Oakland Prevails in a Wild, Befuddling Battle of Bullpens

OAKLAND — Major league baseball is a game played by some of the best athletes on the planet, bankrolled by billionaires and broadcast by megacorporations worldwide. This year, despite the global shuttering of the economy, the show went on; it’s a big business, for players and ownership alike. It’s still a game though, and in today’s elimination game between the White Sox and A’s, that mattered more than anything else.

Empty stadiums don’t exactly invoke a playoff vibe. There were perhaps 100 spectators for today’s game, mostly team personnel and media. The first two games had been dominated, to my ears at least, by a group of boisterous White Sox staffers sitting in the stands behind the visiting dugout. Oakland staffers countered today — 20 or so stood at windows perched above the outfield and cheered on the A’s.

If you’ve ever been to a particularly important Little League game, you can roughly imagine the sounds. “Let’s go Mike!!!” screamed an A’s staffer after leadoff hitter Tim Anderson swung through a changeup to make the count 0-2. “Good eye TA!” countered Chicago’s crew, after Anderson took the next pitch for a ball.

Through the pointed cheering floated incongruous crowd noises, generic bursts of voice and applause that seemed only tangentially related to the action on the field. A swell of noise punctuated a Jake Lamb pop out, roughly the same volume and tempo as the reaction for a Tommy La Stella single (sure) and a Khris Davis foul ball (huh?). That generic roar is the sound of baseball as imagined by a TV executive, but the two dueling groups of team personnel screaming personalized encouragement did far more to emphasize the enormity of the moment.

If the atmosphere felt vaguely like Little League, the actual game did nothing to dispel the feeling. Both the White Sox and A’s go roughly two deep on healthy and effective starters. Astute observers will note that this is the third game of the series, which means both teams went with the tried-and-true “whatever’s left” strategy. Mike Fiers started for the A’s and barely escaped the first inning unscathed, with the Oakland bullpen already stirring in left field.

Dane Dunning didn’t even make it that far; when Matt Olson came to the plate with two runners aboard, Rick Renteria pulled the plug. He called in Garrett Crochet, the fireballing 2020 draft pick who had been added to the playoff roster for just such a situation. Crochet got the job done with flair, pumping four straight 98 mph-plus fastballs before setting Olson down with a vicious slider. A fireballing reliever in the first inning? It’s certainly October.

Fiers didn’t really have it today. Sometimes that’s okay — his career is essentially a long string of not having it but making something happen anyway — but against an aggressive White Sox lineup, it simply didn’t work. After he escaped a two-on jam in the first, Luis Robert put the second pitch of the second inning into low-Earth orbit, a colossal 487-foot blast that ignited the White Sox dugout and stunned A’s fans into silence. Fiers followed that up by loading the bases with two outs, and Bob Melvin had seen enough. Yusmeiro Petit entered and wiggled out of the jam, which means the two starting pitchers combined for 54 pitches, seven outs, and eight baserunners.

What followed thereafter can best be described by a variety of words we can’t print on this site. Chicago likely planned on getting some length out of Crochet; he started at times in college and went two innings in his most recent appearance. Instead, he felt tightness in his forearm after nine pitches and only two batters faced. Trainers came out to attend to him, and that was that — enter Aaron Bummer, another dominant lefty arm, with only four outs gone.

Petit, like Fiers, didn’t have it today. The White Sox put up two runs in the third, though they lost Eloy Jiménez in the bargain — he pulled up limping after roping a double to left center, having reaggravated a foot injury. Oakland threatened to answer with an outburst of their own in the bottom half of the inning — two of the first three batters reached — which sent Renteria back into his bullpen, this time for Codi Heuer. Heuer was in chiefly to face pinch hitter Chad Pinder, but he bounced back from allowing Pinder to reach and finished a scoreless inning.

In the fourth, things got wacky, even relative to this clown car of a game. With a man on and two outs, Heuer gave up a two-run shot to Sean Murphy — hardly optimal, but it’s 2020, and everyone hits home runs, even same-handed number nine hitters. The natural move would be to extend Heuer another batter to face La Stella — none on and two out is a low leverage spot, and the White Sox were burning through relievers at an alarming rate. Instead, Renteria opted for a platoon edge, calling in Carlos Rodón.

Rodón was ostensibly on the playoff roster as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency long man. He missed most of the year with shoulder and back issues, and has hardly pitched at all in the last two years. He walked La Stella — hardly a surprise given his control issues and rust — and Marcus Semien followed with a double. It was now a high leverage situation, and Renteria was in a bind; Rodón hadn’t yet faced three batters, and Pinder loomed in the on-deck circle.

Letting the worst pitcher on your roster face a good hitter with the platoon advantage in the most important plate appearance of the series? That’s not a great option, so Renteria intentionally walked Pinder to both load the bases and satisfy the three-batter minimum before turning to Matt Foster.

Foster had been warming before Rodón entered but stopped throwing after the first call to the ‘pen; he got hot hurriedly and came into the game with no margin for error — bases loaded in a one-run game. He proceeded to walk the next two batters on 10 pitches without ever threatening to find the strike zone consistently. What started as an odd use of Rodón as a makeshift LOOGY turned into an instant collapse, and though Foster retired Davis, who couldn’t help himself and swung at a pitch, the damage was done.

