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AL Wild Card preview: Rays v. A’s

Charlie Morton and the Rays take on Sean Manaea and the A’s in tonight’s American League wild card game. 

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Last night’s National League wild card game certainly lived up to expectations on a one-and-done affair. The game showcased several home runs (because of course did, it’s 2019 baseball!), a traditional pitching performance by perennial Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, and the more recent display of cobbling together pitchers that successfully are deployed to only pitch three to four innings.

The game was close all night, with the Brewers leading throughout most of the game, but the Nationals pulling out the victory in part due to Josh Hader’s ineffectiveness, and in part due to a major defensive miscue by Christian Yelich’s understudy, Trent Grisham.

Tonight’s American League wild card game between the Rays and Athletics has a fairly high-bar to reach after the competitive and well-paced NL wild card game. Both Oakland and Tampa are high-90s wins teams that has ascended to relevance despite a rather unassuming roster. These two lesser-hyped teams are more similar than they are different, and it’s on the fringes where one team will likely gain the advantage over the other.

The game tonight is a perfect example of why the wild card is a good thing. No one can deny that the A’s and Rays are good teams, they won a combined 193 games for crying out loud! Yet, both finished in a distant second place behind two super-teams that are clear favorites to get to the ALCS.

The A’s only finished one game ahead of the Rays, but their 52-29 home record will play to their advantage Wednesday night in a stadium that should be rocking since it’s their first playoff game in Oakland since 2013. Though only slight favorites, Oakland should benefit from playing at home.

Tonight’s starting pitching matchup pits Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay’s only near-200 inning starter, against the A’s Sean Manaea, who is coming off a shortened season due to shoulder surgery.

Morton led the Rays in innings-pitched by a wide margin, throwing nearly 200 innings. He was the only healthy traditional starting pitcher once Blake Snell went down, and Kevin Cash will be handing him the ball to start the game. Bob Melvin decided to start Manaea in the wild card game despite his recent September return from shoulder surgery, opting for him over Mike Fiers, who will likely be ready to go should Manaea get in trouble early.

Several years ago (the distant past in baseball writers’ years) the idea of a ‘bullpen’ game for any elimination game was derided as silly. In today’s game, it’s more the norm than the rule, especially for teams that have no clear number one ‘ace’. One of the challenges that both managers will have is when to decide to go to their bullpen. In the NL, the choice often becomes self-evident when a pitcher is scheduled to bat in a key spot. In the AL, there is no clear-cut answer, so keeping an eye on subtle signals from Morton will likely be the key for Cash.

Neither Morton nor Manaea have electric stuff (Manaea rarely throws above 90), though in today’s game, both pitchers strike out nearly a third of the batters they face; it’s a consequence of today’s stuff. Morton’s deal looks like a bargain in Tampa, as he pitched to a 6.1 fWAR. The Rays would be delighted to get five or six innings out of Morton.

Manaea’s left handedness will be an asset in mitigating Tampa’s top hitter, and September Player-of-the-Month, Austin Meadows .Meadows was the clear-cut best batter for Tampa all season, but he posted an OPS over 100 points lower against southpaws this season, .837 to .960. Joey Wendle and Kevin Kiermeier are fellow left handed starters, so there’s little relief for either of those hitters, both of whom struggled at the plate all season regardless of who was on the hill.

Once we get past the starting pitchers, we’re looking at two of the top-five bullpens in baseball. In a winner-take-all game, it’s likely that both managers will view every asset in their bullpen as available if the time is right to use them.

The Rays bullpen led the league in ERA and was nearly tied with the league-leading Twins’ bullpen in FIP. With the acquisition of Nick Anderson from Miami at the trade deadline leading the pack, the Rays pen has strikeout stuff coming from all angles. In just 21 ⅓ innings with the Rays, Anderson has 41 strikeouts and only two walks. It would be surprising if he’s not used in tonight’s game for at least one inning.

Emilio Pagan, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, and Oliver Drake have all contributed to the Rays league-leading 772 reliever innings pitched in some way. Pagan led the bullpen in fWAR, and allowed only 12 runs in 70 innings of work. Castillo had been inconsistent but has been relied on pretty heavily down the stretch by Cash. Roe has often pitched the middle-innings, with Drake being deployed against lefties due to his reverse-platoon splits (which may or may not be a mirage). In a good scenario however, Morton gets Tampa at least through five innings, and ideally through six.

The A’s bring some better-known names, in a pen that has been as effective as the cobbled-together in Tampa. They’ll also have Mike Fiers available in case things start to go off-the-rails early in the game.

With a bullpen led by Liam Hendriks and his 1.80 ERA, and 124:21 strikeout to walk rate, Oakland also has veterans Yusmeiro Petit and Joachim Soria as well as Jesus Luzardo to help them get the 27 outs needed to move on to Houston. While the Rays would be delighted to get a quality start out of Morton, there’s less of an expectation that Oakland will get that longevity out of Manaea.

On the offensive side, neither the Rays nor the A’s have any well-known or media-hyped hitters, though Oakland has a trio of 30-homer hitters. Compared to the league, the A’s ranked tenth-best in baseball by OPS, with the Rays five slots below them. Even from an OBP standpoint, neither team stands out as both squads finished the season middle-of-the-pack in team on base percentage.

Despite both teams being fairly mediocre on offense, the A’s do have three 30-home run hitters, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson hit 36 each, and Marcus Semien hit 33, along with an OBP machine in Mark Canha (this season he posted a .396 OBP), though if past lineup construction is any indication, Canha will bat behind the three thumpers.

All-in-all, these two teams are more alike than they are different, with the A’s having the slight edge with home-field advantage and an edge on offense. If either starters struggle, there will be quick and likely effective bullpen reinforcements, though as we saw last night with Josh Hader, if one reliever doesn’t have it, all may be lost.

As is often the case when playoff teams meet, it very well could be a player off everyone’s radar who turns into the playoffs hero. Ultimately, whichever team prevails, their reward is traveling to Houston to take on the World Series favorite Astros. Good luck.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano