The Rays and A’s are going to have to put on a barn-burner to top last night’s Brewers-Nats game. Let’s see how it stacks up.
The Game: Tampa Bay Rays @ Oakland Athletics, American League Wild Card
The Time: 8:08 PM EDT
The Place: RingCentral Coliseum, Oakland, California
The Channel: ESPN
The Starters: Charlie Morton (Rays) vs. Sean Manaea (Athletics)
Loser goes home. Winner gets the Astros. Frankly, both of those sound like awful things, but winning is probably better.
Sean Manaea missed a year with a torn labrum but he was fantastic in his five starts down the stretch, tossing 29.2 innings and allowing only four earned runs (1.21 ERA). Charlie Morton was the Rays best starter all year long, posting a 3.05 ERA with 240 strikeouts in 194.2 innings, and he dominated the A’s in two starts, allowing only one run in 13.1 innings of work.
If Morton falters, the Rays have the game’s best bullpen, at least as far as ERA and by innings pitched. Manea can be electric, but he’ll also need to go somewhat long. The Athletics finished 2019 with the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the American League, but the strength of that pen is decided on the back end, with Liam Hendricks and Yusmeiro Petit standing above the club’s middle relievers. If Manaea starts poorly or has a big pitch count early, the A’s could have trouble.
Of course, even if they have been great all year, Morton and the Rays’ pitchers don’t have an easy task here. The A’s had seven hitters smack 20 homers or more this year and they finished behind only the Twins, Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers in team home runs in all of baseball. Matts Olson and Chapman, Marcus Semein and Mark Canha will be difficult to pitch to. Not so much the Rays’ lineup, at least relatively speaking. Tampa Bay had four hitters with 20 or more homers this year but only one — Austin Meadows — hit more than 21. Overall the Rays offense is the worst among AL playoff teams but a fairly large margin. They’re going to want a low-scoring game as opposed to trading blows with the A’s.
If you care about momentum, know that both teams finished the season strong, with the Rays going 20-8 to close out the season while Oakland went 18-7 in their last 25. I’m not a big fan of momentum, especially in a single-game playoff, but I throw it out there.
If you care about narratives, be prepared to hear all manner of chatter about the low payrolls and forward-thinking front offices of these two clubs. Drink every time you hear the word “Moneyball” even though there’s nothing new or even useful about the concept as people like ESPN announcers usually discuss it. Drink every time you “Tropicana Field,” or “attendance” or “small market” even if the game is in Oakland.
Wait, don’t. I don’t want anyone to die of alcohol poisoning tonight.
How about this: sit back and get to know some players you may not know very well unless you’re already a fan of this team. Meadows, Tommy Pham, and Ji-Man Choi. Chapman, Olson and Semien. Emilio Pagán. Chuck all the stuff you think you know about the A’s and Rays based on vague talk of payrolls and baseball business and sit back and enjoy two of the best teams in the game.
Then watch the Astros chew ’em up over the following week. But we’ll get to that later.