The Oakland A’s lost their first playoff game on Tuesday, 4-1 to the Chicago White Sox, in especially frustrating fashion. It was almost literally a rerun of the 2019 Wild Card Game, with homers off their starting pitcher, a lone run from their own offense, and one brilliant multi-inning performance by a reliever in the middle innings. Read all about it here.
But even in a ho-hum loss, there can be some positive takeaways. Here are three good things that happened in Game 1, as we look toward Game 2 of the best-of-three Wild Card Round series.
1. Wendelken shines
For years, Athletics Nation has looked toward J.B. Wendelken as a breakout candidate. After returning from Tommy John surgery, it seemed like just a matter of time before he translated his excellent stuff into serious success on the field. That finally seems to be happening this season.
The right-hander had a great summer. He led all of the club’s non-Hendriks relievers in innings and posted a 1.80 ERA, while serving in all kinds of different situations. Then on Tuesday, he fully announced himself by pulling off a performance known as The Trivino*.
* nobody calls it that
This routine was established by Lou Trivino in the 2018 Wild Card Game against the Yankees. After Oakland fell behind early, Trivino came in and tossed three brilliant innings to keep the A’s close for a while. In 2019, Jesús Luzardo did the same thing in relief against the Rays. And in 2020, it was Wendelken’s turn.
Coincidentally, it was Luzardo who started this game, before shifting from the Obi-Wan role to more of a Qui-Gon this year. The White Sox sliced through his fastballs for a couple homers, and in the 4th they led 3-0 with a runner on second and one out. That set the stage for J.B. to charge in for the rescue.
Wendelken quickly escaped the 4th inning with a strikeout and a catchable liner. In the 5th, he got two groundouts and a strikeout against the top of the lineup. The 6th began with two more groundouts, but then Luis Robert blooped a soft single to break the streak. Up next was Adam Engel, who had already homered off Luzardo in the day, but he struck out this time to end the frame.
Bada bing, bada boom, nine up and eight down. Wendelken looked like a real Lucas Giolito out there. Err, I mean Lou Trivino, my bad.
Oakland’s biggest strength in this series is their bullpen. The other parts of the roster are good but clearly beatable, but the relievers have been nails all year. Wendelken isn’t even part of the late-inning setup crew, though he probably could be if asked. He’s maybe fifth on the depth chart at best, but here he was casually dominating almost one-third of a playoff game. If the A’s can just take a lead, they can 2015 Royals their way through this thing.
2. Jake Lion
The A’s got two great weeks from third baseman Jake Lamb at the end of the season, after losing superstar Matt Chapman to injury. Lamb continued to shine on Tuesday.
On offense, nobody did much, but he did as much as anybody. In the 2nd inning he hit a rocket at 102.3 mph exit velocity, but it was on the ground for a routine out. In the 5th he hit it 388 feet, but it ran out of gas on the warning track just a couple feet short of the wall.
Finally, in the 8th, he found turf. With a runner on first base already, he lined a clean single to right. It was just the second hit of the day for the A’s, and it moved the runner to third, setting up an RBI groundout (fielder’s choice) by the next batter. Give the lion a Hockey RBI for Oakland’s only run of the afternoon.
Lamb was equally impressive on defense. On at least two occasions he made tough plays — not Chapman-level wizardry, but definitely balls that get missed sometimes by mere mortals. The greater point is that Chicago didn’t get any extra hits that they wouldn’t have with the Platinum Glover out there. The WAC score (Wins Over Chapman) was exactly zero on defense. That in itself is a win for the A’s, as WAC is an extremely high bar that tends to yield deeply negative values.
Also, props to Mark Canha for drawing the leadoff walk in the 8th, ahead of Lamb’s single. The White Sox made a mistake leaving Giolito out for that inning, and Canha did his usual thing with a patient at-bat to work himself on base. It only took four pitches, but when pressing that late against a pitcher that hot, it can’t be easy to stay patient.
3. Driving home runner from third base
The A’s went 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position, but the problem wasn’t the zero this time, as it was so often this year. It was the two. They simply didn’t get on base enough, with Giolito spinning perfection through the first six innings.
In fact, Oakland did come through the one time they got the chance. It took until the 8th to get into scoring position, with runners on first and third and nobody out, but Ramon Laureano got the job done. He made just enough contact to get everyone moving, but didn’t hit his grounder hard enough for a double play nor a throw to the plate — and even if the double play had been completed, it wouldn’t have ended the inning and Canha still would have scored.
Bottom line: The A’s are 1-for-1 in terms of driving home the runner from third base with less than two outs.
The 8th inning felt like a negative because Oakland needed four runs and they only got one. The rally needed to go longer within the context of the day. But that doesn’t change the fact that they got an opportunity and scored more than zero, which was the big problem all season. If this had happened in the 2nd inning instead, or if the game had been scoreless at the time, then we’d have looked at it as successfully scratching out a run with some quality situational hitting. It was only disappointing because it took so long to happen and the stakes had been raised by a big deficit.
The other piece of good news is that this wasn’t a blowout loss. In a one-and-done situation, you may as well get crushed if you’re going to lose, so that you don’t need to be haunted for years by the close play(s) that could have gone the other way. 2018 hurt a lot less than 2014.
But when you get another chance the next day, it’s nice to know that you were at least competitive in defeat. It helps the confidence a bit for Game 2, knowing that if they’d just strung together a couple more hits in that 8th inning, or popped a well-timed dinger, they could have come back and won. It didn’t happen this time, but it’s a thing this A’s team does better than anybody else, so as long as you’re within reach there’s always a very real chance.
Oakland must win on Wednesday or they’re eliminated, but they have what it takes to do so. An early lead off Dallas Keuchel, or some more zeroes from Chris Bassitt, would go a long way. Or, staying close and then making their signature late comeback for a thrilling walk-off would work too. But Tuesday reminded us that the bullpen is there to shorten the game if given the opportunity, and the lineup can do some damage if it can only break the seal sooner.
Bring on Game 2!