The Oakland A’s finally won a playoff series, and 24 hours later that reality is still sinking in. Let’s do the list again since we know it all by heart — and anyway, now that the sad streak has been broken, it feels more like a redemption origin story than a currently open wound.
The A’s hadn’t won a postseason series since the 2006 ALDS. Since then they’d lost six matchups in a row, and their last five trips to October had ended in the first round they played without advancing in the bracket — the ALDS in 2012 and 2013 to the Tigers, and the Wild Card Game in 2014, 2018, and 2019, to the Royals, Yankees, and Rays.
Even worse, they hadn’t prevailed in a winner-take-all elimination game in my lifetime. Before Game 3 of this year’s best-of-three Wild Card Round, the last time it happened was Game 7 of the 1973 World Series nearly a half-century ago. Most infamous since then were their four straight Game 5 defeats in the 2000-03 ALDS, but all of the last five losses from 2012-19 also fit the sudden-death description.
They lost in every way imaginable. Early blowouts. Close games. Extra innings. Comebacks that weren’t quite enough. Blown saves. Dropped flies. Forgetting to touch home plate. Bar fights. Mid-game injuries. Watching Strike 3 down the middle. Derek Jeter. Justin Verlander. Yandy Effing Diaz.
Leaving aside the specific individuals at the end of that list, the A’s faced nearly every one of those demons on Thursday against the Chicago White Sox. This time, instead of finding a creative new way to fall short, they overcame all of it and passed every test en route to the victory that we logically knew had to happen eventually but that we never dared to think we’d actually see.
In my recap after the game, between the mix of elation, exhaustion, amazement, and pure adrenaline, all I could do was split up the action into the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. But really, this was a three-act play, perfectly separated into blocks of three innings apiece. The A’s got seven tries to win a series, so allow me to take the liberty of a second go at recapping the finale.
Act 1: Early deficit
The 2018 and 2019 Wild Card Games were hardly even games. Oakland’s starters allowed early runs, including homers to the first or second batters of the 1st inning, and the lineup never hit their way back in against the opponents’ aces. They were over as soon as they’d begun, and Game 1 on Tuesday was the same against Lucas Giolito and the White Sox.
You can even go back to 2000 ALDS Game 5 for another example, with its six-run 1st inning, though at least Oakland made a spirited comeback attempt in that one.
There was no perfectly appealing option to start Thursday. Sean Manaea was probably the best arm available, but Chicago had just shown their strength against southpaws by blasting Jesús Luzardo with their righty-heavy lineup, and Manaea himself was the 2019 starter who got smashed by Yandy and the Rays.
Meanwhile, Mike Fiers had the advantage of being a righty, but is also a hittable flyball pitcher who gets by on smoke and mirrors rather than overpowering stuff. After being passed over the last two years in the Wild Card Game, he finally got the nod this time, marking his first career postseason start despite already owning a ring from Houston.
Unfortunately, Fiers didn’t have his magic on this day. The White Sox began smoking the ball against him from the very first at-bat, though at least he kept it in the yard until the 2nd inning rather than the second batter. The Sox put two on in the 1st but he wriggled out of it, and then Luis Robert unloaded for the longest homer in the Coliseum since Statcast began in 2015.
Good grief 487 feet but geez that was such a bad pitch pic.twitter.com/h3OfRLE0RP— Julian McWilliams (@byJulianMack) October 1, 2020
Fiers struck out the next two batters but then the next rally began. A hard single, a hard double, and a walk loaded the bases, bringing up top slugger Jose Abreu, who had already doubled the previous inning. Manager Bob Melvin wasn’t waiting around to see if Fiers could escape again, and it was time to shift to a bullpen game — just like the one that hadn’t worked in 2018 against the Yankees.
Yusmeiro Petit came in and got the job done, inducing a groundout from Abreu. But in the 3rd inning the Sox got to him, with a double, single, and double to plate two more runs. The final blow, by Nomar Mazara, brought with it that familiar sinking feeling. Down three runs early, and already used one of our top setup relievers. Here we go again.
Meanwhile, the A’s own hitters put together rallies in the 1st and 3rd innings, but struck out with runners in scoring position. Just like they’d done all season, and in past playoff experiences.
