OAKLAND -- The early portion of the 2021 schedule afforded the A’s a test to see where they stand among the elite teams in baseball with several games against the reigning American League champions. After a spirited seven games against the Rays, they came away feeling like they can hang with the game’s best.
Sunday’s 4-3 defeat wasn’t the desired outcome for the A’s. Lefty Cole Irvin, who has been a revelation with his stellar work turned in over the past month, was unable to make an early three-run lead stick after giving up a pair of costly homers over six innings in a loss that denied a three-game sweep of Tampa Bay.
But much like the first six games between these two clubs, this one was also a close affair to the end.
A strong effort by the bullpen in relief of Irvin kept the A's deficit at one run, while the offense battled the Rays' pitching staff before ultimately failing to produce that elusive game-tying run in the late innings. The one-run loss marked the fifth game decided by one run in the seven games played between Oakland and Tampa Bay this season. The margin of defeat in the other two games? Two and three runs.
“Every game went down to the last at-bat,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We felt pretty good up 3-0, but they’re a team that comes back. They’re scrappy like we are. You know it’s probably going down to the end, and it did.”
With the season series between the two sides now wrapped up, the A’s emerged with a slight advantage by taking four of seven. The fact that each game was hard-fought and close should come as no surprise. These two clubs share a plethora of similarities.
Those shared traits were evident to A’s third baseman Matt Chapman, who went 3-for-4 in Sunday’s loss. When asked to sum up the intensity of these seven games against the Rays, he rattled off numerous parallels between the team from the East Bay and Tampa Bay.
“I feel like they’re a similar ballclub to us in the way they play the game,” Chapman said. “The matchups. Guys playing multiple positions. Both in good divisions. To be able to win that series and come out taking four of seven from them is something we can feel good about."
“That’s a team that has played late into the postseason and also a team that has knocked us out,” Chapman said. “We feel good about these games we played against them. I’m sure we’ll be seeing them down the road.”
The potential postseason matchup concluded a grueling stretch of 17 straight games in 17 days for the A’s. In that time, they navigated some tough obstacles. A historic 13-game winning streak was snapped. Multiple players were lost to injury. The offense endured a major slump. At the end of it, the A’s came away going 9-8 over those 17 games, remaining atop the AL West standings at 21-15 after Sunday's defeat.
Heading into a much-needed off-day before starting a three-game series in Boston on Tuesday, here are some takeaways from what transpired over the last 17 days:
1) Rotation in flux
The A’s quickly went from having too many starters to not enough, with left-hander Jesús Luzardo (left hand/pinkie fracture) and right-hander Mike Fiers (sprained right elbow) both landing on the injured list in the span of a week. Though Monday’s off-day will help, Melvin indicated earlier this week that he’d prefer his starters get an extra day of rest. That’s currently not possible with only four healthy rotation members.
Melvin said he and the front office will discuss the possibility of calling up a starter from the Minor Leagues for the upcoming road trip. One obvious candidate is right-hander James Kaprielian, Oakland’s No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline.
Kaprielian got a cup of coffee with the A’s last year, making two relief appearances and showing a promising uptick in his fastball velocity. In his first start for Triple-A Las Vegas earlier this week, the 27-year-old allowed two runs on eight hits and one walk with five strikeouts over 4 2/3 innings.
2) Dominant bullpen trio needs some help
Right-handers Lou Trivino and Yusmeiro Petit, along with left-hander Jake Diekman, have formed a three-headed monster that has routinely shut down games for Oakland in the late innings. But with Melvin leaning on those three heavily over the first month, the A’s will eventually need another arm to step up and emerge as a reliable option.
That answer could come in the form of Burch Smith. Returning from injury this week, Smith was flawless on Sunday in his first appearance back from a groin strain.
The right-hander retired all six batters he faced, recording two strikeouts. He also showed off a fastball that maxed out at 97.1 mph and averaged 94.3 mph over his 23-pitch outing.
3) Chapman heating up
After snapping a nine-game hitting streak by going hitless in the first two games against Tampa Bay, Chapman quickly made up for that with three hits on Sunday. Over his last 12 games, he is 14-for-43 (.326) with four extra-base hits.
The A’s maneuvered through a slow start at the plate from their star third baseman, entering Sunday’s game tied for second-most home runs (46) in the AL. A continuance of this upward trend from for Chapman could take Oakland’s offense to another level.