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Game #26: Matt Chapman powers A’s to split in Tampa Bay

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The two teams totaled only 17 runs over four games

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s went on the road to visit the defending AL champions for four games, and they emerged with a series split. Success!

The A’s won their finale over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, and for the fourth straight day it was a tight margin. Oakland’s 3-2 victory raised the total series run differential to just 9-8 in favor of the Rays, as nobody ever put up more than four in a day or triumphed by more than two. These were two excellent teams locked in an even battle.

*** Game Thread #1 | Game Thread #2 ***

At times today the A’s couldn’t get out of their own way, but they flexed enough talent to win by pure brute force. Their rally in the 3rd inning included two runners being thrown out on the basepaths, limiting the output to just one run. Meanwhile, starting pitcher Chris Bassitt pegged three batters, with one of those free runners coming around to score for Tampa Bay.

But Oakland hung tight amid those miscues, and then Matt Chapman powered them the rest of the way. The star third baseman has been mired in an awful slump to begin the season, and the eyeball test hasn’t been any kinder than the numbers in the box score, but he’s been working hard and it showed today.

In the 4th inning, with the score tied, he homered to give the A’s the lead.

The Rays came back to tie it with their own solo dinger, and the score held at 2-2 until the 9th. Oakland got Jed Lowrie to first base but needed at least one more hit to cash in, and with two outs Chapman stepped up and delivered. His 106.7 mph blast stayed in the park this time, but the right fielder couldn’t corral it, and it bounced around plenty long enough for Lowrie to score from first with the go-ahead run.

Twice Chapman gave his team the lead with an extra-base smash, once to left and once to right. His wRC+ is up to 101, though his average and strikeout rates still look ugly. Gotta start somewhere, and this was a most encouraging day for him.

When keeping it aggressive goes wrong

The A’s have been extremely aggressive on the basepaths this season. It’s been wonderful to watch, and it’s mostly worked out well, and we all want it to continue, but today we saw the downside of the gamble.

Oakland’s lineup had a tough task in Rays starter Shane McClanahan. The lefty is a national Top 100 prospect, and last fall he became the first pitcher in history and just the fifth player overall to make his MLB debut in the postseason. Now he was making his first career regular season appearance, and you could immediately see how he’ll be a problem for the rest of the league in the near future.

McClanahan can hit triple-digits with wicked movement, and his slider and changeup each went as high as 93. His first time through the order produced four strikeouts and a popout.

But the A’s got a read on him the second time through and began connecting with a parade of hard contact. Tony Kemp singled despite the platoon disadvantage, and he moved to second on a wild pitch. Mark Canha hit an even sharper single and Kemp was waved around third, but the right fielder fired a strike to the plate to nab him.

Personally, I liked the decision to send Kemp. The out required a perfect throw, forcing the opponent to make a play, and this time they made it. More often they probably won’t, and indeed the same right fielder made a way worse throw later in the afternoon on Chapman’s double. This gamble was definitely worth it, even though it didn’t work out for Oakland.

The next out on the bases was far more frustrating. Ramon Laureano doubled down the line to score Canha, guaranteeing the A’s at least got one run out of the rally. Then Lowrie worked a 3-2 count, and with the pressure mounting on every pitch ... Laureano broke for third too early and got picked off. Womp womp.

I’m a big fan of Laureano’s aggressive hustle on the bases, but this just wasn’t the time. They had a rookie starter on the ropes in basically his MLB debut, after three straight blasts at high exit velocities, and in the box was their toughest veteran professional hitter waiting on a 3-2 payoff pitch. For goodness sake, just hold at second for one moment and let Lowrie take a swing.

But hey, that’s one nitpick amid a productive game for Laureano, who drove in a key run and also made a couple nice catches in CF. And the message certainly isn’t for him to slow down, rather a reminder that sometimes full speed ahead isn’t actually the best route.

Fortunately, the momentum shift didn’t make any difference. In the next inning, Chapman smoked a 103.9 mph rocket for a 382-foot dinger. All in all, McClanahan didn’t win his first start, nor even go five frames, but he sure gave us something to be nervous about for next time Oakland faces the Rays.

Steady Bassitt

On the pitching side, two trends continued for the A’s. They got a strong performance from their rotation just like every other game in this series, and Bassitt authored his third straight quality effort of exactly six innings and two runs.

The right-hander wasn’t his sharpest, but he was really only competing against himself as the Rays lineup could barely manage anything against him. They got an earned run in the 1st inning but didn’t earn any part of it — a runner reached on a HBP, and then a weak routine fly with 98% odds of being caught was instead lost in the infuriating Tropicana Field dome for a lucky RBI double.

Tampa Bay built rallies in the 2nd and 3rd, but again they included almost no hard contact, and Bassitt missed enough bats to work out of them. They finally got to him in the 4th, when Brandon Lowe launched a monster homer, but all that did was tie the score.

  • Bassitt: 6 ip, 2 runs, 9 Ks, 1 BB, 3 HBP, 1 HR, 4 hits, 99 pitches, 90.4 mph EV

The nine strikeouts are a season-high for Bassitt, and three of them came on his new slider.

His season stats now include a 3.93 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and three Ks per walk, well on the way to another strong campaign after last summer’s breakout.

Oakland’s defense chipped in too. Here’s a nice diving play by Kemp, on a heavy shift that had him moved from 2B to more of a SS position.

The bullpen held serve after Bassitt was done, as Yusmeiro Petit and Jake Diekman breezed through the 7th and 8th innings. Chapman gave the A’s the lead in the top of the 9th, and then Lou Trivino came in to close out the bottom half.

The first two outs came easily, with a couple routine grounders. Then Brett Phillips, the pesky RF who homered two nights ago and then threw out Kemp today, laced a single to keep the game going. Then he moved to second on a wild pitch. Then he stole third, without so much as a throw, as Trivino frittered away an 0-2 advantage with three straight balls way out of the zone.

The tying run was 90 feet away, with two out, a full count, and lefty leadoff batter Kevin Kiermaier at the plate. Trivino delivered a changeup and nailed the upper-outside corner for a fully deserved Called Strike 3. Game over.

Via Baseball Savant

It was pretty close to the same location that Frankie Montas didn’t get two nights ago leading to Phillips’ game-changing homer, but on the opposite side of the plate. This time the A’s got the call.

What a catch!

Perhaps the highlight of the game was one that didn’t even count. Catcher Sean Murphy took a wild ride on this popup and somehow kept his eye on the ball, then caught it while simultaneously slipping, and held on after a brief juggle. Making it extra difficult was that it hit the catwalk above foul territory, but unfortunately that contact meant it immediately became a dead ball.

Just another day in Florida.

Here’s the second-best highlight that didn’t count in the box score.

Split!

Halfway through this series, I suggested a split would be a reasonable goal and a satisfying result. That’s what we got, and it is indeed satisfying. The Rays are tough, their park is even tougher, and Oakland reproved that they can compete with a top contender, on the road no less. The A’s had already corrected their overall record after their early slump, thanks to some easier matchups, but this was the first real test we were waiting to see and it went perfectly fine.