OAKLAND -- The A’s believed they could have had deep playoff runs in their past two seasons were it not for the dreaded one-game Wild Card format. They’ll get a chance to put that theory to the test now.
Making their third straight postseason appearance, the A's fell, 4-1, to the White Sox on Tuesday in Game 1 of the best-of-three American League Wild Card Series at the Coliseum. The loss extended their postseason losing streak to six games, which matches the longest in A’s playoff history.
Rookie Jesús Luzardo faltered in his first playoff start, though Oakland’s offense could be the bigger concern in this series after it was dominated by Lucas Giolito and his seven-plus innings of one-run ball.
“Giolito was good. We knew he’d be tough,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Looking at some of his previous outings, you could get his pitch count up a little bit and make him work. That was the plan. But it didn’t work out that way for us. He was on it right away, threw strikes and kept us off balance.”
After the A’s offense was held without a hit or walk through six innings, Tommy La Stella ended Giolito’s bid for a perfect game by leading off the seventh with a single. But while Oakland made it interesting in the eighth, scoring its first run on a fielder's choice from Ramón Laureano and bringing the tying run to the plate, the offensive woes that ended the regular season carried into Tuesday as the bats managed just three hits.
Despite the low hit total, A’s hitters were still encouraged by their at-bats. They made plenty of contact -- including nine hard-hit balls -- and they figure that hits are bound to fall at some point -- hopefully, in Game 2 on Wednesday.
La Stella said he does not see a need for any adjustments the offense might need to make for Game 2 against White Sox lefty starter Dallas Keuchel.
“As far as a collective mindset, I wouldn’t say [we should] change anything,” La Stella said. “I thought we swung the bats fine today and hit the ball hard. They’re going to fall. It’s a game of probability. We were on the wrong side of it today.”
The A’s chose to ignore the warnings of Chicago’s massive success against left-handers -- the White Sox went 14-0 vs. lefties in the regular season -- and handed the ball to their electric 22-year-old left-hander. Luzardo’s fearlessness on the mound was a driving force in earning the starting nod. But that bravery may have been to his detriment in a start that ended after just 3 1/3 innings, during which he was tagged for three runs on six hits, as he met the same fate as the many other southpaws who matched up against the White Sox offense.
“He just centered some balls that they hit hard,” Melvin said of Luzardo. “He had pretty good stuff -- five strikeouts and didn’t walk anybody. Early on, he wasn’t getting strike one. But when he threw the ball down the middle, they put some good swings [on it].”
Luzardo showcased his same dominant arsenal of pitches -- a four-seamer, a sinker, a changeup and a curveball -- to generate 11 whiffs on 59 pitches. He used all four as out pitches among his five strikeouts, but his downfall was sealed by two critical mistakes.
All three runs Luzardo allowed came from a pair of homers. The first was a solo shot in the second inning by Adam Engel on an 0-2 challenge fastball that was left over the heart of the plate. The second was a two-run blast by AL MVP Award candidate José Abreu in the third, which came on another fastball left over the middle of the plate -- a pitch that was probably unnecessary on a 2-0 count with first base open.
“I was trying to go down and away, but left it more middle than it was supposed to,” Luzardo said of the pitch to Abreu. “The guy is an MVP-caliber hitter. I made a mistake. That’s not where I meant to put it.”
Asked if getting an up-close look at Chicago’s offensive ability against lefties might change the A’s strategy when it comes to deciding a possible Game 3 starter, Melvin said, “It does some, yeah. Still, we need to get past tomorrow. Then, we’ll think about Game 3. But we knew going in. We could see the numbers. Tomorrow is the game we need to win first.”
The A’s know they are up against it now. Not only will they have to force Game 3 and try to end their streak of losses in winner-take-all contests -- Oakland has lost nine consecutive games in which a victory would have advanced it to the next round of the postseason -- the A’s will also have to defeat historic percentages.
In three-game series over the past 10 years, the winner of Game 1 went on to win the series 76% of the time. Of course, those series are all from the regular season. So for comparison’s sake, here’s a look at the history of best-of-five postseason series: Game 1 winners of the League Division Series have advanced 73% of the time.
Still, this A’s squad has responded well to adversity this year, particularly at home, where they’ve lost back-to-back games just twice in the regular season. They’ll send their best starter to the mound for Game 2 in Chris Bassitt, the AL Pitcher of the Month in September whose 2.29 ERA in the regular season ranked third best among AL starters.
“I have no doubt in this team,” Luzardo said. “I know there’s a lot of pessimism going around from a lot of people, but not in this clubhouse. We don’t let that get in this clubhouse. Whatever is said negatively about this team, it doesn’t get in our heads.
“I know Bassitt is going to dominate tomorrow and the hitters are going to hit. We’ll go to Game 3 and see what happens.”