The 2019 MLB playoffs officially began last night with a thrilling National League Wild Card showdown between the Washington Nationals and the Milwaukee Brewers. Fans are in store for another excellent matchup on Wednesday night, as the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays will do battle in the AL Wild Card game for a chance to meet the Houston Astros in the ALDS.
Oakland and Tampa combined for 193 wins, which is the third-highest winning percentage of any two teams since the institution of the Wild Card format in 2012 (the A’s and Yankees combined for 197 wins in 2018 and the Cubs and Pirates combined for 195 in 2015).
Both teams were battling for their playoff spot right up to the final weekend, but now only one can survive and advance. Let’s break it down:
How did they get here?
The Rays got off to the best start of any team in the American League, entering the month of May with a 19-9 record while getting major contributions from youngsters like right-hander Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, both of whom were acquired in the Chris Archer deal last July.
Tampa Bay began to hit a wall at the beginning of June. Glasnow was sent to the 60-day Injured List, and a bullpen that had been so dominant over the first two months began to fade. To make matters worse, 2018 AL Cy Young Blake Snell posted a 9.64 ERA for the month before hitting the IL in July. Fellow starter Yonny Chirinos would join him shortly thereafter.
Nonetheless, the Rays only grew stronger towards the end of the season. Despite the injuries in their starting rotation as well as the eventual loss of second baseman Brandon Lowe, the Rays bolstered their team with subtle acquisitions in the form of Travis D’Arnaud, Eric Sogard, and Jesus Aguilar.
Players who struggled in the first half–such as shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman/DH Ji-Man Choi were tremendous in the second half.
Rays manager Kevin Cash (who is most certainly due for AL Manager of the Year consideration) utilized the “opener” strategy to perfection, negating some of the injuries in the pitching staff.
Tampa Bay went 34-18 over the course of the final two months, winning five of six against the Red Sox and Yankees down the stretch to clinch a spot in the postseason.
Oakland, on the other hand, stumbled out of the gate. The A’s were just 14-18 at the end of April, and starting pitcher Frankie Montas was suspended for the duration of the regular season after testing positive for a banned substance.
Not to be denied, the Athletics got the ball rolling in a hurry. Oakland boasted one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball, with Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Marcus Semien, and Ramon Laureano blossoming at the plate. Utility man Mark Canha had perhaps the most underrated season in baseball, starting in place of the injured Laureano down the stretch and putting together a .273/.396/.517 slash with 26 homers and a 145 OPS+ on the season.
While the A’s lacked an “ace” in the rotation, Mike Fiers, Brett Anderson, and Chris Bassit were effective. Oakland also supplemented their rotation by adding Homer Bailey and Tanner Roark prior to the trade deadline.
Blake Treinen had an atrocious season just one year removed from being one of the best closers in the game, but Liam Hendriks took up the mantle for the Athletics. Hendriks led all relievers in fWAR, and he anchored a bullpen that also got tremendous seasons from Yusmeiro Petit and Ryan Buchter.
Both teams were at their best during the final two months as they held off the hard-charging Cleveland Indians, setting up a dynamic matchup on Wednesday night.
Rays: Charlie Morton
Tampa Bay signed the veteran Morton to a two-year, $30 million contract after the right-hander had a pair of excellent seasons with the Houston Astros. In turn, Morton provided the Rays with a bona fide ace.
The 35-year-old was a frontrunner for the AL Cy Young Award in the first half, posting a 10-2 mark with a 2.32 ERA and 1.030 WHIP. Morton dominated opposing hitters, racking up an 11.3 K/9 while also posting a mere .585 OPS against.
Morton hit a bit of a road block in August–which essentially doomed his chances of winning the Cy Young–but he bounced back with one of his best months in September. In five starts, Morton went 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA and an 11.8 K/9. He also has an abundance of postseason experience.
The Astros entrusted Morton to close out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Morton responded by throwing four innings of one-run ball, giving up just two hits and closing out the series in style. Morton also started the closeout game of the ALCS in that same season.
Athletics: Sean Manaea
Manaea had looked like a potential ace for the Athletics in 2018, when he went 12-9 with a 3.59 ERA and even threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox in April.
However, Manaea missed the first five months of the 2019 season as he recovered from shoulder surgery. There was even some doubt as to whether or not he would be able to return at all. Needless to say, Manaea returned with a vengeance.
The left-hander won four of his five starts in September, scattering four runs and 16 hits across 29 2/3 innings of work while posting a 9.1 K/9 rate, the best of his career (albeit with a small sample size).
Of course, the Athletics are taking a risk in sending Manaea to the hill given that this will be just his sixth appearance of the season.
However, Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff dominated the Nationals on Tuesday night after having just returned from injury, and he had not been stretched out like the A’s have done with Manaea.
Especially given that Manaea has easily looked like the most dominant pitcher in the rotation, he may have actually been an easy selection for A’s manager Bob Melvin.
When it comes to offense in the American League, there is quite a lot of separation between the top five teams and the other 10 squads. The Athletics ranked just fifth in the AL in scoring (845), but they still scored 76 more runs than the Rays (who ranked seventh) during the regular season.
Oakland possesses more boppers. The A’s clubbed 257 homers, while the Rays hit 217 on the season. Chapman, Olson, Semien, and Canha do the majority of the damage in the middle of the A’s lineup, and all of those guys excel at working counts. The Athletics are not much of a threat on the bases, but they are extremely dangerous if those four guys get going.
Meanwhile, the Rays managed to get just enough offense to complement the pitching staff. Meadows had a breakout year, and Lowe’s return from the IL is a massive development for a Rays team that will need to string together some runs.
Adames has become a serious threat for Tampa Bay. The 24-year-old had been had a terrible April and hit a mid-season funk in July, but he has been outstanding otherwise. Adames slashed .270/.340/.467 in the second half, adding a new element to the lineup.
Contrary to Oakland, the Rays can cause some havoc on the bases. Tampa Bay ranked fifth in the AL in stolen bases, and guys like Tommy Pham and Kevin Kiermaier can be menaces in the running game. They will have to navigate around a left-hander in Manaea, but they could also take some risks to advance runners into scoring position.
Both teams have had plenty of issues at the end of ball games. For all of his brilliance, Hendriks blew seven saves this season after taking over for Treinen. Jose Alvarado was the closer in Tampa Bay before eventually being replaced with more of a committee look. The Rays ranked 17th in save percentage this season, while the Athletics ranked 20th in baseball.
Oakland possesses the more dominant arms in the later innings, and they also added youngsters Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk to the postseason roster. Both guys could be platoon specialists against Tampa Bay, who have a number of left-handed hitters at their disposal.
However, Emilio Pagan has been excellent for Tampa Bay, and they have a number of options from both sides of the bump. Ryan Yarbrough had numerous opportunities to start this season and he could be used in long relief should Morton get off to a slow start.
Do not be surprised if the Rays go to Glasnow out of the bullpen. He was utterly dominant in his final three starts of the regular season, and he could be used similarly to how Dave Martinez deployed Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals on Tuesday.
The Athletics might have the more explosive offense, but Morton has dominated in both of his starts against the A’s this season.
Manaea will be the X-factor for Oakland. He does give out many free passes, but the Rays are a team–like the Athletics–that can work counts and get guys on base. They might not dazzle with the long ball, but Tampa Bay executes small ball with the best of them.
Additionally, the possibility of using Glasnow out of the pen is a massive luxury for the Rays, who should have just enough to beat the A’s on the road.