Chicago clawed back into a tie with a manufactured run in the top of the fifth — two singles with a stolen base in between — before the Chicago bullpen fire started up again. Though Foster had thrown only 12 pitches, Renteria wasn’t willing to live with the command issues; he went yet deeper into his reserves, calling in Evan Marshall. Marshall was the seventh White Sox pitcher of the game, and the team simply needed length out of him; the math wouldn’t work otherwise.

Naturally, it didn’t work out as planned. Marshall got two quick outs, then made a hash of things. He walked Murphy and Semien sandwiched around a catcher’s interference call that put La Stella on base. Bases loaded, Pinder up again, and a tired Marshall on the mound (he’d already thrown 25 pitches in the inning) — it would normally be a great spot for a high-leverage reliever.

That simply wasn’t an option, however; summon closer Alex Colomé, and you’d leave yourself 13 outs for Colomé and the three relievers behind him. Those three relievers were Jace Fry, Dylan Cease, and Jimmy Cordero — even if you got four outs from Colomé, could you really trust those other pitchers to pick up the last nine?

No, there was simply no choice: Marshall, inflated pitch count and all, would have to do it. He wasn’t up to the task; Pinder smashed a groundball single to left (101 mph off the bat) that Anderson couldn’t knock down, scoring two. That was all the A’s got (Mark Canha lined out), but with less aggressive early bullpen moves, this situation might never have come up.

In a classic wait-why-not-last-inning reversal, Marshall cruised through the seventh, re-establishing bullpen equilibrium. He could only preserve the 6-4 deficit, however, because Chicago’s offense had started to falter when it was most needed. The White Sox loaded the bases in the top of the inning with nothing to show for it; Adam Engel crushed a grounder directly at La Stella to end the threat.

While Chicago’s bullpen stumbled along, Oakland’s worked as designed. Petit got through a messy inning and change. Frankie Montas followed with two innings of work. This put the A’s far enough into the game to go to the heavy artillery; J.B. Wendelken pitched a clean inning, and when Lou Trivino faltered, Jake Diekman came in hastily. Joakim Soria followed with a rickety eighth, bailed out by José Abreu grounding into a double play with two on and one out. Colomé finally entered for the White Sox and made short work of the bottom of the eighth, which set up a climactic ninth.

On the hill for Oakland: Liam Hendriks, who had pitched a whopping 49 pitches, his highest count in five years, only yesterday. The Sox countered with the meat of their lineup, though James McCann had entered in relief of Jiménez, dulling the thump somewhat.

If Hendriks was gassed, he didn’t show it. His first pitch was 97.5 mph on the gun, faster than his average fastball this year. His fourth was 98.7 mph, faster than any pitch he’d thrown all year. He was wild — oh my, was he wild — spiking curveballs and throwing head-high heaters. He labored on the mound, took little walks to recover energy after every pitch. He seemed carried by emotion alone, screaming, echoing mightily through the empty Coliseum, after a strikeout.

Though McCann lined a two-strike pitch to center, the White Sox couldn’t do anything with Hendriks’ fastball. McCann was the only batter to put one in play; Chicago’s other seven swings produced four fouls and three whiffs. With Nomar Mazara at the plate as the potential last out, Hendriks popped 99.3 mph with a fastball wildly high. He collected himself and repeated the pitch, a little lower — fouled off. He repeated himself again — a called strike three, and the A’s prevailed in a wild battle of bullpens.

White Sox fans will second-guess the team’s decisions in this game. Renteria’s aggressive hooks early — Dunning, Bummer, and Heuer — and Crochet’s injury left the team grasping for outs and innings. A few more outs from Dunning or Bummer, or certainly one more from Heuer, and they might never have allowed Rodón to load the bases or Marshall to work seemingly past his limit.

The Rodón decision, in particular, is baffling. With two outs and no one on, the situation wasn’t important, but if Rodón didn’t get his first lefty, the Athletics had their two through four hitters, all right-handed, to follow against a rusty lefty with control problems. That would be high leverage — men on in a one-run game — and the three-batter minimum would force the bad matchups to stick.

We’ll never get to know what would have happened with longer hooks. The A’s gave their pitchers more rope, and it hardly worked out well; Fiers nearly let the White Sox blow the game open and Petit was lucky to escape with two earned runs. When all was told, however, Oakland put its best pitchers on the mound for more important situations than Chicago did while also hiding the dregs more effectively.

The White Sox tried to overwhelm the A’s with pitching might, and they paid for it with a Rodón implosion and with a gassed Evan Marshall desperately flailing for outs. In the end, their gambit failed, and the relatively staid A’s pulled through. As the visiting players trudged back into the guts of the stadium, the White Sox contingent left their posts along the first-base line. Deep in center, though, the cries of A’s personnel still echoed out. “We did it! We f—ing did it!” someone screamed, the players having already retreated inside to celebrate in private.

No one in Oakland is going to remember this game for the bullpen decisions. They’ll remember it for Hendriks leaving it all on the field and Pinder coming up clutch. If they were here — and they probably weren’t, based on pure numbers — they’ll remember it for the bizarre atmosphere and for Hendriks’ emotion. The A’s are moving on in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, and that’s the real story of the day.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Good analysis. Renteria over-managed his pitching early, even without the Crochett injury. He let himself be backed into a corner where he had to overextend his guys and had to manage desperately even though they were largely rested. The pitchers couldn’t deliver and the hitters failed to cover for him against a very good A’s relief corps.

Even early on I was thinking “if each pitcher only goes 2/3 of an inning there are going to be problems.”