A 2020 Oakland A’s club that went 36-24 and secured the No. 2 seed in the American League playoffs went exactly one game before having to fear elimination.
Manager Bob Melvin and many of the team’s veteran players have lamented having to open recent postseasons with winner-take-all wild card games, but Oakland forfeited the right to complain this year by winning the AL West to secure home field advantage for a best-of-three wild card series.
After dropping a 4-1 playoff opener to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday, the A’s are right where they would have been as a wild card team in a traditional postseason: One loss away from going home.
Oakland A’s executives Billy Beane and David Forst and manager Bob Melvin’s history of picking the wrong starting pitcher to open the playoffs continued with the choice of rookie lefty Jesús Luzardo, who gave up a pair of early home runs to right-handed hitters on a White Sox team that went 14-0 against southpaws during the 60-game regular season.
The White Sox selected the right man as Lucas Giolito gave up two hits and one run over seven dominant innings in a start that put Oakland on the brink of another potentially stunning early exit.
Giolito retired the first 18 A’s hitters he faced and was dominant against seven of the nine batters in Oakland’s lineup. Nearly every A’s player except for second baseman Tommy LaStella and third baseman Jake Lamb – a pair of in-season acquisitions – appeared overwhelmed against Giolito, who recorded 13 swings and misses on 100 pitches on Tuesday.
When told Oakland had selected the left-handed Luzardo to face Chicago in Game 1, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said Monday that the A’s “haven’t done their homework.” Oakland saw Chicago’s numbers and still stuck by Luzardo, but A’s hitters seemed as if they hadn’t seen a detailed scouting report of Giolito on Tuesday.
The White Sox right-hander became the fifth pitcher in MLB postseason to carry a perfect game bid into the seventh inning before LaStella drilled a grounder up the middle for a leadoff single. The A’s didn’t threaten Giolito in the bottom of the seventh, but finally chased him from the game in the eighth when Lamb came to the plate for the third time.
Lamb hit a 102.3 mile per hour groundout and a 99.1 mile per hour lineout in his first two plate appearances before flipping an 89.5 mile per hour single to end Giolito’s afternoon in the eighth, but his at-bats were atypical of the way the A’s approach the White Sox starter on Tuesday.
One of the most disappointing at-bats belonged to shortstop Marcus Semien, who battled to a 3-2 count in the bottom of the seventh before fouling off a belt high mistake from Giolito and swinging through a fastball right down the middle to end the inning.
Giolito mostly painted the corners of the strike zone in Game 1 of the wild card round, but the A’s missed far too many pitches out over the plate in a game that put them in another playoff hole. Before grounding out in the first inning, Lamb fouled off a 1-0 fastball that may have been the worst pitch Giolito threw on Tuesday while first baseman Matt Olson missed a chance to turn on an 0-1 fastball that also caught the center part of the plate.
Statcast’s pitch tracking data shows that of the 18 foul balls the A’s hit against the White Sox starter, at least 15 likely would have been called strikes had Oakland hitters chosen to take them instead of swing. The data suggests Melvin’s club wasn’t doing damage on pitches in the zone and their inability to threaten Giolito will now require them to come back against Wednesday’s starter Dallas Keuchel, who posted a 1.99 ERA in 11 starts this season.
Oakland’s performance at the plate on Tuesday was particularly disconcerting for the A’s because it was a continuation of the struggles the A’s had in the final week of the season. Giolito is a fantastic pitcher who was an All-Star last year and tossed a no-hitter earlier this year, but the A’s have now been held to three runs or fewer in seven of their last nine games and are clearly missing the power potential injured third baseman Matt Chapman brings to the lineup.
On a day when the A’s consistently fell behind in counts and failed to take advantage when Giolito did miss in the zone, White Sox hitters Adam Engel and José Abreu slammed home runs on the two worst mistakes from Luzardo.
The A’s can’t pin their all-around Game 1 failure on any individual player or decision, but they now must push all their chips in behind Game 2 starter Chris Bassitt on Wednesday.
Unlike Oakland’s three previous postseason appearances, the A’s are not one-and-done. The pressure they felt in each of those recent wild card games, however, is suddenly back after Tuesday’s uninspiring loss.