For eight innings on Friday, the Oakland A’s were on their way to a frustrating ho-hum loss against the last-place San Francisco Giants. Then they came alive in the 9th inning, in what is becoming familiar fashion for the green and gold.
The A’s scored five runs in the final frame of regulation to tie it, led by Stephen Piscotty’s second clutch 9th-inning grand slam of the season, and then plated one more in the 10th without recording a hit. All of that added up to a thrilling 8-7 comeback victory in the opener of the 2020 Bay Bridge Series.
The Giants built an early lead against Jesús Luzardo, who was starting a day earlier than expected in place of ace Frankie Montas (scratched with back tightness). They posted six runs in the first four innings, all against Luzardo, and held that advantage for most of the night. By the top of the 9th it was 7-2, giving Oakland one final chance for a miracle comeback.
The A’s did exactly that. Matt Olson homered for the first run, and then a walk, a defensive miscue by the Giants, and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases. Up came Piscotty, who just 10 days ago had delivered a walk-off grand slam against the Texas Rangers, and the Bay Area native repeated his heroics against Oakland’s local rivals. It’s the third time this year the A’s have hit a slam in the 9th inning or later, which no other team has done even once in 2020.
In the 10th, Oakland got their automatic runner on second base and brought him home without even needing a hit. Two productive outs got the job done — a grounder by Olson and then a sac fly by Mark Canha — and Liam Hendriks struck out the side in the bottom half to seal the save in an unlikely, dramatic victory.
This win follows Oakland’s season-long pattern of falling behind against the opposing starter, but then coming back against the other team’s bullpen. They’re never out of it, down to the final strike.
It wasn’t looking good for the A’s entering the 9th. They’d had a slow night at the plate up to that point, collecting just four hits and a couple walks and going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, although one of those outs did knock home a runner from third. Their only bright spot had been the scorching hot Robbie Grossman, who had tripled in a run in the 7th and also drawn one of the earlier (ultimately harmless) walks.
However, they made up for it in the 9th against Giants closer Trevor Gott. The right-hander gott the leadoff man out, but Matt Olson gott him right back with a towering solo homer.
Still, that only cut the lead to four runs, leaving the A’s quite a tall task. The long journey began with a single step, specifically Mark Canha walking to first base after Ball 4. The next sequence might have been the underlying play of the game.
Grossman hit a grounder directly at first baseman Wilmer Flores, which should have been a routine out somewhere. The problem was Flores couldn’t decide where to make that happen — he took a couple steps toward his own bag for the easy out at first, then changed his mind and threw to second to force the lead runner.
Upon receiving Flores’ throw, shortstop Brandon Crawford was thoroughly and deservedly confused, thinking Flores had already touched first and the force was off. Crawford pulled his own foot off second and tried to tag Canha instead, but Canha got there in time to beat it. If Crawford had just kept his foot on the bag then he would have had the force, but replay confirmed that he hadn’t and that the tag was late.
This should have been an out. Matt Olson probably would have turned it into a double play. If Flores had taken the easy option at first base, then it’s pretty easy to argue that the Giants would have won the game. Instead, everybody was safe and the rally was on.
Next up was Khris Davis, and the 2-2 pitch hit him. Bases loaded, tying run to the plate, a situation that didn’t need to exist but for Flores’ flub.
Defense loses championships.— John Shea (@JohnSheaHey) August 15, 2020
Up came Stephen Piscotty, who already had a walk-off grand slam on his 2020 resume and had homered in his previous game. On top of that, he was one of a few local Bay Area products playing in this cross-bay rivalry matchup, with another on base in Canha, and another in Crawford standing at shortstop wondering how things had reached this point.
The second pitch to Piscotty was a hanging curve, and he knew he’d gotten all of it the moment he made contact. There was barely even a play call from the broadcasters, just the classic Ray Fosse chuckle of amazement that lets you know something truly special has happened, something so unreal that it defies words and speaks for itself. Oh, and there was a pretty solid bat flip.
Piscotty is now the 14th player in MLB history (and the first A’s player) with two 9th-inning slams in one season, per team info manager Mike Selleck. Oakland is the 18th club ever with three slams in the 9th or later, and nobody’s ever had four, per insider Sarah Langs.
The 9th inning had seemed like a mere formality when it began, but out of nowhere the game was suddenly tied. Oakland had the chance to go a step further and take the lead, getting runners to second and third with still just one out on the board, but they’d had enough magic for one inning and settled for unlikely extra frames.
The best way to illustrate the extent of a comeback is the win probability chart. After Olson homered, the Giants had 99.5% odds of victory. It was still 98.6% after Canha walked, and 91.8% after Davis reached to load the bases. Picotty’s slam took it down to 55.8%, and of course it eventually settled at zero when San Francisco lost.
Even more amazing is that it was mostly self-inflicted by the Giants. The A’s hit two homers but there was cushion to withstand that; the problem was loading the bases with entirely free passes, in a walk, a technically non-error miscue, and a HBP. They gift-wrapped the rally for Oakland, who gladly accepted the offering.
Of course, the work wasn’t finished yet. The game was only tied, and they still needed to win in extras on the road.
