The Oakland A’s have a penchant for late comebacks against opponents’ bullpens, but on Sunday it went the other direction as the A’s saw a winnable game go wrong in the final innings.
The A’s scored the first four runs of the game but fell 6-5 to the Los Angeles Angels, missing the chance to complete a road sweep of their AL West division rival.
In the early going, Oakland appeared to be in full control. The lineup exploded against Halos starter Dylan Bundy, knocking him out in the 3rd inning amid a relentless attack.
The 2nd inning was a power display. Matt Olson led off with a 445-foot moonshot for the first run of the game.
That upper-in location didn’t work to Olson, but two batters later Bundy tried it again on Seth Brown, with the same result — and this time with a runner on base.
ain't no party like a home run party pic.twitter.com/1lhSDfAeQK— Oakland A's (@Athletics) May 23, 2021
In the 3rd inning the ball stayed in the park, so the A’s built a rally instead. Tony Kemp lined one into the RF corner and legged out a triple, then scored on a single by Jed Lowrie. After another single by Olson, Bundy’s day was done.
Three innings in, and Oakland had a 4-0 lead and the other team’s starter was out of the game.
Meanwhile, the Angels weren’t keeping up against starter Sean Manaea. It took until the 4th inning for them to scratch out their first run, with a couple singles and an RBI groundout, and that was all they got despite plenty of traffic on the bases.
- Manaea: 5 ip, 1 run, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 4 hits, 98 pitches, 91.2 mph EV
Although they didn’t score much against Manaea, the thing the Halos did well was make him work and get him out of there after just five innings. Side note: Both of the walks should have been Called Strike 3s, which we’ll get to later in this recap.
It began innocently enough. Burch Smith pitched the 6th inning for Oakland, and allowed a solo homer but otherwise struck out the side. The A’s had enough cushion to absorb one little hiccup like that.
But the game fell apart in the 7th. Sergio Romo got the first out but then went walk, single, single, walk to bring in a run and load the bases. With the tying run on third and just one out, Shohei Ohtani was called to pinch-hit, and Oakland countered with a lefty reliever.
For reasons that science may never understand, that lefty reliever was Reymin Guduan. The platoon advantage didn’t help, and the matchup of the worst pitcher on Oakland’s staff against arguably the best healthy hitter in the sport went about how you’d expect, with a 110 mph smash to right field. Fortunately it went right at a glove, but it was still enough for a sac fly to bring home the tying run.
The save was blown, and the next batter singled off Guduan to drive in the go-ahead run.
The A’s briefly kept pace. In the top of the 8th they drew a couple walks to set the table, and then the Angels gifted them a run with some shaky defense. Sean Murphy hit a grounder back to the pitcher, who knocked the ball down and collected it in time but rushed the throw to first. The ball skipped past the base, everybody was safe, and the tying run scored all the way from second.
It was the second time that 1B Jared Walsh had missed a chance to shine. Earlier in the game, after Kemp’s triple, Kemp made a miscue on the bases and Walsh had a chance to throw him out at third but double-clutched. His hesitation allowed Kemp to get back safely, and Kemp later scored.
On Murphy’s grounder, Walsh’s best move would have been to come off the base and ensure the ball didn’t get by him, especially since the runner was racing by him by that point. Murphy was safe because of the pitcher’s errant throw, but the run scoring is on Walsh.
The first baseman was soon bailed out, though, as the Angels retook the lead in the bottom of the inning.
With options becoming limited in the bullpen, Deolis Guerra got the nod to protect the tie against his former club. He’s been solid this year in a low-leverage long relief capacity, but this was serious late-inning business.
Guerra walked the leadoff batter, a cardinal sin of high-leverage relief work. The Angels had made the same mistake in the top of the frame, and that free pass came around to score on Murphy’s grounder. Likewise, a sac bunt, a single, and a sac fly by Justin Upton brought Guerra’s walk all the way around with the go-ahead run.
There were no more comebacks after that. Oakland went down in order in the 9th to end it.
The obvious question after this loss is the bullpen management, with multiple curious decisions in the late innings. Why not let Smith work a second inning, knowing the pen needed to provide a little extra after the starter only made it through five? Especially if the setup crew was so taxed that Guduan needed to be put into an insane-leverage save situation? In fact, was Guduan even a better bet against Ohtani than just leaving in Romo? Why such a quick hook with everybody when nobody was available?
If you have Smith, Romo, Guduan, and Guerra available and you need to cover four innings, then you need Smith to do two of them, especially when he strikes out three of his first four batters.
The A’s also used Elvis Andrus as a pinch-hitter at one point, purely because of platoon advantage. You know your obsession with left-right matchups has gone too far when you think it’s a good idea to insert a .449 OPS into a crucial at-bat, or to bring in a 7.11 ERA to face a superstar opponent.
When umpiring goes wrong
It may or may not have mattered, but the umpiring was awful once again. For the first five innings, home plate ump Hunter Wendelstedt called two entirely different zones for the two teams. The Angels got several inches off the left side of the plate in these charts, whereas the A’s got no such leeway.
Those were meaningful calls, as Manaea was robbed of Strike 3 on multiple occasions. Twice the count was full and the strikeout was directly turned into a walk, and another time the batter later singled. One reason Manaea only lasted five innings is that he was required to get 18 outs to complete them instead of just 15.
Here’s the chart again, with five pitches circled. The lower red circle is the pair of pitches that got called Ball 4 but should unquestionably have been strikes. The higher red circle is more borderline, but those were getting called for the Angels.
The missed strike calls didn’t directly lead to runs, but they did help send Manaea to the showers earlier than he might otherwise have done, and a big reason the Angels won was their long exposure to the weaker links in Oakland’s bullpen. In a tight one-run affair like today, every little bit counts, and the umpire offered an extra little bit.
It’s honestly impressive that the A’s nearly won this game at all. They hit a couple homers, but otherwise needed help from Walsh and the Angels defense to score their other two runs. Oakland’s starter got unbelievably squeezed by the umpire, and they punted the late innings entirely by tossing their mop-up crew into high leverage. And they were still tied after eight innings, and only lost by one.
A win would have been cooler, especially because of the sweep that would have come with it, but this loss is nothing to get worked up about. On the bright side, outfield prospect Luis Barrera notched his first MLB hit!