Of all the things to sink the Oakland A’s in a playoff game, it was their infield defense on Monday.
The A’s led the Houston Astros midway through Game 1 of their ALDS, but a two-out error by shortstop Marcus Semien opened the doors for a four-run rally in the 6th inning. That was enough to permanently swing the tide, and the Astros held on to deliver Oakland a 10-5 loss.
For five innings, this looked like a promising series opener for the green and gold. They took an early lead in the 2nd inning on a two-run homer by Khris Davis, marking his second dinger of the postseason to match his entire total from the regular season. In the 3rd they got a solo homer from Sean Murphy, and then another in the 4th by Matt Olson. One more small-ball run in the 5th put them in a promising position up 5-3, in front of the best bullpen in the majors, but one mistake in the 6th doomed them.
Reliever J.B. Wendelken got the first two outs of the frame, and got Josh Reddick to hit a weak routine grounder to the right side. Semien was shifted behind the bag at second and easily ranged over to field it, but the ball glanced off the heel of his glove and he wasn’t quite able to recover in time. Reddick beat it out by an inch.
The inning would have been over, but instead the Astros got another chance, and October is all about capitalizing on your opponent’s miscues. Houston rose to the occasion and did just that, stringing together a single, double, single, and single to plate four unearned runs and snatch the lead.
Oakland never recovered. The Astros bullpen retired 12 of the final 13 batters the rest of the way, while their own lineup tacked on a few more pieces of insurance against the A’s mop-up crew.
The ball was flying in the first half of the game. The first four innings brought five homers for both teams combined, and Oakland hit three of them to get off to exactly the kind of early lead they needed against starter Lance McCullers.
First up was Khris Davis, who got the nod for what has become a rare start against a right-hander. But he was quietly hot in September and already went deep once in the Wild Card Round last week, and he opened the scoring with a classic no-doubter — 103.8 mph off the bat, 418 feet.
KD gets the A’s on the board pic.twitter.com/8yB0hf5pKP— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) October 5, 2020
Extra notes from insider Sarah Langs: “Khris Davis is the first A’s player with multiple home runs in a single postseason since Brandon Moss had 2 in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game. [First] to homer in multiple postseason games for the A’s in a single year since 2006, when Milton Bradley & Eric Chavez each did so.”
The very next inning, Sean Murphy followed, while Astros manager Dusty Baker was being interviewed by the TV crew. As Baker reacted to the blast, we couldn’t help but be reminded of his recent quote from early September: “We’re pitching Murphy like he’s Johnny Bench or something.” Maybe you should be? (Murphy also threw out Jose Altuve trying to steal later in the game.)
In the top of the 4th, the Astros joined the party. Alex Bregman went solo, and then Carlos Correa hit a two-run jack to tie the score.
But no matter, in the bottom of the 4th Matt Olson hit one to put the A’s back on top. The slugger had gone 0-for-9 with six strikeouts (and three walks!) in the Wild Card Round, and walked in his first plate appearance Monday, so this was his first hit of any kind in the playoffs this year.
It’s the second time in franchise postseason history that they’ve homered in three straight innings, per scorer David Feldman. The other was in 1989 World Series Game 3, courtesy of Dave Henderson and Tony Phillips (4th inning), Jose Canseco and Hendu again (5th inning), and Carney Lansford (6th inning).
However, while the power display was impressive, Oakland was also quietly leaving more opportunities on the table. After Murphy’s homer in the 3th they put two on with no out to no avail, and then after Olson’s in the 4th they got to second and third with no out and stranded them. Those extra runs could have broken the game open and given them the insurance they needed to withstand their later defensive lapse, but true to form they went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and mostly only scored when the ball cleared the wall.
There was one exception: In the 5th inning, Marcus Semien led off with an infield single and then moved to second when the throw skipped away. A groundout moved him to third, and a sac fly by Mark Canha scored him. If they’d just managed those same two productive outs in the previous inning, they’d have plated two more runs. The scoreboard read 5-3, but that was closer than it needed to be.
Despite a couple missed opportunities, the A’s still had what they needed to win: a lead with four innings to go for their lockdown bullpen.
Starting pitcher Chris Bassitt hadn’t been able to repeat his brilliance from the Wild Card Round, which was no surprise considering how ridiculously the ball carried on this sunny Los Angeles day at Dodger Stadium. He only lasted a couple batters into the 5th inning, but Yusmeiro Petit calmly bailed him out of a jam in that frame to keep Oakland on top.
Bassitt: 4+ ip, 3 runs, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 9 hits, 2 HR, 73 pitches (47 strikes)
It wasn’t the gem A’s fans were hoping for, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the day on its own. Bassitt exited with the lead, after all.
Reliever J.B. Wendelken nearly kept it that way in the 6th. With two outs on the board and a routine grounder heading toward the right side, it seemed he’d done his job. But then Semien, usually so mechanically reliable on defense and especially on routine plays, made a rare gaffe at the worst possible moment. Four unearned runs later, the game had changed forever.
The irony is that the A’s infield defense might be their single strongest trait, at least when they’re at full strength. But the absence of Platinum Glove third baseman Matt Chapman was painfully apparent on multiple balls toward replacement Jake Lamb, who is perfectly fine with the glove but can’t pull the superhuman feats that Chaptain America does. There were at least a couple hits that might not have been if Chapman was in there, and then two-time Gold Glove finalist Semien was also off his normally airtight game. Welcome to crapshoot October baseball!
And then, right when you wanted the game to continue being wild in order to spur an Oakland comeback, it all went quiet. For the final four innings, the green and gold managed just one baserunner, a leadoff walk in the 8th. They struck out five times in those final 13 plate appearances, against a Paredes of Astros relievers (Enoli Paredes, Cristian Javier, closer Ryan Pressly).
Houston didn’t stay quiet. After Lou Trivino served up another dinger to Correa (did it have to be him driving in four runs, of all people in that lineup? the very spokesman of non-remorse for past cheating?). The A’s sent out the mop-up crew after that, and Jordan Weems allowed a couple more runs in the 9th to put it the rest of the way out of reach.
With that, Houston leads the series 1-0. But the whole point of getting past the Wild Card shenanigans and into the ALDS is that you aren’t out after one loss. Oakland dropped the first game of the last series too and they still came back, and this week they have even more time in a longer best-of-five.
Game 2 is tomorrow (Tuesday) at 1:37 p.m. Sean Manaea will try to pitch the A’s back into the series against Framber Valdez, in a battle of lefties.