The A’s entered the postseason with everything they asked for.
Dethroning the Astros in the regular season for their first American League West title since 2013, the A’s felt like they positioned themselves for a deep playoff run as the No. 2 seed in the AL. Adding extra incentive, that postseason run was set up to include a chance at ending their heated rival’s season for good in the process. Yet by the time October came around, the feeling surrounding this Oakland club was all too familiar.
A troubling trend by the A’s pitching staff that began at the start of the AL Division Series against the Astros continued throughout. Given Oakland’s dominant bullpen heading into it, the key to an ALDS win for the A’s figured to involve scoring runs early. But when the dust settled, it was their bullpen that was unable to get the job done in a series where the A’s jumped out to an early lead in all four games, including Thursday’s 11-6 loss to the Astros in Game 4 at Dodger Stadium, which ended Oakland’s season.
“It just hurts. It hurts a lot,” A’s outfielder Mark Canha said. “We worked so hard and competed, and it was kind of a crazy year. It felt like this was our year and a lot of things happened, like the [Matt] Chapman injury. To lose a guy like that is tough, yet we win a tough postseason series against the White Sox. There are positives and negative inconsistencies.”
There was nothing easy about this 2020 season, one which multiple A’s players described as the toughest of their careers due to the many adjustments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These A’s overcame the loss of Chapman, their star third baseman and emotional leader, to season-ending hip surgery in early September and still managed to win 36 games over a 60-game regular season, which was tied for the second-best record in the AL.
Though their regular-season record was better than Houston’s, it turns out the A’s still have some work to do in order to truly overtake the Astros, who advanced to their fourth consecutive AL Championship Series.
“It seemed like there were different hurdles that you had to try to get over,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of this unconventional season. “But it's an even playing field for every team, and we knew it going in. We knew it would be tough. Our reflection is that our goals were lofty and we fell short of them.”
Frankie Montas provided the A’s with some hope early on Thursday. Handed a three-run lead on a three-run blast from Ramón Laureano, who mashed two home runs in the loss, Montas came out with a blazing fastball that touched 100 mph and turned in three scoreless frames to begin his outing. But once Montas faced Houston’s hitters for a second time through the lineup, things got ugly.
Two swings was all it took for the A’s to watch a 3-0 lead turn into a 5-3 deficit, as Montas surrendered a two-run shot to Michael Brantley and three-run homer to Carlos Correa in the fourth. Pulled with two outs in the inning, Montas ended up turning in the shortest outing of any A’s starter in the series. Over the four ALDS games, no A’s starter went further than 4 1/3 innings.
“I think in the postseason, you tend to go to your bullpen a little bit earlier when you have a strength,” Melvin said. “We just couldn't hold them down in any facet as far as the pitching went. We had some stretches where we did. But nothing sustained through nine innings. That's why they won the series.”
Laureano did his best to will the A’s back into the game with his second homer of the day -- a solo shot off Zack Greinke in the fifth -- to bring Oakland within a run. But the A’s bullpen -- which led the Major Leagues with a 2.72 ERA in the regular season -- was unable to contain Houston’s dangerous lineup, allowing the Astros to score two runs in three straight innings from the fifth to the seventh.
Meanwhile, an Astros bullpen that was maligned for much of the season for its inability to hold leads ended up limiting the A’s to two runs over the game’s final four innings in relief of Greinke.
Over the four ALDS games, A’s relievers were beaten up by the Astros. Of Houston’s 33 runs in the series, Oakland’s bullpen allowed 17 of those.
“You look at the numbers over the course of the regular season with our bullpen, it was if we had a lead after the sixth, we usually won,” Melvin said. “That didn't happen this series and we struggled to hold them down for really the entire game at times. They’re just a good offensive team and they hit their stride at the right time.”
In typical A’s fashion, they did not go down without a fight. Trailing, 11-4, entering the ninth, they strung together a two-out rally with back-to-back RBI singles by Marcus Semien and Tommy La Stella. With runners on first and second and the deficit cut to five, Khris Davis put up a battle against Ryan Pressly before striking out to end the ballgame.
“We had a very formidable opponent here,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You’ve got to give the A’s credit, because they never quit -- like my good friend over there leading them, Bob Melvin. I just want to wish him well for the winter, and all the guys I know over there.”
The A’s will now look ahead to an offseason that has several key players set to hit free agency. It’s too early to tell who comes back and who doesn’t, but the A’s know they’ll have a young core of talent intact with the likes of Chapman, Laureano, Sean Murphy, Matt Olson, Chad Pinder, Montas, Sean Manaea and Jesús Luzardo.
As gut-wrenching of a feeling as it is for the A’s knowing they would have to return to Oakland without a chance of achieving their Spring Training goal of bringing the franchise its first World Series title since 1989, this painful loss is one they plan to use as a learning experience for next season.
“This is a failure. We wanted to win the World Series, and anything short of that was falling short of our goal,” Canha said. “But every failure as a competitor is an opportunity and those opportunities are valuable to learn, and that’s kind of the message I was trying to tell everybody in the clubhouse -- ‘Just learn from this and don’t go down in the dumps. You have to take these failures and learn from them. This is an opportunity to get better.’”
Having reached the ALCS just once in the last 21 seasons despite qualifying for the playoffs 11 times, perhaps this experience can springboard the A’s for a deeper run in 2021.
“It’s a bad feeling, but hopefully it doesn’t happen next year,” Laureano said. “We just need to keep our heads up, keep working, keep dreaming about moving forward and winning a World Series. That’s it.”