As the second of a pair of compelling Wild Card Games nears, it is essential to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the clubs competing in the do-or-die contest.
After a National League Wild Card Game for the ages — where Juan Soto smacked a sharp, three-RBI hit off Josh Hader to give the Washington Nationals a big win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday– it’s time to turn our eyes to the American League side.
The Tampa Bay Rays (96-66) travel to the Bay Area to face the Oakland Athletics (97-65) in a battle between two teams who have had to get creative with payroll, player deployment, and roster management just to even get here, putting everything on the line for a shot at the Houston Astros (107-55), the AL’s top seed.
Now it’s time to look deep into which teams hold critical advantages in major aspects of the one-off, do-or-die game. We’ll continue with the AL and take a look at six tactical aisles: starting pitching, relief pitching, offensive firepower, defensive prowess, managing, and historical trends.
This is what a do-or-die, one-game showdown is supposed to be. Both teams will throw their respective aces out there on Wednesday night in Oakland, but the two starters didn’t arrive here the same way.
Morton, at 35, has transformed himself into one of Major League Baseball’s best starters over the past few years, hitting velocity marks and innings milestones he never before reached. The Rays ace has set career highs in basically every counting stat category this season at an age where pitchers should be slowing down or hanging their cleats up.
Manaea went down with a torn labrum in 2018 and missed the majority of the 2019 regular season but came back with a vengeance in the last month of the season. In five starts the deceptive left-hander earned the Wild Card nod with a 4-0 record and just four earned runs allowed in 29.2 innings.
But the advantage goes to Morton, and experience is the reason why. The Rays right-hander is a certified big-game pitcher (and I personally despise using the term). He was chased early in his only postseason start in 2018 but was dominant against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series with the Astros. Allowing just two earned runs in 10.1 innings pitched, Morton closed out Houston’s historic World Series victory in Game 7.
Rays: Emilio Pagan, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, Colin Poche, Andrew Kittredge, Jalen Beeks, Trevor Richards
Athletics: Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria, Yusmeiro Petit, Jake Diekman, Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk, Ryan Buchter, Paul Blackburn
This is where the game really takes off. Both clubs have loaded bullpens and are unafraid to dip into them at a moment’s notice, for a specific matchup, platoon advantage, or anything else.
The A’s boast some high-end relievers like Hendriks (1.80 ERA over 85 innings), Petit (159 ERA+), and the veteran Soria (10.3 K/9) that are sure to eat up bats and frustrate the Rays batting order in the later innings of the Wild Card matchup.
However, the Rays not only have the better bullpen, they possess the best collective unit of relief pitchers in the major leagues. Leading MLB in bullpen ERA (3.66) and opposing batting average (.231), the Rays are highly dangerous when they dive into their relief arms. Pagan (2.31 ERA, 11.3 K/9), Drake (139 ERA+), and Roe (3.31 FIP) are sure to keep the A’s hitters guessing.
Rays: Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe, Ji-Man Choi, Tommy Pham, Yandy Diaz, Avisail Garcia, Travis d’Arnaud, Willy Adames, Kevin Kiermaier
Athletics: Matt Olsen, Marcus Semien, Ramon Laureano, Matt Chapman, Jurickson Profar, Khris Davis, Josh Phegley, Mark Canha, Robbie Grossman
You can argue that the Rays have more depth and a more consistently dangerous lineup from top to bottom than Oakland, but that’s where the discussion would end. It only takes one at-bat to break a game wide open in today’s game, and the A’s have a better offense in terms of individual skills.
Olsen, Semien, and Laureano have all posted career-best offensive seasons, while 36-home run hitter Chapman — though streaky — remains an always lethal option at the dish. Not to mention Khris “Khrush” Davis, who paced all AL hitters in home runs just a season ago.
Meadows and Lowe, two young Rays hitters, have had excellent seasons, while Choi continues to surprise. However, the A’s pull ahead here.
Rays: Morton (1), d’Arnaud (2), Choi (3), Lowe/Eric Sogard (4), Matt Duffy/Joey Wendle (5), Adames (6), Pham (7), Kiermaier (8), Garcia (9)
Athletics: Manaea (1), Phegley (2), Olsen (3), Profar (4), Chapman (5), Semien (6), Grossman (7), Laureano (8), Chad Pinder/Canha (9)
Going solely off the FanGraphs “Defense” metric, which combines fielding runs and positional runs and compares teams to the league average club, the Athletics are the major leagues’ best defensive club. Their 42.9 “Def” rating in the regular season was the best in the bigs, while the Rays came in at 11th (9.1).
Factor in the possibility that all three of Semien (SS), Chapman (3B), and Olsen (1B) could reasonably take home Gold Glove honors at their respective positions, while Laureano is a possibility for that award in center field, and the A’s are clearly defensively superior.
Kiermaier is an excellent individual defender out in center field, while Adames posted 13 defensive runs saved at shortstop over the 2019 regular season. Other than that, the Rays cannot compare to the defensive mastery of Oakland.
We’re looking at a matchup between two of the most well-respected player-first managers in baseball and the probable one-two finishers in the AL Manager of the Year Award voting this season. For fans of teams who like to get creative with lineups, bullpen usage, and defensive output — effectively mixing older, traditional thinking with new-age analytics — this is your dream game.
But while Cash, the third-place finisher in last season’s AL Manager of the Year voting, will be making his playoff debut as a major-league skipper, Melvin will be managing his 20th postseason game. Experience matters for a situation like this, and Melvin stands above for that reason alone.
Let’s look at some trends and come to a conclusion on those Wild Card Game records, recent postseason success, head-to-head record this season, and team momentum going into the game.
Rays: 1-0 in AL Wild Card Game History
Athletics: 0-2 in AL Wild Card Game History
The A’s lost last year’s Wild Card Game in the Bronx, as the New York Yankees got the best of Liam Hendriks and crew. In 2014, Oakland fell to the eventual pennant winners, the Kansas City Royals, in a 12-inning thriller.
Tampa Bay, led by then-manager Joe Maddon, came out on top of the Cleveland Indians in 2013, 4-0.
Rays: 2-3 Postseason Record in Wild Card Era
Athletics: 4-8 Postseason Record in Wild Card Era
Neither team brings with them a culture of recent playoff success. The Rays have made the postseason just once since 2012, the year the Wild Card Game was implemented, while the A’s haven’t advanced past the Wild Card Game since 2013.
2019 Head-to-Head Record: Oakland 4, Tampa Bay 3
While the season series is very close, two things come to mind: Morton won his only start against Oakland, throwing seven scoreless innings in a 6-2 win on June 10. Oakland won in walkoff fashion on June 20 at RingCentral Coliseum.
Rays in September: 17-8, 127 Runs Scored, 98 Runs Allowed
Athletics in September: 18-8, 143 Runs Scored, 93 Runs Allowed
Both teams come in scorching hot. Something has to give.
Rays 4, Athletics 2.
The Rays’ scrappy offense gets to Manaea early, charging him with four runs in the first three innings. Morton pitches masterfully, with six innings of one-run ball and 11 strikeouts. Chapman jacks a solo home run off Pagan in the ninth, but it’s all Oakland can muster as a Pagan strikeout ends the game.
Whoever wins gets throttled by Houston later this week. Whatever.