What a week. By the end of yesterday, the front page of Athletics Nation consisted of the following: the A’s were knocked out of the playoffs, two Hall of Famers died, here’s a list of all the free agents who are leaving, and also Billy Beane is leaving. And that was only Monday.
Rather than sit in the doldrums, let’s balance out that misery with a look on the bright side. The 2020 season was a weird one in a lot of ways, but most notably because it was shortened to just over one-third the length at 60 games. And yet, I can’t help feeling that the A’s packed a full summer’s worth of memories and exciting moments into that abbreviated campaign.
They wasted no time ramping up the action. Opening Night against the Angels felt like a playoff atmosphere from the start, including the manufactured thrill of the new extra-inning-runner rule, and it ended with a walk-off grand slam by Matt Olson.
Not two weeks later, the A’s hit another walk-off grand slam, this time by Stephen Piscotty. No other team in franchise history had ever hit two of those in one year, and this 2020 crew hurried up and crammed two into their first 11 games.
Those weren’t even their most exciting late-inning moments. This year’s Bay Bridge Series was especially dramatic, as the first game saw Oakland come back from five runs down in the 9th inning to tie it and then win in extras. Naturally, the key hit was another grand slam by Piscotty, making him the 14th player ever to hit a pair of 9th-inning slams in the same summer — and they came just 10 days apart.
The very next day against the Giants, the A’s trailed by three in the 9th but came back to win again. This time it was a homer by Mark Canha, down to Oakland’s last strike, that gave them the lead. The green and gold won back the Bridge Trophy with a 5-1 record.
Overall, the A’s notched six walk-off wins, in just 60 games. They had 10 in each of the previous two 162-game years, so on a per-game basis they racked up more than their fair share of pies. There were the slams by Olson and Piscotty, a 13th-inning single by Marcus Semien against the Astros, a 10th-inning sac fly by Canha against the Angels, a single by Ramon Laureano to beat Houston, and a 10th-inning homer by Canha against the Mariners.
Oakland’s .600 percentage would work out to 97 wins in a full season, just like they had the last two years, and along the way we enjoyed some fun new players. Jesús Luzardo and Sean Murphy played their rookie years, and both showed plenty of promise. By the end of the year Murphy might have been the best hitter on the team, and Luzardo did enough to draw a Game 1 start in the playoffs.
We also got a full healthy return from Sean Manaea. It took him a few weeks to find his groove, but he settled in and reeled off some impressive and efficient starts. Chris Bassitt also took a step forward, putting up the best numbers in the rotation. In the bullpen, Liam Hendriks proved to be for real, Jake Diekman turned into a stud with a reworked slider, and J.B. Wendelken continued his quiet progress into a potential late-inning arm.
In the lineup, Robbie Grossman was this year’s random unexpected breakout, adding power and at times carrying the offense. The midseason addition of Tommy La Stella was a treat to watch, with his perpetually professional at-bats. Emergency third baseman Jake Lamb passed his Coliseum test by making a tarp catch.
And what about the human element? As usual there were a couple replay review scandals in which the A’s got hosed, among other questionable umpiring. But the highlight here has to be Laureano charging the Astros dugout.
After being hit with his third pitch of the series, Laureano taunted the pitcher on his way to 1st base. He settled down by the time he got to the bag, but Houston’s “loser” hitting coach extended the situation and escalated it by instigating a fight with Laureano that led to a full benches-clearing hullabaloo. Both men were suspended, the coach for 20 games.
The world around us also affected the action on the field like never before. Games were postponed for multiple reasons that weren’t rain — first as part of league-wide protests against racism, and then because a player on the team tested positive for coronavirus and the whole club had to go through several days of isolation and other safety protocols. Then there was the doubleheader that got called off because of smoke in the air ... oh wait, never mind, they played through that for some reason.
With wildfires raging all over the West Coast this summer, it wasn’t unusual for smoke to fill the air in various regions. On a trip to Seattle, the air quality registered over 200 AQI (very unhealthy) but the A’s and Mariners played two anyway. On another occasion several days earlier, Oakland had played a game at the Coliseum under an orange-ish Martian-looking sky, though that day the effect was more visual and it was at least safe to be outside.
And then, the postseason. The A’s won the AL West division title for the first time since 2013, but had to play in the new best-of-three Wild Card Round in the expanded playoff bracket. They beat the Chicago White Sox in three captivating games, conquering all of their postseason demons along the way, and as an extra twist they were led by a few players they got in trades from the White Sox themselves.
For the first time since 2006, they won a playoff series and advanced to another round. Unfortunately, that was as far as the journey took them in 2020, as they lost the ALDS in four frustrating games — and to the dreaded, villainous, formerly cheating, division rival Astros. Even in disappointing defeat, though, they still set some impressive postseason home run records.
And, as another plus, Chad Pinder emerged as an unexpected hero in both playoff series. We also finally got to see Mike Fiers start a big playoff game, once and for all, to satisfy our curiosity after he was passed over for the job in each of the last two years.
Along the way, there were the normal little fun things to enjoy. We couldn’t go to games ourselves due to pandemic protocol, but it was good to know that Cardboard Tom Hanks was at the Coliseum slinging imaginary hot dogs, with his voice included in the fake crowd noise. For a while he was joined by the Astros mascot, Orbit, sitting in a trash can. And who could forget the giant teddy bear getting beaned in the head with a foul ball?
There was the fun and touching moment of seeing the A’s lineup introduced by their families as a surprise before one game. With no fans to cheer, Sean Manaea filled in with his own homemade signs. And at one point Olson grew a mustache for a while. Oh, and Barry Zito released a new song.
It was only about two and a half months, but the A’s sure packed in a lot. Perhaps that’s because every day in 2020 feels like a week anyway, but Oakland still managed tons of highlights on the field, introduced their usual contingent of new characters to root for, experienced some unique weirdness that we’ll talk about for years, showed off their own quirks and fun personalities, won the division, and won a playoff series. Not bad for one summer, much less a short one.