Each team had a free runner on second base to work with, and both sides were retired in order in the 10th, but one of them was able to at least make enough contact to scratch that runner across.
Oakland began with a productive out by Olson, who hit a grounder to the right side to move the runner (Matt Chapman) to third. It worked out like a bunt, but without sacrificing the chance that it might sneak through for a lucky hit.
Next up was Canha, and he lifted a fly ball plenty deep to right field. Chapman scored easily.
Sac fly gives the A's the lead pic.twitter.com/RXrBnYPFPV— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) August 15, 2020
It was a perfect display of situational hitting, and it earned them the go-ahead run without even needing to record a hit.
In the bottom half, the Giants weren’t able to match that feat because they couldn’t even put the ball in play. A’s closer Liam Hendriks needed just 13 pitches to strike out all three batters he faced, leaving the free runner stranded right where he’d started at second. They couldn’t even foul off Hendriks’ pitches, doing so just once against six swinging strikes. Game over.
The comeback victory was historic, on both sides. The last time the A’s were down five runs after eight innings and came back to win was 1952, and the last time the Giants lost in such a situation was 1929. To fully put those dates into context, those were matchups between the Philadelphia A’s vs. St. Louis Browns, and the New York Giants vs. Brooklyn Dodgers, none of whom even exist in those forms anymore.
Extra bonus: The Giants’ streak of never blowing this big of a lead this late in the game was the longest in MLB history, spanning 2,133 opportunities over nearly a century, per the Andrew Baggarly tweet linked above.
This is a trend the A’s have followed since Opening Day, and it’s quickly becoming their signature. They lose the matchup of the starting pitchers, whether in a close duel or a blowout, but then win the battle of the bullpens by even more. In this case, seven sparkling innings by Johnny Cueto weren’t enough to outweigh one disastrous frame by Gott.
The other 8 innings
There was a whole other nearly complete ballgame before Oakland’s comeback, but it didn’t end up mattering.
A’s starter Jesús Luzardo got knocked around in his third career start, which will happen to even the best rookies. It’s also worth noting that he was unexpectedly moved up a day in the rotation, and couldn’t have known more than around 24 hours beforehand that his schedule would be altered. If he struggles a few more times then we can worry about the budding star lefty, but until then there’s no reason to dwell on one isolated stinker of an outing. Go get ‘em next time, rook.
Luzardo: 3⅓ ip, 6 runs, 3 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR, 9 hits, 72 pitches (44 strikes)
Out of the bullpen, J.B. Wendelken put up a great performance, recording eight outs against just one hit. He bailed Luzardo out of the southpaw’s final rally, throwing one pitch to induce an inning-ending double play, and then breezed through two more scoreless frames. He also worked around a free runner from a catcher’s interference, which isn’t a technicality you see every day.
Wendelken: 2⅔ ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 1 hit, 30 pitches (23 strikes)
The right-hander did get some help from his defense, though. In the 6th, with that bonus runner on base, Evan Longoria smashed a ball to the wall in center. Fortunately, the speedy Ramon Laureano was out there to make a brilliant leaping grab on a drive that falls for a hit 93% of the time (per Statcast). Except it wasn’t Laureano at all, because the star CF is suspended; it was his backup, Canha, rising to the occasion to save at least one run. And remember, the A’s were trailing by six at the time, and he still put in this kind of effort, banging his lower half hard against the wall and needing a moment to get back up.
Lou Trivino (7th) and Joakim Soria (9th) chipped in scoreless innings as well, though T.J. McFarland (8th) finally allowed his first run of the season on a solo homer by Mike Yastrzemski in the 8th.
Also, a quick shoutout to the lineup, which does have at least one excuse for its early futility. With two on and two out in the 3rd, Tony Kemp appeared to draw a walk when the 3-2 pitch went way outside, but the ump rung him up to end the inning. Look at Pitch #7.
Instead of bringing up the top of the lineup with the bases loaded, the inning was over. To be fair, though, a handful of pitches off the plate like this were called on both teams — it was a terrible and inconsistent strike zone, as many closer pitches were called balls, but at least neither club was favored overall. One of Oakland’s just happened to come at a critical moment. (Here’s what it looked like on the TV camera.)
One final good feeling about this game relates to a recent A’s loss.
On Monday in Anaheim, the green and gold took a five-run lead in the fourth inning. However, the Angels chipped away and eventually came back to win 10-9. On Friday, Oakland flipped that script and did nearly the same thing to their new opponent.
It’s not a perfect analogy. The Halos’ comeback was gradual, whereas the A’s took care of most of theirs all at once. The Angels also got theirs done in regulation without needing extras. But the principal is still the same, of falling significantly behind as early as the 4th but staying focused and battling back to win anyway. As deflating as it was to see it happen to Oakland, it was doubly magnificent to see them bounce back and return the favor just four days later, albeit to a different rival. Goonies never say die.
The next installment in the series comes Saturday at 4:07 p.m. It’ll be Sean Manaea vs. Kevin Gausman on the mound, with Montas waiting at least one more day but still possible to start Sunday.