Pinder delivers timely hit, A’s advance in playoffs at last

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Sure, most of these young Oakland Athletics might barely remember some of the gut-wrenching October losses over the past two decades.

Two recent defeats were plenty fresh enough to motivate manager Bob Melvin’s slugging, happy-go-lucky A’s.

Oakland finally ended 14 years of postseason futility, riding Chad Pinder‘s go-ahead, two-run single in the fifth inning and repeated costly walks by Chicago’s relievers to rally past the White Sox 6-4 on Thursday and win the decisive third game of their AL wild-card round series.

“Not everybody’s been part of all that,” Melvin said. “We’ve had a couple of tough ones in the last two years.”

The AL West champions lost the opener, then won on consecutive days at home and advanced to a Division Series against the rival Houston Astros starting Monday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The winner of that matchup faces the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay for a spot in the World Series.

Sean Murphy hit a two-run homer in the fourth against Codi Heuer as A’s wives and families cheered from suites high above the diamond.

Players held a subdued celebration afterward. No Champagne showers.

“We’re doing what we did all year, and that’s following the protocols,” Melvin said.

Oakland stopped a nine-game losing streak in winner-take-all postseason games, a major league record that dated to the 1973 World Series. The A’s had lost six straight playoff series since sweeping Minnesota in the 2006 Division Series, starting with when Detroit swept Oakland in that year’s Championship Series.

And what a humongous relief for a club that won 97 games each of the past two seasons only to lose the division to Houston and then the AL wild card game both years.

This one was never comfortable – even after Chicago lost designated hitter Eloy Jimenez and reliever Garrett Crochet to early injuries.

“I woke up this morning feeling like this was going to be a hard game and it was a hard game,” Melvin said. “… It took everybody today.”

Lou Trivino allowed the first two batters to reach in the seventh, hitting James McCann with a pitch. First baseman Matt Olson ran 98 feet to make a magnificent catch in foul territory for the second out, then Jake Diekman relieved and loaded the bases with a walk to Nomar Mazara before getting Adam Engel‘s groundout.

Opening day starter in July, Frankie Montas, pitched two innings for the win. Liam Hendriks gave up McCann’s leadoff single in the ninth and closed out the game, a day after failing to do so.

Hendriks retired Mazara on a called third strike to end it. The A’s closer let out a howl of celebration and pumped his arms before receiving congratulatory hugs.

The low-budget A’s had not captured a winner-take-all postseason game since beating Hall of Famer Willie Mays and the New York Mets. in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series. Oakland had gone 1-15 in potential clinchers since 2000.

“Rinetti, it happened!” A’s President Dave Kaval hollered to 40th-year stadium operations chief David Rinetti from the field up into the stands afterward.

“1973, baby!” Rinetti yelled.

Two relievers after Murphy’s homer, Matt Foster walked Mark Canha with the bases-loaded to tie it, then Matt Olson’s walk forced in another run that gave Oakland a 4-3 lead. Mazara hit a tying single in the fifth.

Led by top MVP candidate Jose Abreu, the White Sox ended a string of seven consecutive losing seasons to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008. They won the AL Central that year before losing 3-1 to Tampa Bay in the Division Series.

Loser Evan Marshall walked the bases loaded with a second straight free pass with two outs in the fifth to Marcus Semien before Pinder singled.

“I was grateful for the opportunity,” Pinder said. “Those are the kind of moments you want to be in.”

Melvin insisted Pinder’s bat would help the A’s in the playoffs, even after the infielder spent a stint on the injured list down the stretch with a strained right hamstring.

Melvin also turned to right-hander Mike Fiers to take the ball over lefty starter Sean Manaea. The decision made perfect sense: The White Sox went 14-0 in the regular season against left-handed starters and beat southpaw Jesus Luzardo in Game 1 on Tuesday. That prompted White Sox star Tim Anderson to say, “I guess they haven’t done their homework.”

“It’s a tough one to swallow but we’ve got to keep going,” Anderson said. “It’s just the start of something that could be great.”

A year ago, Melvin picked Manaea over Fiers to start the wild-card game Oakland lost to Tampa Bay after Fiers pitched his second career no-hitter against the Reds in May 2019 and went on to finish 15-4. Fiers wanted the start that night but understood Melvin made a tough choice.

“It was a fun call for me to finally reward him,” said Melvin, who hated to remove Fiers early Thursday.

While Fiers was done after 1 2/3 innings having surrendered a run and five hits, he might get to leave his mark on the Astros series after not facing his former club all of 2020.

It was Fiers in November who made public his former Houston club’s sign-stealing scam in an article with The Athletic.

The A’s haven’t forgotten.

“We’re in the middle of it. There’s a little bit of kind of that going on there that we want to make sure they know what they’ve done and we can prove it to them and make sure we’re also the top team in the AL West,” Hendriks said. “But there’s also not being petty and not letting our emotions get the better of us by trying to be over the top and vengeful.”

SUCH DISTANCE

Luis Robert‘s 487-foot home run to left-center in the second inning was the second-longest of the postseason and furthest by a White Sox player since 2015, according to MLB StatCast. Robert emphatically threw down his twirling bat before rounding the bases as teammates roared from the dugout.

TRAINER’S ROOM

White Sox manager Rick Renteria was late writing his lineup waiting to see whether Jimenez could play.

Jimenez started as DH then came out with further discomfort in his sprained right foot following a leadoff double in the third.

He missed the first two games of the series and the final three of the regular season.

Renteria watched his regular left fielder’s pregame work first Thursday.

“We’ve got to get a win today. We’ve got to buy him some time,” Anderson said. “That’s another big bat that we’re missing right now.”

Crochet, who relieved fellow rookie starter Dane Dunning in the first, exited in the second with tightness in his left forearm – his throwing side.

HURLING IT

The 17 pitchers, nine by Chicago, were the most in a nine-inning postseason game.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.