The Oakland A’s hadn’t won a postseason series in 14 years, so when the club’s offense went silent in a Game 1 wild card round loss to the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday, the team could have immediately felt the weight of its recent postseason debacles.
A’s fans had watched their team lose winner-take-all wild card games in 2014, 2018 and 2019 and many current A’s players had lived through the club’s two most recent playoff nightmares. It’s possible no member of the organization has felt the sting of postseason losses burn more than veteran manager Bob Melvin, who has been renowned for his ability to maximize the talents of A’s rosters during impressive regular season runs only to have his team flounder under the bright lights that shine in October.
In the A’s series-clinching 6-4 win closed out by Liam Hendriks on Thursday at the Coliseum, Melvin watched from the home dugout as his counterpart, White Sox manager Rick Renteria, cost his club with a series of moves that proved too aggressive in a nine-inning game.
Neither team was particularly confident in its starting pitcher, rookie Dane Dunning for Chicago and veteran Mike Fiers for Oakland, but Renteria’s quick hook on Dunning required his bullpen to try to get 25 outs to close out the A’s on Thursday. Dunning hadn’t allowed a run by the time Renteria called on another rookie, 2020 first round draft choice Garrett Crochet, to face Matt Olson in the first inning, but Renteria’s desire to win the early innings may have cost Chicago a chance to win the game.
A forearm injury for Crochet and a shaky outing from lefty Aaron Bummer left Renteria searching for answers in the third inning, which is when Melvin made the call to send pinch-hitter Chad Pinder in for starting third baseman Jake Lamb. With one of the White Sox top relief options in the left-handed Bummer suddenly preparing for a bad platoon matchup with a runner in scoring position, Renteria again went to his bullpen and called on righty Codi Heuer.
Heuer retired Pinder in the third, but it was the super versatile substitute who delivered the go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the fifth inning against another potential high-leverage option for Renteria, Evan Marshall, who was forced into the game earlier than Chicago would have liked.
Despite a terrible showing from Fiers, who gave up five hits, a walk and a run in 1 2/3 innings on Thursday, Melvin stuck with his starter as long as he could which helped ease the load on a bullpen that also had multiple starters including Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea available in relief.
In an effort to save some of his top available arms including J.B. Wendelken, Jake Diekman and Joakim Soria, Melvin turned to Montas in the top of the fourth and received two valuable innings of work from a starter pitching on short rest. The strategy wasn’t perfect –Montas allowed two hits and a run– but having a starter throw in the middle innings meant his best options were still available to get the last outs.
After rookie catcher Sean Murphy got the A’s on the board with a two-run blast in the fourth against Heuer, Renteria brought left-hander Carlos Rodon in despite his disastrous numbers in only four regular season appearances. In the first season in which MLB employed the three-batter minimum rule for pitchers, Rodon technically only faced two as he walked Tommy La Stella and gave up a double to Marcus Semien before Renteria called for him to intentionally walk Pinder.
The walk allowed Renteria to pull Rodon, but it also required rookie reliever Matt Foster to make his first postseason appearance in a bases loaded situation in which there was no room for error.
The move immediately backfired.
Foster walked each of the first two batters he faced as the A’s went ahead 4-3, giving Oakland a narrow lead the fourth inning of a game in which Chicago had already used three of its top four relievers.
Melvin’s patience in squeezing five outs from Fiers, four from Yusmeiro Petit and six from Montas proved to be a definite gamble that could have haunted the A’s if their offense didn’t wake up, but the strategy set Oakland up for favorable matchups in the game’s most important innings.
The A’s used Wendelken when they needed a shutdown inning in the sixth, brought Diekman in when Lou Trivino struggled in the seventh and had Soria on the mound for a right-on-right matchup with the bases loaded against AL MVP favorite Jose Abreu in the eighth.
Nothing about Thursday’s game was pretty, no moves the A’s made ever took the White Sox out of the game and at no point did Oakland’s late two-run lead feel safe. But with the season on the line, Melvin was able to turn to closer Liam Hendriks, which is exactly how a manager wants a game to unfold.
Even after a 49-pitch outing in Wednesday’s win, Hendriks came back on no rest and struck out the side in the ninth inning to clinch the series.
Renteria went for the kill early while Melvin played the long game. And because of those approaches, the White Sox are going home and the A’s, after so much recent playoff heartbreak, are moving on.