After winning 97 games each of the last two seasons, the Oakland A’s have a chance to be even better in 2020, primarily due to an improved starting rotation. Saturday brought a reminder that they now have an ace atop that group.
Frankie Montas fired seven innings of scoreless, two-hit ball against an elite Houston Astros lineup, leading the green and gold to a 3-1 victory over their top competition in the AL West division. It’s the A’s eighth straight win, running their record to 11-4 through one-quarter of the 60-game season.
Montas and his 96 mph heat were unstoppable, facing just two batters over the minimum and never letting a runner past second base. He missed plenty of bats along the way, striking out five and not issuing a single free pass.
On the other side of the ball, Marcus Semien picked up right where he’d left off the night before. On Friday he’d notched the walk-off hit in extra innings, and then in his next at-bat he led off Saturday’s game with a homer. Matt Chapman chipped in a couple pieces of insurance, first with an RBI groundout and later with a solo homer of his own, and once again Oakland’s lineup did just enough to score sufficiently despite going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
Those spare tallies proved crucial, as the usually airtight bullpen needed a little margin for error on this day. Jake Diekman pitched around one hit in the 8th, but closer Liam Hendriks let one run come across in the 9th. Fortunately, thanks to Chapman, that run proved meaningless and Hendriks regrouped to seal his fifth save in six tries.
The big story in the rotation getting A’s fans excited this year is the arrival of rookie Jesús Luzardo, who could someday be the ace of the staff. But don’t let that future hope distract you from remembering that they already have a current ace in Montas.
The right-hander was dominant against a top opponent, and very nearly perfect. He enjoyed strings retiring four in a row, eight in a row, and nine in a row, club-sandwiched around his two hits. He induced swings and misses 11 times, for nearly 13% of all his pitches and almost one-third of all swings against him. There were a few loud outs, and both hits were well-struck, but it was no accident that he breezed through his outing.
Montas: 7 ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 2 hits, 86 pitches (59 strikes)
Even the two hits were by the same player, Yuli Gurriel, meaning the other eight batters in the Astros lineup took a collective 0-fer.
His pitch chart:
That’s a lot of red and orange pounding the zone, representing his two fastballs. The splitter (grey) was either a strike or dropping down below the zone for a chase, and it and the slider earned plenty of swings and several whiffs, though they did get hit hard a couple times. Here he is masterfully painting a corner for a backwards K:
Montas earned one new believer in the opposing dugout:
Dusty Baker on Frankie Montas: "I had never seen this guy in person, but he was tough. He stayed about 96, 97 damn near the whole day with a slider, good breaker.”— Martín Gallegos (@MartinJGallegos) August 8, 2020
In the last two Wild Card Games, the A’s have fallen into early deficits due to their lack of a lockdown arm to start. Now they’ve got one — although, there is no Wild Card Game this year with the expanded playoffs, but the same principle would ring similarly true in any short October series.
On Friday, Marcus Semien was the hero. Nobody in the A’s lineup could find a clutch hit to push them over the top, but Semien did it in the 13th. Even better, he’d been the coldest hitter in the order up to that point, offering hope that this might be a breakout moment.
It may well have been just that. In his very next at-bat, leading off the bottom of the 1st inning on Saturday, Semien launched another big hit, all the way over the left field fence. Just like that, six pitches into the game, the A’s had matched their scoring output from the first dozen innings on Friday.
It’s the first time since at least 1974 that an A’s player has registered a walk-off hit one day and then a leadoff homer the next, reports Josh Dubow of the Associated Press. It’s also the seventh leadoff dinger of the shortstop’s career, fourth-most in Oakland history (behind Rickey, Coco, Campy).
The 2019 third-place MVP finisher wasn’t done. In the 6th, with Houston starter Framber Valdez settled in after retiring seven straight batters and 13-of-14, Semien knocked a grounder against a defensive shift for an infield single to break the spell. He then stole second, and a wild throw from the catcher allowed him to move up to third. A few pitches later, he scored on a groundout — it was basically a Rickey Run, by the newest hometown Bay Area star product.
Semien’s second straight two-hit day has his batting average up above the Mendoza Line, and his wRC+ up from 30 to 51 — still extremely low, but obviously headed in the right direction. Yet another Oakland star is finding his groove in 2020.
Semien isn’t the only star who’s come to life in this series. Oakland’s other MVP candidate, Matt Chapman, also put up his second straight two-hit day after briefly dipping below an early-season .200 batting average. Chapman combined with Semien to provide the other mirror-image half of the team’s scoring.
After Semien’s dinger and then his later groundball single, Man Chap took over. He drove in Semien from third with a productive RBI groundout, which was exactly the kind of simple play the A’s couldn’t scratch out for so long on Friday. Later, in the 8th, he brought the day full-circle by adding a homer of his own — and in doing so, he continued a 2020 A’s tradition of greeting seemingly every new reliever with a long ball.
The big day was enough to get Chapman’s wRC+ up over average at 104, but more importantly he had a big effect on this win. The fundamental act of knocking in that runner from third turned out to be the difference-making tally in the game, and his extra homer helped everyone breathe a little easier in the 9th.
The A’s bullpen has been handed eight close leads so far this summer, and they’ve converted seven of them. Saturday’s edition wasn’t quite as clean as most of the others, with a run coming across, but it still got the job done.
The 8th inning went to Jake Diekman, who allowed a leadoff single and then retired the next three batters in order. In the 9th, closer Liam Hendriks wasn’t able to strand his own leadoff double, after Alex Bregman singled him in, but the righty didn’t let the rally escalate into anything more than that, recording a strikeout and a groundout to end it.
Bregman, along with the man he drove in, Kyle Tucker, have proven to be the two biggest thorns for Oakland pitchers, as they each drove in a run on Friday as well for Houston’s only scoring.
A’s bullpen, 2020: 1.71 ERA, 63 ip, 70 Ks, 16 BB, 2 HR, 46 hits, 1.98 FIP*
Those numbers are incredible. It won’t always be this good, but it’s nice to know the pen is capable of this kind of dominant stretches. Note that the FIP listed above does not include Saturday, but it shouldn’t change much if at all (and if it does then it might go down a couple points).
21.6-game winning streak
That’s eight in a row for the A’s, which counts the same as 21.6 games in a normal-length season. It’s not the same impressive feat as actually winning 20 straight, but functionally they’re equal in the standings, with the caveat that a similar slump could also rack up negative value just as unusually quickly to offset the gain.
But for now the good times are rolling, and the 11-4 A’s have an early 4.5-game lead over their division. They’ll go for the soul-crushing sweep tomorrow, with Jesús Luzardo making his second career MLB start against Houston righty Cristian Javier.
This is the 1st time the Astros have been 4.5 or more games behind in the AL West at least 10 games into the season since the final day of 2016, when they ended the year 11 games behind the first-place Rangers.— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) August 8, 2020