Rumors of the Oakland A’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
After a flat showing on Friday in their return from a coronavirus quarantine layoff, the A’s bounced back on Saturday with a brilliant performance in an 8-4 victory over the hot San Diego Padres.
The win was Oakland’s first in 10 days, dating back two Wednesdays ago. However, it was also only the fourth game they’ve played during that span, due to postponements for league-wide social protests and then virus isolation protocol. Furthermore, two of those recent contests were part of an abbreviated makeup doubleheader — so, since their last victory on Aug. 26, this was their first nine-inning game that wasn’t preceded by a five-day rest.
Everything went well for the A’s on Saturday. The lineup banged out 11 hits and drew four walks and a HBP, and then cashed in on their opportunities by going 5-for-11 with runners in scoring position. One of those clutch hits came from newcomer Tommy La Stella, who was brought to Oakland to do exactly that, and the second baseman also reached base three times. Matt Olson added three hits including a two-run triple, and Ramon Laureano homered.
But the big story on offense was rookie catcher Jonah Heim. Playing just his third MLB game, the switch-hitter notched a pair of RBI singles to help the A’s build their early lead, marking the first RBI of his career. He also came around to score both times, as part of larger rallies.
Meanwhile, Sean Manaea twirled five strong innings, allowing just one run while his teammates were piling crooked numbers on the scoreboard. He needed only 64 pitches to cut through the best lineup in MLB, and he showed by far his best velocity of the summer — he topped out at 94.6 mph and averaged 92.1 on his fastball, which is two full ticks higher than his season average. He changed eye levels, missed bats, issued just one walk, and allowed only a couple pieces of useful hard contact.
Oakland’s bullpen took care of the rest, though they did let the Padres find the plate a few times. Joakim Soria and Liam Hendriks, each using garbage time to shake off a week of rust, were tagged with a total of three runs. But it was far too little too late for San Diego, and the A’s easily held on until the final out.
First baseman Matt Olson has been struggling in the batting average department lately, going 6-for-44 over his previous 13 games. He’s continued hitting the ball hard, but hasn’t been able to climb above the Mendoza Line since late July.
His batted-ball fortunes improved on Saturday. In the 1st inning, with a pair of runners on base, he ripped a triple into the right field corner to plate them both. The hit had an exit velocity of 111.9, which is serious business, but the important thing is no Padres were standing in the spot where it fell.
Olson wasn’t done. His next time up, against a heavy defensive shift, he found a hole with a 97.1 mph blast for a single. Then in the 7th he beat the shift in a different way, tapping a slow grounder to the wide-open left side for an easy single.
Add it up and Olson had a 3-for-4 day, though his .186 average still needs some more regression. Factor in his three walks from Friday, and he’s reached base in six of his eight plate appearances against San Diego.
After Olson put the A’s on the board, Jonah Heim went to work.
The rookie catcher is one of the team’s better prospects, and there’s a real chance he could have a long-term future in Oakland. Saturday showed a glimpse of that potential future.
Despite batting ninth in the lineup, Heim came up twice with a runner in scoring position. Both times, he drove that runner home with a clean, hard-hit single. He hit the ball reasonably well in all four trips to the plate, and also put it in play at all each time rather than striking out.
Through his first 10 plate appearances, Heim is 3-for-9 with a walk and a strikeout, giving him a .400 OBP and a tiny 10% K-rate. Keep that up and the A’s will be set behind the plate for a long time.
It’s one thing to take a flyer on a random lotto ticket and have him make good, like if we were talking about a veteran minor league free agent or a 28-year-old rookie finally getting a late chance. But it’s another thing entirely to see a legit prospect make a good first impression, on the path toward hopefully panning out into the valuable MLB player we envision.
The A’s acquisition of Tommy La Stella meant they had someone in the lineup who could make contact with a runner in scoring position and actually bring him home. He did exactly that on Saturday when he had the chance.
In the 2nd inning, with a runner on third and two out, La Stella looped a flare toward the right field corner that found turf for an RBI double. It wasn’t particularly good contact, at 91 mph with a .180 expected batting average on Statcast, but that’s 180 points higher than a strikeout would have measured.
Since arriving, La Stella has now come up twice with a runner in scoring position. He drove in a run both times.
The A’s scored their first five runs without homers, by stringing together rallies and getting big hits when they needed them. But they also made sure to add on some fireworks toward the end, to give all those faithful cardboard cutouts the show they deserved.
After Heim’s second RBI hit, Ramon Laureano drove him in with laser.
That’s his fifth of the year, which is around a 20-25 pace over a full campaign.
All of that scoring turned out to be plenty for Oakland’s pitching staff. They were staked to an early lead, held it during the middle innings, and then were far enough ahead at the end to relax and not sweat a couple late slipups.
After a rocky beginning to the 2020 season, Sean Manaea is showing improvement virtually every time out.
First, it was conquering the second time through the lineup. That task, which sunk him in the 4th/5th innings of his first few starts, is now under control. This was the fourth straight appearance in which he completed five full innings, with a total of five earned runs in those games and never more than two at once. The Padres went 1-for-9 with a single the second time through, and 0-for-1 with a walk the third time before the southpaw was removed.
Manaea: 5 ip, 1 run, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 0 HR, 4 hits, 64 pitches (47 strikes)
Even if he only settles in as a five-inning starter, he can still be a weapon in front of this long, deep bullpen. Especially if those five innings are this good. And hey, the likes of Mike Minor and A.J. Puk should be around to piggyback if needed. This is a version of Manaea that can help Oakland win games, even in October considering the league-best lineup he just stifled.
That’s not all, though, as the main story around Manaea comes in regard to his velocity. The zip has been noticeably absent from his fastball this year, and although he can succeed without it, he would have much more consistent odds with a couple more ticks on his heater. He found those ticks on Saturday.
For the season, Manaea is averaging an even 90 mph with his fastball. In his previous three starts, he was at 91, 89, and 90. In this game, he sat at 92.1, and topped out at 94.6 — that’s a season-high by 0.6 mph, and by 1.3 over the third-fastest he’s thrown in 2020. He spotted it in all corners of the zone, mixed in his changeup for plenty of whiffs and weak contact, and got results from his breaking balls, all while throwing strikes and avoiding walks as usual.
Bring on Power Manaea!
The first two games were split, and the finale is Sunday at 1:10 p.m. It’ll be Mike Fiers against the reincarnation of former Angels ace Garrett Richards, who has been totally decent this year after being limited to 31 total starts over four seasons from 2016-19.