The message is clear: To beat the Oakland A’s, your best bet is for your starter throw a complete game. If you let them face your bullpen, they will beat you.
The A’s did it again on Saturday, for the second straight day against the last-place San Francisco Giants and their closer Trevor Gott. Trailing by three entering the 9th inning, Sean Murphy hit a solo homer, and Mark Canha followed with a two-out, three-run dinger of his own to pull off another last-minute comeback and a 7-6 victory. All of it came against the same pitcher who had blown a five-run lead against them less than 24 hours earlier.
Out of 15 wins for the A’s this year, they’ve tagged an opposing reliever with a loss in seven of them. Six of them have come in their final offensive inning, between three walk-offs plus three road games in which they took their winning lead in the top of the 9th or 10th. Their OPS is more than 150 points better against relievers than starters, and their BB:K rate is more than twice as high. Gott in particular has now given up nine runs to them in the last two days, while recording more homers (4) than outs (3).
Oakland got promising news in their rotation too, as Sean Manaea enjoyed his best start of the year. He lasted a season-high five full innings and allowed a season-low two earned runs (plus one unearned), exiting with the game tied. However, things went less well for scorching hot reliever Burch Smith, who allowed his first runs of the season on a tiebreaking three-run homer to Darin Ruf in the 7th, and then left the game with the trainer (diagnosis: right forearm strain). That Giants lead held until the 9th.
Other offensive heroes included Marcus Semien, who blasted a two-run homer in the 3rd for the first runs of the game; Matt Olson, who homered in the 6th to briefly tie it up; and Tony Kemp, who collected three hits and a walk, including a double to spark the go-ahead rally in the 9th ahead of Canha’s long ball. In the bullpen, Lou Trivino came up clutch in emergency relief of Smith, and Liam Hendriks threw 12 pitches in the 9th to convert the save.
Deja vu all over again
On Friday night, the A’s entered the 9th inning trailing 7-2, but they scored five off Trevor Gott to tie it and then won in extras. On Saturday, they began the 9th trailing 6-3, and once again they plated four off Gott to flip another near-loss into a victory. This time they got all the way down to their last strike before coming through.
Kapler is going to let Gott get right back on whatever it is that bucked him last night. You have to do it. #SFGiants— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) August 16, 2020
With another 9th-inning lead to protect, manager Gabe Kapler gave his closer a chance to get back on the horse and atone for the previous night. It’s not a completely indefensible nor unheard of idea, especially during a rebuilding season when auditioning players is as important as winning games, but when it goes wrong it’s pretty easy to criticize.
The inning opened just like it had before, as Sean Murphy led off with a homer to immediately cut the lead down to two. This mirrored the one-out dinger by Matt Olson on Friday, which had set the tone for the rest of that rally.
Side note: Is that Murphy’s biggest hit of the year so far? Of his young career? Last year he tied a game in the 6th with a homer, but otherwise this could be it.
Next on the deja vu checklist was a defensive miscue to help set up the final blow. On Friday it had been first baseman Wilmer Flores overthinking a routine play, and this time the culprit was Hunter Pence out in right field. With one out on the board, Tony Kemp lofted a soft fly to medium-deep right field. Pence completely misjudged it, breaking in at first and then shifting course when he realized the ball was going farther than he’d thought. The easily catchable flare landed safely on the turf, and Kemp wound up at second for a “double.” Statcast says the batted ball had an .050 expected batting average.
Gott got the next batter, but then he pitched around Olson for an unintentional intentional walk. On one hand, you can see the logic — Olson is one of the biggest homer threats in the sport, he’d homered off Gott the night before, and he’d homered earlier in this game, all on top of having the platoon advantage as a lefty batter. Don’t let the obvious candidate beat you.
On the other hand, this decision put the tying run on base and brought the go-ahead run to the plate. It still might have been the smart move, but it was certainly risky. It also checked the next box on the deja vu list, as Gott had helped fill the bases Friday with a walk and a HBP (along with Flores’ miscue).
And then, the moment of truth. Mark Canha came up with two on, two out, and a two-run deficit. Gott beat him with a couple of heaters to pull ahead 1-2, but Canha showed off his expert eye by laying off a tempting high fastball and then a solid curve that broke below the zone. The count was full, and the Giants were one strike away from victory.
On the sixth pitch, Gott went back to what had worked twice before, a hard fastball up in the zone. This time he caught a little too much plate, and Canha didn’t miss it, just as Stephen Piscotty had gotten every ounce of Gott’s hanging curve on Friday.
“They’ve done it again! Mark Canha delivers, and the A’s have taken a 9th-inning lead once more!” - Fox broadcaster Adam Amin
Holy. Toledo. Ray Fosse wasn’t in the booth for this national telecast, but A’s fans could hear him laughing at the absurd unlikeliness of it all, just like he had the previous night and so many times before. It wasn’t the A’s customary grand slam like Piscotty had hit to seal Friday’s comeback, but a three-run jack was enough on Saturday.
