Ramón Laureano could feel the clock starting to wind down on the A’s season as the club’s bench grew more lifeless with each inning that passed by after blowing their second lead of the game. In a year where the A’s overcame so much, going out swept by their heated rivals was not how this story was supposed to end.
So the A’s center fielder did something about it.
Looking to provide a spark to a team behind two games to none in the American League Division Series and trailing by three runs in Game 3, Laureano assembled the entire squad after returning to the dugout at the conclusion of the sixth inning and delivered a fiery speech. The message clearly lit something inside of the players: The A’s began the seventh with back-to-back hits before Chad Pinder breathed new life into the team with a game-tying three-run homer, which also happened to be Oakland’s first hit of the series with runners in scoring position.
In turn, Pinder’s blast fueled Liam Hendriks, who entered the game in the seventh, was provided a two-run lead on a pair of sacrifice flies in the eighth and slammed the door with three scoreless innings in Wednesday’s 9-7 win over the Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS at Dodger Stadium.
“You could kind of just feel when we got into the dugout [after the sixth] the energy was down again. We kind of got that same flatline feeling,” Pinder said. “Ramón was having no part of that. He was having absolutely no part of that. I won't go into too much depth on what he said, but it was along the lines of, ‘This ain’t it. This ain’t over. This ain't our last game, and we're not going to let it be our last game.’
“We've gone through too much and had too many good things happen throughout the season to leave here getting swept. We just gotta keep getting to the next day. That's kind of what I got from it, with Ramon’s intensity tangled in there a little bit.”
Despite falling behind in the series, the A’s have felt good about their potent offense throughout. All that was missing was the dominant bullpen they grew so accustomed to watching shorten games during the regular season.
For the A’s to turn this ALDS around, it was going to take someone from their bullpen to hold down the dangerous sluggers that comprise Houston’s lineup. Luckily for Oakland, they had a fresh Hendriks, who had been unused so far in the series. Their well-rested All-Star closer stepped up big, forcing a Game 4 on Thursday by becoming the fifth reliever in A’s history to finish a postseason game with at least three scoreless innings.
"[Manager] Bob [Melvin] told me to be ready early, so apparently I was ready early,” Hendriks said. “I got down to the bullpen at my normal time, got called and ran with it. I wasn't coming out of that game. You were going to have to wrench that ball out of my hand. I don't want to give it up."
In the history of best-of-five postseason series, teams with a 2-1 lead have gone on to win the series 62 of 87 times (71%). However, last season, two of the three teams that fell behind 2-1 in the Division Series -- the Nationals (vs. Dodgers) and Cardinals (vs. Braves) -- came back to win.
“We live another day and that’s as far as you take it,” Melvin said. “It’s going to be the same thing tomorrow. Just like the Wild Card Series where we had two [games] we needed to win, we weren’t thinking about the second game at the time. We were just thinking about the first game. [It was] a hard-fought game for us today. These things don’t come easy. But now we’ve got another day.”
Though the A’s launched five home runs on Wednesday, it was the pair of sacrifice flies in the eighth by Sean Murphy and Pinder that alleviated some pressure for an offense that has struggled with situational hitting throughout the series.
“We were just fighting tooth and nail to try to come back,” Melvin said. “The game had so many swings to it, and the sacrifice flies ended up being huge for us after we tied it. It’s not just homers sometimes. Although if you look at this game, it probably felt like it.”
Five players homered for the A’s, tied for the second-highest number of players to go deep for a team in one postseason game. The five home runs also matched Game 3 of the 1989 World Series for the most in an A’s postseason game.
The A’s regained their late-inning magic on offense, scoring five runs after the fifth inning after combining for just two hits and no runs in the fifth inning or later over the first two ALDS games.
“You can’t come back every game. But we’ve done it enough this year, certainly in our last series and over the season with the walk-offs,” Melvin said. “That part of our game never goes away, even if you have two games where you don’t do it.”
Now that the proverbial biggest game of the year is over with, the A’s will send Frankie Montas to the mound in another must-win game on Thursday. With Wednesday’s starter Jesús Luzardo making it three straight short outings by A’s starters -- the left-hander allowed four runs on five hits in 4 1/3 innings -- Oakland will depend on its Opening Day starter for a deep outing.
Though Montas struggled near the end of the regular season, posting a 10.88 ERA over a six-game stretch, he reminded the A’s just how dominant he could be in his final regular-season start by striking out 13 batters and allowing just two unearned runs over six innings in a win over Seattle. Entering the postseason with some confidence, Montas turned in two key innings of relief in the A’s Wild Card Series-clinching Game 3 win over the White Sox.
“The stuff is always there,” Melvin said. “He was our Opening Day guy, and deserved to be. He had to go through some health stuff and fight through that, fought through some results that he wasn’t used to, and then found it at the end.”
In three regular-season outings against Houston, Montas went 2-1 with a 4.11 ERA and 14 strikeouts over 15 1/3 innings. Now he’ll seek to push the A’s closer to coming back from an 0-2 deficit in a postseason series for the first time in franchise history.
“I know he’s going to go out there and do his thing,” Luzardo said. “He’s going to dominate like he can. We’re all excited for that and ready for tomorrow.”