in Oakland’s rotation but unexpectedly as their ace. His 2.29 ERA led the rotation by nearly two full runs, and ranked Top 10 in the majors. He was especially dominant down the stretch, allowing just one run in his final four starts combined to win AL Pitcher of the Month honors.

On Wednesday, Bassitt got the call for his first postseason appearance, and he more than answered it. He spun seven scoreless innings against his old club, before finally allowing a runner in the 8th who later came around. With the season on the line, he delivered the quality start the A’s had been searching for the last three years, right when they needed it most with the season on the line. Without that victory, there is no Game 3 thriller at all.

Bassitt, G2: 7+ ip, 1 run, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 6 hits, 92 pitches (65 strikes)

As for the Lawrie trade, Oakland cut bait on the disappointing headliner from the infamous Josh Donaldson deal (zero days), and cashed in for two prospects. One of them, lefty Zack Erwin, is still in the A’s farm system, and was pitching well in Double-A at the end of 2019 when the minors were last in session.

The other, right-hander J.B. Wendelken, just had himself a series. Technically, Wendelken went on waivers at one point, so it’s arguable whether he’s still part of the Donaldson/Lawrie trade tree, but he never actually exited the organization so I propose that he still counts.

Like Bassitt, Wendelken missed time to Tommy John surgery in 2016, in his case shortly after his MLB debut for Oakland — he was the only one of this trio who never played in the majors for the Sox. He also returned in 2018, and ever since then Athletics Nation has touted him as a breakout candidate. Seems he finally broke out.

After leading all of the staff’s non-Hendriks relievers in innings this year, with a sparkling 1.80 ERA, it was questionable whether Wendelken would even play in the postseason. He went on the injured list a few days before the end of the regular season for undisclosed reasons, suggesting a potential coronavirus connection. However, everything turned out to be alright, and he made the Wild Card roster after all.

And good thing he did. In the first game he delivered eight clutch outs in relief of Jesús Luzardo, which kept the A’s in the game into the late innings. Oakland’s lineup didn’t end up mounting a comeback, but they only had a chance at all because Wendelken held serve so effectively for so long.

He came back for Game 3. With all hands on deck for a full bullpen game, he got the 6th inning and put Chicago down 1-2-3. He wasn’t any kind of singular hero, but he offered one of the least stressful innings of the afternoon, and one of only four perfect frames by either side.

Wendelken, series: 3⅔ ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 1 hit

Without these three players in Oakland, it’s entirely possible, maybe even probable, that the White Sox are celebrating the end of their own long postseason misery, which dates back one year longer to their 2005 championship.

Meanwhile, Samardzija pitched one year for the Sox in 2015 before leaving as a free agent, and he led the majors in earned runs allowed for a 4.96 ERA during a brief pitcher-friendly era in the league. Lawrie played one year in 2016, and posted a league-average batting line (.723 OPS, 95 wRC+), 12 homers, and around 1 WAR, then was released and never reached the bigs again.

Thank you, White Sox. The A’s couldn’t have done it without you, even before considering all the walks and errors that fueled their offense in this week’s series. These current Sox are good and their time will come, and they might be a juggernaut sooner than later, but for now Oakland is riding a few of their former prospects right past them to their own long-awaited glory — or, at least, the end of their long-suffered October series drought.

But wait! There’s more!

There are yet two more former White Sox not to be forgotten, although they didn’t come to Oakland directly from Chicago.

Reliever Joakim Soria pitched for the Sox in 2018, serving as their closer until a midseason trade to the Brewers. He signed with the A’s the next winter and has been one of their primary setup men the last two seasons, posting an especially successful campaign in 2020.

This week, he made two appearances against Chicago. In Game 1 he got the 8th inning, shortly after Wendelken’s performance, and allowed a solo homer to Yasmani Grandal — which didn’t end up mattering in the 4-1 final. But in Game 3, he gutted through a scoreless 8th when it did matter, allowing a single and a walk but then inducing a double play from MVP candidate Jose Abreu.

Soria, series: 2 ip, 1 run, 1 K, 1 BB, 2 hits, 1 HR

Then there’s Frankie Montas, who debuted in a White Sox uniform but went through the Dodgers before coming to Oakland in a 2016 stars-for-prospects swap. He looked like the budding ace of the staff last year but struggled this summer, leaving him out of the playoff rotation entirely — for now. That might change after his Game 3 performance out of the bullpen.

The power right-hander entered in the 4th and set down the top of the lineup in order on 10 pitches. In the 5th he did allow a small-ball run, thanks to a single, a steal, and another single, but he still chewed through two innings in a game when every out felt like a precious commodity.

Montas, G3: 2 ip, 1 run, 2 Ks, 0 BB, 2 hits

In total, four of the A’s nine innings were pitched by former White Sox hurlers, and 14⅔ of their 27 innings for the series.