Canha: "I was trying to go deep."— Martín Gallegos (@MartinJGallegos) August 16, 2020
The FanGraphs win probability chart had the Giants as high as 98.4% in the bottom of the 8th, and it was still 96.4% when Olson came up, and 92.4% after he walked. Canha’s dinger took it down to 18.5%, en route to its final destination of zero.
This is the first time in Oakland history that the A’s have won back-to-back games in which they trailed by at least three runs after eight innings, reports team info manager Mike Selleck. Only once before have they even made two such comebacks in the same season, in 2011, and those were separated by five months.
At this point, there’s no excuse for tuning out of a 2020 A’s game early. If there are still pitches being thrown to Oakland batters, then it ain’t over.
So how did we get here, reliving the same 9th inning fantasy for a second straight night?
The A’s offense early in the game was the same as it was at the end — all dingers, all the time. In the 3rd inning, Marcus Semien got the scoring started with a two-run blast, and then, later after Oakland had fallen behind, Matt Olson added another dong in the 6th.
Olson has now homered in three straight games, and each of his last seven hits are taters dating back nearly two weeks — he’s batting .175 during that span, with a .700 slugging percentage.
The A’s put on a handful of baserunners throughout the game, but went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position in the first eight innings. For the season they’re now batting .203 in such situations.
On the pitching side, Sean Manaea took a step forward after a rocky beginning to his season. As usual he breezed through the first three innings, facing the minimum during his first turn through the lineup. The normal pattern continued as he ran into trouble in the 4th, with a walk, a single, and a Little League homer by Mike Yastrzemski — ruled a triple and a throwing error by cutoff man Semien. Three runs were in and the lead was blown.
But then, something new. Manaea settled down, retiring the next six batters in order and completing the 5th inning. His velocity held up, hitting 90 mph a couple times in the 5th, and he averaged just under 91 for the day.
Manaea: 5 ip, 3 runs (2 ER), 5 Ks, 1 BB, 0 HR, 3 hits, 78 pitches (51 strikes)
There were a few loud outs but nothing dire, just a couple hard grounders and a liner straight at a glove. He missed a ton of bats, inducing whiffs on 18% of his pitches.
We were waiting to see the lefty string together more than three great innings at a time, and on Saturday he at least put together four out of five. That’s progress.
Manaea left with the game tied, handing the ball to Burch Smith. The right-hander entered as surprisingly one of the hottest pitchers in the majors so far, having retired 31 of his first 36 batters including some high-leverage spots. On Saturday, he got to face the last team that gave up on him, as the Giants traded him to Oakland for cash over the winter.
The first inning went great, as usual, with the side going down in order on two strikeouts and a lazy flyout. But he ran into trouble in the 7th, with a double and a single to lead off. He won a tough battle against Pence to earn a K for a crucial first out, but then he left one up to Darin Ruf and it got punished for a three-run homer. The runs were the first allowed by Smith this year.
Then it got worse. He induced a flyout from the next batter but did so at only 91.9 mph, a few ticks lower than his norm, and he called out manager Bob Melvin and the trainer. He was immediately removed and diagnosed with a right forearm strain, with an MRI coming Monday. The team’s prognosis is optimistic so far, but of course you always hold your breath with a pitcher’s forearm/elbow; we’ll know more soon. Best wishes to Burch!
Outside of Smith’s slipup, which itself may have been injury-related, the bullpen posted its usual zeroes. Lou Trivino relieved Smith and got some bad luck, including an infield hit and a rare error by Matt Chapman, but he and T.J. McFarland were able to work around it and complete the 8th.
After the A’s took the lead in the top of the 9th, Liam Hendriks came in to earn his second save in as many days. He wasn’t perfect this time, issuing a walk along the way, but he still got it done.
An extra nugget buried within this wild game was the first MLB hit by Vimael Machin.
The 26-year-old rookie drew the start at DH, bringing an 0-for-8 career line (plus a walk!) with him. Finally, in his 10th plate appearance, he lined a clean single the other way to left.
The hit made a difference, too, as two batters later Semien homered to drive him home. Well done, Hitting Machin!
Bay Area Bombers
Another story not to be missed amid the comeback drama is the Bay Area connection.
On Friday, the clutch grand slam was by Pleasanton native Stephen Piscotty, and the go-ahead run was driven in by San Jose product Mark Canha.
On Saturday, five of the team’s seven runs were produced by a pair of UC Berkeley alums — Canha, and Marcus Semien, who also grew up right there in Berkeley.
Beating the local Giants is great. Doing so by torturing them with late comebacks is even better. Having the heroes be a bunch of Bay Area guys just makes it perfect. And remember, Canha has been here before — back in 2018, right here in then-AT&T Park, he hit a pinch-hit homer in the 7th to turn a deficit into a game-winning lead (complete with bat flip).
The series wraps up on Sunday, and it’s going to be hard to top what we’ve already seen. A sweep might just do it, though. Mike Fiers will lead the way, starting on the hill against Logan Webb at 1:05 p.m. Canha homered twice off Webb last year in consecutive at-bats.