OAKLAND -- No fans were admitted into the Coliseum, yet the collective sigh of relief was audible from a fan base around the Bay Area which watched the A’s subside what had been 20 years of mostly misery in the postseason.
Chad Pinder's tie-breaking two-run single in the fifth inning gave way to a dominant A’s bullpen that closed the door, with closer Liam Hendriks redeeming himself with a scoreless ninth and securing a 6-4 win over the White Sox in Game 3 of the American League Wild Card Series on Thursday. Not only is Oakland heading to its first AL Division Series since 2013, but it won its first playoff series since ’06, when it beat Minnesota in the ALDS.
The A’s also snapped a nine-game losing streak in winner-take-all playoff games dating back to Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS against the Yankees, which was the longest such streak in MLB history. Their last winner-take-all victory came in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series against the Mets.
“Not everybody has been part of all that. But we’ve had a couple of tough ones the last two years.” A’s manager Bob Melvin said, referencing the losses in the AL Wild Card Game in 2018 and '19. “The goal this year was to win the division and try to get to a series. We got to a series, lost the first game and really responded well. It was rewarding.
“I woke up this morning feeling like this was going to be a hard game, and it was a hard game. They’re having a good time right now, as they should.”
Oakland will now play Houston in the best-of-five ALDS at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with Game 1 set for Monday.
There is clearly no love lost between those AL West rivals, who have been the class of the division for the past three years. With the A’s supplanting their heated rivals for the division title in the 2020 regular season, they’ll now have extra motivation as they look to end the Astros' season.
“I think there’s a little bit of us wanting to make sure they know what they’ve done, and we can prove it to them that they weren’t the top team in the AL West,” Hendriks said. “But we also don’t want to be petty and let our emotions get the best of us. We played them enough times this year and had a good record. Now, we’ll go into that series and hopefully take care of business early.
“I believe in this team, and we’re going to try to stick it to them as much as we can and prove we’re the best team in the AL West.”
The few days of rest before that highly anticipated ALDS will be welcomed, as the way the A’s went about their Thursday triumph was not for the faint of heart. In a 4-hour, 9-minute marathon that featured 17 total pitchers -- the most used in a nine-inning postseason game -- Oakland faced an early 3-0 deficit after three innings. But Sean Murphy woke up the A's offense with a booming two-run homer in the fourth, the first of the rookie catcher's postseason career, that traveled a projected 424 feet per Statcast.
“That was huge,” Hendriks said. “We were cheering and screaming, doing whatever we could. It felt like Sean rewarded us for that cheering. Getting those first two runs on the board was a game-changer. You never know how it’s going to go, but having a one-run deficit makes it a lot easier to pull off.”
Following Murphy’s homer, the A’s loaded the bases later in the inning and scored two runs on back-to-back walks by Mark Canha and Matt Olson, with Olson’s putting the A’s ahead, 4-3, to complete a four-run inning.
Though Frankie Montas quickly gave up the lead in the fifth on a game-tying single by Nomar Mazara, Oakland immediately recaptured it on Pinder’s two-run single in the bottom half of the inning.
“There were some really big hits in that game that swung it back after we were down early,” Melvin said. “Guys really responded. Murphy homers, and now we feel like we’re really back in the game. Pinder had a terrific game playing on a bad hamstring. You want your best, toughest players in there in games like that. Those guys showed up today.”
Heading into the AL Wild Card Series, there was no doubt the A’s were going to rely heavily on their bullpen. That’s the smart move when you have a relief corps like Oakland’s, which led the Majors in the regular season with a 2.72 bullpen ERA.
Using eight pitchers on Thursday -- an A’s postseason record after never previously using more than six in a playoff game -- the bullpen showed up big in relief of starter Mike Fiers, who was pulled with two outs in the second after giving up a leadoff homer to Luis Robert in the inning. J.B. Wendelken, Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman, Joakim Soria and Hendriks combined for four scoreless innings of relief to end the game for Oakland.
“We trust our bullpen with our lives,” Hendriks said. “Between Frankie Montas coming in on short rest to [Yusmeiro] Petit doing what he always does. J.B. coming in. Lou Trivino was able to do the job. Jake Diekman pitched for a third day in a row and got out of a jam. Then, Soria in the eighth got those huge outs. That was a big thing.
“There were a lot of times where this game was hanging in the balance and we were able to throw it by them. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to ride our ’pen as hard as we can. I threw probably 70 pitches in two days. I haven’t done that since about 2015.”
Asked about the difference between this club and the ones he’s managed the past two years that met quick postseason eliminations, Melvin pointed to those teams -- which had largely the same group of players -- as having grown belief in themselves.
“It’s really a close-knit group that’s been together for a few years,” Melvin said. “It’s a team that expects to win. When we came into Spring Training this year, we expected to be in this spot. That’s part of the battle. It’s not easy to do. You have to have a little confidence to have success, and that’s built up the last couple of years and finally broke through this year.”