In Game 1 of their Wild Card Series, the Oakland A’s played a rerun of the 2019 Wild Card Game for a ho-hum loss. In Game 2, they did the exact opposite, in a thrilling and suspenseful victory.
The A’s warded off a late rally by the Chicago White Sox to hang on for a 5-3 win in Game 2, evening the best-of-three series and forcing a deciding third contest. It’s the first time Oakland has won a playoff game since 2013, breaking a streak of six straight losses.
Everything that went wrong on Tuesday went right on Wednesday — and vice versa. The A’s got a brilliant starting pitching performance, and their lineup scored early and often, but their MLB-best bullpen nearly faltered at the end and threatened to blow a five-run lead. Finally, with the go-ahead run on base and one of the league’s best hitters at the plate for Chicago, the relievers got the job done to seal the victory and take us off the edges of our seats.
The heroes of the day include Chris Bassitt, who took a shutout into the 8th inning and finished with one run on his record. Marcus Semien and Khris Davis both homered — yes, Khris Davis. And there was White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal, whose error in the 1st inning put the A’s on the board with a pair of free runs. Also home plate ump Mike Muchlinski, who gifted a strike call in a crucial moment *checks notes* in favor of the A’s. So that’s how that feels.
The Chicago White Sox drafted Chris Bassitt back in 2011, and then traded him to the A’s ahead of 2015. It’s been a long and winding road for the right-hander since then, including Tommy John surgery and some time in the minors and bullpen, but he made the jump from contributor to star in 2020. On Wednesday, he got a chance to beat his old team in the biggest game of his career so far, and he took full advantage.
Chris Bassitt says it's special getting a start against the White Sox in the postseason: "It's kind of like playing against your friends." Still knows a lot of players on that side.— Martín Gallegos (@MartinJGallegos) September 29, 2020
The Hound showed up in Bassitt’s first ever playoff appearance. He scattered a few baserunners in the opening innings, but then he settled in, retiring 12 straight batters to take him through the 6th. He kept the shutout intact in the 7th despite navigating around a couple hits, and came out for the first batter of the 8th but allowed a single. The bullpen later let that man score, putting a run on Bassitt’s record, but he still gave Oakland the gem they were desperately clawing for.
Bassitt: 7+ ip, 1 run, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 6 hits, 92 pitches (65 strikes)
He didn’t miss a lot of bats, but Chicago could only hit it hard off him a handful of times, and there were only two or three particularly loud outs.
This was exactly what the A’s needed. The last time they got a quality start in the playoffs was 2013, from Dan Straily in Game 4. It’s no coincidence how that coincides with their postseason losing streak. Bassitt was their ace this summer, and he delivered in the clutch moment with the season on the line, just like an ace should.
In play, Run(s)
Even more than a quality start, the A’s needed to score some runs. It doesn’t matter how well your starter performs if you get shut out.
They came through in this department as well, against a daunting opponent in former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. They did get a little help from the Sox, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of in the postseason — how many times have the A’s been burned by their own miscues in critical games? Taking advantage of mistakes is part of the game, and in this particular case, the error showed the value of simply making contact with runners on base.
Oakland loaded the bags with singles in the first inning. With two outs, Matt Olson pulled a grounder to the shifted 2B-slash-shallow-RF, which would normally have ended the inning. But wait! The ball skipped past second baseman Nick Madrigal and into deeper right field, allowing Olson to reach safely and two unearned runs to score.
If you strike out in that spot, there’s no real hope of a short hop or bad bounce going your way. But even a groundout can turn into magic if you just enter another ball into the BABIP lottery. Any you’ll take anything you can get against Keuchel.
The A’s didn’t stop there. Now awakened from their postseason malaise, they added on in the 2nd. With another runner on base, Marcus Semien launched a homer (106.9 mph off the bat! 418 feet!) to double the lead.
It can’t be ignored that Semien was acquired from the White Sox in the same Jeff Samardzija trade that brought Bassitt over. That swap basically won them this game, in case you were ever again curious about whether the Sharknado deals worked out or not.
Oakland still wasn’t done. For anyone who still wasn’t feeling the magic, Khris Davis rose from the ashes of his two-year slump and drilled a homer in the 5th to make it 5-0.
Davis had an .894 OPS (144 wRC+) in September, which was slightly better than what Jake Lamb posted. He earned the start against the lefty Keuchel, and he came through with his second career postseason dinger — he also hit one in 2018.
They didn’t do much the rest of the game, but it turned out they didn’t need to. Five runs was enough for Bassitt and the pen, and it also exceeded their total from their last three playoff games combined (2018, 2019, and Tuesday). This A’s lineup has some pop after all.
From nails to nailbiter
The desired game plan was simple: Take a lead, and then hand the ball to the best bullpen in the majors to shorten the game. Technically that happened, but the route was more perilous than we’re used to.
After Bassitt allowed a single to lead off the 8th, manager Bob Melvin made an aggressive move to turn to his closer for a six-out save. It’s fair to question whether that bold of a decision was necessary, especially with such a large lead, but Liam Hendriks is capable of going two innings. And he almost pulled it off.
It was quickly apparent that Hendriks wasn’t quite at his best. He struck out the first batter, but then allowed a homer to Yasmani Grandal to score the inherited runner and make it 5-2. A single put a new runner on board, and Nomar Mazara came to bat. Then something amazing happened — a break went in the A’s favor. In a playoff game.
The 3-2 pitch to Mazara was inside. There are no two ways about it. The ump had a big inside corner all day, but this was farther in than anything else that had been called before, and some similar ones had been balls. But this time, he rung up Mazara for Strike 3, instead of putting him on base with the Ball 4 he deserved. That could have been a game-changer, and we’re more used to seeing, say, Justin Verlander do it against the A’s than vice versa.
Hey, I warned everyone all year that inconsistent strike calls could change a playoff series. I just didn’t expect it would help Oakland.
Hendriks fanned the next batter to end the inning, and then the first two of the 9th. He was one out away from completing his sizable task. But then a single. And another single. And a walk. Suddenly, Grandal was up again, with the bases loaded, representing the go-ahead run, and with one dinger already in the bag against Hendriks in the last hour.
Melvin didn’t wait around for the sequel to that matchup. Jake Diekman was called in, and the lefty, who allowed just one earned run all season ... walked Grandal to force in a run.
Now Jose Abreu was up, he of the .987 OPS and MLB lead in RBI. He hit the ball hard, but on the ground toward a fielder, and the out was recorded to end the rally and the game. Crisis averted.
It wasn’t how anyone drew it up, but the bullpen was handed a five-run lead and only allowed three. Still counts.
Bassitt did receive a bit of help from his defense. In the 3rd inning, the first two batters reached base via singles. The next one hit a rocket that should have been trouble, and could have changed the course of the game. But Mark Canha swooped in to save the day, doing his best impression of Joe Rudi along the way.
In the 9th inning of Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, Rudi made a leaping catch at that same left field wall to help save the game. The stakes might not seem as high this time, in the 3rd inning of the Wild Card Round, but Canha made perhaps a season-saving impact with his grab.
Are you getting chills yet?
Here we go again
We’ve been here before: The universal elimination game. Winner moves on, loser goes home. For the last decade, the A’s have lost each one. Is this the time they finally change that script too? We’ll find out at noon on Thursday for the deciding Game 3.