Granted, there was some hope, or at least more than usual. Chicago had pulled their starter even earlier, with Dane Dunning exiting after facing just four batters, so the A’s hitters would be going against a bullpen game as well instead of, say, Luis Severino or Charlie Morton. What’s more, in a bit of foreshadowing, Sox skipper Rick Renteria did a poor job managing his pen, which was a primary factor in the outcome — reminiscent of Ken Macha’s blunder in 2003 ALDS Game 5 when he pinch-hit his backup catcher for a star slugger in the high-leverage 9th-inning rally.
On top of that, the injury bug descended upon the game but came for the other team this time. This isn’t something to celebrate, but it’s a reality in sports, and A’s fans know all too well what it’s like to lose a key player during the postseason. In 2001 ALDS Game 4, star hitter Jermaine Dye broke his own leg fouling a ball off it, in a game that might not even have been played without Jeter’s Flip the previous night. In the 2014 WCG catcher Geovany Soto was in there to stop the Royals’ running game but was hurt in a collision, opening the door for Kansas City to steal six bases off his replacement.
The first injury on Thursday was to reliever Garrett Crochet, who replaced Dunning and struck out both batters he faced. But the 100+ mph fireballer wasn’t topping 99, and exited with forearm tightness. That surely threw an early wrench in Renteria’s plans, and highlighted the dangers of being too aggressive with your pitching staff too early in the game. If one thing goes wrong, your depth becomes tested.
But that wasn’t all. The very next inning, after legging out a leadoff double against Petit, cleanup hitter Eloy Jimenez exited when his injured foot flared back up. His health was questionable all series, but that doesn’t lessen the sting of seeing him get back in the lineup just long enough to leave again.
There’s no joy to be taken in the other team getting hurt, but ill-timed injury was most definitely one of the A’s postseason demons. This time, it went the other way.
But even with those two factors (Chicago bullpen game and injuries) brewing in the background, it was still 3-0 through one-third of the game. Oakland needed to make something, anything happen to avoid repeating history yet again.
Act 2: The Comeback
Oakland did something.
With two outs in the 4th inning, and a runner on base, Sean Murphy delivered a two-run homer to put them on the board. It didn’t quite tie the score, but it sure felt like a new ballgame, one in which the A’s were going to participate 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’s bullpen game imploded. They pulled their reliever after the homer and brought in the wrong guy, Carlos Rodon, who immediately loaded the bases on a walk, double, and walk. So they brought in another new pitcher, Matt Foster, and this one needed a moment to find the zone. But he didn’t have a moment, with the bases already loaded, and it took him only 10 pitches to walk Mark Canha and Matt Olson to force in a pair of runs. Worse, it was Olson who had fanned twice already in clutch spots in the 1st and 3rd innings, but Foster let him off the hook this time with a free RBI.
Oakland now had a 4-3 lead, but they soon learned they’d need more runs when the Sox tied it back up in the 5th. Fortunately they had one more rally in them.
With two outs on the board, Murphy drew a walk, seemingly harmless at the time. Then Tommy La Stella clipped the catcher’s glove with his swing, earning him a base via interference. Then Marcus Semien walked. Suddenly the bases were loaded and the rally was on.
Next up to face tiring righty reliever Evan Marshall should have been Jake Lamb, one of the hottest hitters in the league and also a lefty. However, Oakland had pinch-hit for him earlier in an aggressive move against a lefty hurler, and now righty Chad Pinder was in this spot instead. In any other year that may have come back to bite them, but on this day things were working out for the A’s. As a platoon hitter facing the platoon disadvantage, Pinder came through with a hard single through the left side of the infield, bringing home what proved to be the winning runs.
There was even a close play at the plate for the second run, but no shenanigans this time to wipe it off the board like we’ve seen so many times before. Just a great slide by La Stella to fully avoid the tag and leave no room for replay doubt.
The magic extended to the other side of the ball. Oakland had unleashed their secret weapon for the bullpen game — a spare starter to eat a couple innings in the middle. Frankie Montas did an admirable job breezing through the 4th, but Chicago small-balled him in the 5th. A single, a steal, and another single brought home the tying run at the time (Mazara again for the RBI), and then it almost got so much worse.
With the runner on first and two out, the Sox lofted a pop fly to no-man’s land in shallow right field. Three defenders converged on it, in that way where you realize it might drop perfectly between all of them, but La Stella got a glove on it. The ball bounced off his mitt and back up into the air, but he grabbed the rebound as he tumbled to the ground.
