The A’s went into the American League Division Series full of confidence against an Astros club they had dethroned for the AL West title in the regular season, and through the first four innings of the series, they looked the part. Since then, however, Houston is once again looking like an all-too-familiar force.
The same Oakland pitching staff that fared well against the Astros for most of the regular season has been unable to contain the many stars in Houston’s lineup who seem to have regained their form in October.
After Carlos Correa tormented the A’s with a two-homer effort on Monday, it was George Springer who continued his unreal postseason with a pair of homers in Game 2. On a day where the A’s failed to get a runner in scoring position, Springer’s three RBIs were enough to dig Oakland into an 0-2 hole in the best-of-five series, as the offense was stifled by Framber Valdez and the Astros’ bullpen in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss at Dodger Stadium.
In the history of best-of-five postseason series, teams taking a 2-0 lead have gone on to win the series 73 of 83 times (88 percent). The most recent team to rally from an 0-2 deficit was the Yankees against the Indians in 2017. Of the 73 teams to advance after winning the first two games, 49 finished off a sweep in Game 3.
“We just have to win tomorrow and then worry about the next day after that,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We put all our efforts into tomorrow and just think about tomorrow. Anything further than that is a distraction. All we have to do is win a game, and hopefully, that’s tomorrow.”
Since jumping out to a 3-0 lead through the first three innings of Game 1, the A’s have been thoroughly outplayed in every facet of the game. Over the last 15 innings played between these two clubs, the Astros have outscored Oakland, 15-4.
Manaea’s rough outing contributed to one of a couple of factors that have led to the A’s positioning themselves in this unenviable spot. The starting pitching has faltered, with Manaea lasting just 4 1/3 innings while allowing four runs on five hits, including two homers. Chris Bassitt, the A’s No. 1 starter, who they felt good about entering Game 1, lasted just four innings in Monday’s loss after he allowed three runs on a pair of homers. Through five postseason games, A’s starters are 1-2 with a 5.31 ERA.
Perhaps the most alarming statistic for A’s pitchers: They’ve allowed six home runs over the first two games of the ALDS after allowing 69 homers over 60 games in the regular season.
“They have a deep lineup, too,” Melvin said. “It’s not like you’re just focused on one guy. Our guys didn’t pitch bad today, but three balls left the ballpark and that ended up being enough for them.”
Looking to keep their season alive, the A’s will turn to rookie Jesús Luzardo in Game 3. The 23-year-old lefty possesses electric stuff, and he’ll need all of his plus pitches to be working in order to set the tone early against an Astros lineup that is pouncing on any mistakes made by opposing pitchers. Through the first two games of the ALDS, Houston’s trio of Springer, Correa and Alex Bregman have combined to go 11-for-24 with five home runs, a double and 10 RBIs.
Luzardo could do the A’s some good in terms of keeping the spirits up in the dugout by turning in a few shutdown innings should the offense provide him with an early lead. Keeping the Astros down has been a massive struggle the last two days. Oakland’s players could certainly feel the letdown as the Astros have quickly answered back to any momentum the A’s started to build in both games. On Tuesday, Springer hit his go-ahead shot in the third right after Davis’ home run in the second, and Springer and Martín Maldonado hit back-to-back blasts in the fifth shortly after Chad Pinder's solo homer in the fourth had cut the lead to 3-2.
“It definitely changed the energy,” Pinder said. “We’d put them on their heels and they’d put us on our heels. We really knew going into this it was going to be a dog fight. This is a team with experience in the postseason, and they’ve got great talent. They’re not going to just roll over.
“We have to find a way to pull ourselves out of this, and if it’s one big hit or one big inning, we have to somehow find it in us tomorrow to do that.”
The A’s will feel good about their chances with Luzardo based on his recent success against Houston. In two starts against the Astros this year, the left-hander went 1-0 with a 2.84 ERA, striking out 12 while walking three over 12 2/3 innings.
The second part of the equation here is Oakland’s offense. While it has been potent with five homers through the first two games, four of those have been solo shots. The A’s must find a way to get on base and manufacture runs -- which has been an issue throughout the playoffs -- as they’ve gone just 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position through five postseason games. On Tuesday, the A’s didn’t get a runner to second base, with their only two runs scoring on the homers by Davis and Pinder.
Finding other ways to score was less of an issue during the regular season. Of their 274 total runs, 118 scored via the homer. The 43.1% of total runs scoring on home runs ranked Oakland 17th overall in MLB, and ninth in the AL.
It was going to be hard to manufacture runs in any fashion against Valdez, who limited Oakland to two runs over seven quality innings.
“His ball was moving all over the place,” Melvin said. “He had a really good breaking ball. He could throw it for strikes or chase. Early on, our at-bats were a little better. Typically, good starters get better as the game goes along.
“You could see he got more confidence as it went along and ended up giving them seven innings. I didn’t think at the beginning that he’d be able to do that, but he did.”
If the A’s are unable to hold on to early leads, they must find a way to recapture their late-inning magic. Leading the Majors with six walk-off wins during the regular season, the A’s have been quiet in the late innings of this series. A’s hitters have combined for just two hits in the fifth inning or later over the past two games.
“It’s two games, but it’s the postseason and those have been our best innings,” Melvin said. “From the sixth inning on, we tend to get better at-bats, especially against teams’ bullpens. Their starter went seven and they only had to use two guys and shut us down. You need to score your runs earlier if the shadows come into play and it ends up being a problem.”
The challenge remains a difficult one with the Astros sending Jose Urquidy to the mound for Wednesday’s potential elimination game. But one thing is for sure, these A’s are ready to fight until the very end.
“Just regroup and get back at it tomorrow,” Pinder said. “There are possibly three games left, and we just have to go play our game. We have nothing to lose from here. We just have to go keep playing hard and keep trying to string together good at-bats.”