When the A’s opened their 2019 regular season at the Tokyo Dome, their own starting pitching — or lack thereof — posed the greatest threat to a finish on the outside of the playoffs.
In the six months between then and now, Bob Melvin’s rotation has undergone a complete overhaul. Marco Estrada and Aaron Brooks are gone, replaced by Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey. Frankie Montas, Oakland’s first half ace, tested positive for a banned substance, and though he has since returned from his suspension he is ineligible for the postseason.
Most importantly though, Mike Fiers rebounded from a rough start to the campaign to post a career high in wins (15) and solidify himself as the staff ace. And Sean Manaea returned from 2018 shoulder surgery to display his lights-out form down the stretch and give the A’s another dependable arm.
Speaking about the transformation of his pitching staff, Melvin also brought up rookie call-ups, and the organization’s top two overall prospects, A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo during the A’s final homestand:
“With Puk and Luzardo coming and doing what they’ve done, the acquisitions that we had at the trade deadline and how well they’ve pitched. I think we’re as stacked as we’ve been, as far as the pitching end goes.”
While neither rookie made so much as a single start — Luzardo did record two saves — since debuting in the big leagues, both have earned roles on the playoff roster.
That being said, the A’s have yet to make an announcement regarding their roster decisions for Wednesday’ AL Wild Card Game. Their opponents, the Rays, on the other hand wasted no time naming All-Star right-hander Charlie Morton their starter.
Morton presents quite the obstacle having finished the 2019 campaign, his first in Tampa, among the AL leaders in wins (16), ERA (3.05), WHIP (1.05) and pitching WAR (5.1). He was also among the AL’s best in wins (8) and ERA (3.59) on the road.
Oakland was one of the many teams impressed by his efforts this season.
The A’s faced Morton twice in 10 days in mid-June, once in Oakland and once in Tampa, tallying just six hits one run — a Jurickson Profar solo home run — scored in 13-1/3 innings.
Melvin’s most likely counter for Morton is Fiers, though the skipper was noncommittal in discussing his options. Melvin did address Fiers’ successful season:
“He’s 15-4. He’s 15-4 with a sub-four (ERA). He’s had a terrific season.”
Fiers struggled through a slow start to his first full season in Oakland, going 2-3 with a 6.81 ERA in his first eight starts. No. 9, however, yielded the veteran hurler’s second career no-hitter, and since he has gone 13-1 with a 3.17 ERA.
Manaea is also in the mix for the nod, though his selection is highly unlikely given his spending the first five months of the season on the IL.
As for the A’s who will be facing Morton from inside the batter’s box, most of the decisions will require zero discussion.
The debate really begins and ends with second base. Do the A’s start Profar, the only person in green and gold to solve the Morton riddle this season, or do they go with mid-season call-up Sheldon Neuse, who was not only a more reliable bat but also a much more dependable glove this year.
Josh Phegley and rookie Sean Murphy essentially split time behind the plate down the stretch. Phegely having more big league experience, more of a book on the Rays hitters and more of a working rapport with Fiers make him the clear choice for Melvin, the former big league catcher.
Brett Anderson and Roark, who pitched Saturday and Sunday respectively, will take in the one-game playoff as observers while Bailey and Manaea fill bullpen spots should Melvin need additional arms.
There is no denying that the Oakland bullpen will be shorthanded, missing Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, but bolstered by starters Melvin and the As certainly have the bullets to go with a powder-keg offense. And they have at least one high-profile advocate for their chances in recently inducted A’s Hall-of-Famer Mark McGwire:
“They’re tied with Boston with the third-most World Series wins at nine. I would have to say, just the watching the team playing right now, I’d say they’re playing very good at the right time so they might be breaking that little tie.”