If that ball falls, then the inning is extended with multiple runners on base. If it also kicks away, then the runner likely scores from first. Figuratively speaking, that ball always falls against the A’s in October, or they hit it and the other team catches it. This time, Oakland squeezed it, and then in the bottom of the inning Pinder delivered his clutch hit.
A catcher’s interference. Two straight bases-loaded walks. A popup bobbled and then caught. These are the kinds of fluke plays that usually sink the A’s in the playoffs — like the Jeter Flip, Tejada’s non-obstruction call, Byrnes’ brain fart, Gomes and Fuld colliding in left field, and so on. Something weird happens, yadda yadda yadda, A’s lose. This time they got the short hops.
Now all they needed was to hold on for a few more innings.
Act 3: The Save
That’s always the trick, isn’t it? Build whatever lead you want, but the bullpen will eventually have to hold it.
Sure, this 2020 squad had the best pen in the majors, but quality hasn’t always mattered once the calendar flips to October. There was Billy Koch allowing a dagger homer in 2002 ALDS Game 5, and Keith Foulke blowing the save in 2003 ALDS Game 4. In 2012 ALDS Game 4, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook each blew a lead, and Grant Balfour blew a tie to lose it. In 2013 Game 4 Doolittle blew it again, and in the 2014 WCG he blew it again. In every one of those games, simply converting the save and/or hold would have advanced the A’s to the next round.
On Thursday, the bullpen held, for four gut-wrenching innings. It began in the 6th with J.B. Wendelken, a former White Sox prospect, mercifully delivering a 1-2-3 inning. In the 7th, Lou Trivino put runners on but was bailed out by Jake Diekman. In the 8th, Joakim Soria put two runners on but got Abreu to bounce into a double play escape. And in the 9th, closer Liam Hendriks allowed a leadoff single.
The day before, in Game 2, Hendriks had thrown 49 pitches in a herculiam attempt at a six-out save. That wasn’t just a season-high, but the most he’s ever thrown in a game in five years in an A’s uniform. He wasn’t his sharpest either, and needed help to record the final out, all of which called into question whether he’d even be available in Game 3. But here he was, firing as hard as ever. Context: His fastball averaged 96.0 mph this summer.
Liam’s slowest pitch today was 97.5 after 49 pitches yesterday..special— Vince Cotroneo (@vincebaseball) October 1, 2020
With a runner on first and nobody out, and a two-run lead to protect, Hendriks went to work. He struck out Yoan Moncada on six pitches. Next up was Robert, with one dinger in the box score already, but Hendriks fanned him on three pitches, swinging through a 98 mph heater.
Then came Mazara. If there was a budding hero for Chicago, it was him. He’d provided an early dagger in the 3rd off Petit, and he’d already tied the game once against Montas. He could do it again with a homer here, and perhaps etch himself into eternal White Sox lore.
Hendriks got two quick strikes, on a 98.7 mph fastball and a perfectly placed breaking ball. The next two pitches missed to even the count, and then Mazara fouled off a fastball. And then. A 98.4 fastball on the inside half of the plate, ring him up, Strike 3, game over. It wasn’t a meatball like Terrence Long watched to finish 2003 ALDS Game 5, but it felt the same.
Check the score. Still 6-4. Check the inning. Yep, that was the 9th, and there are three outs on the board. That’s it, the end, and the A’s had won.
The baseball gods threw everything they had at the A’s, and Oakland overcame. An early deficit, and an early hook for the starter. A late lead for the pen to protect. Zany fluke plays. Babe Zeus fired his injury lightning bolt but missed and hit the other team, then cast his mismanagement spell but targeted Renteria instead of Melvin.
It’s one thing to break a long streak — and it was long, as nine straight winner-take-all losses is an all-time MLB record. But to confront every one of your demons along the way is a whole other level of satisfying. It would have been fun to watch them win two easy blowouts. It was exhilarating to see them lose the first game, grab the second, and then play this wild affair in Game 3.
The postseason is far from over. In fact, this is where it’s supposed to begin, with the ALDS. If the A’s want to build this story into a championship, then they’ve got a looot of work left to do.
But let’s enjoy this moment first, Athletics Nation. The A’s are in the playoffs, and they actually advanced. They’re a factor instead of a footnote. Holy Toledo.