OAKLAND — In October of last year, Jonathan Lucroy was catching for the Colorado Rockies. After having spent six full seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers — and two half seasons with the Texas Rangers — he had made the playoffs just twice. Never had he played in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game.
That changed when the Rockies traveled to Chase Field to face the Arizona Diamondbacks. They lost 11-8.
“That’s tough to go into an opposing city and play in their home,” said Lucroy, now catching for the Oakland Athletics. “It was real loud and crazy. You’re one-and-done. It was really insane.”
With the A’s 5 1/2 games ahead of the Seattle Mariners for the second Wild Card spot, and 2 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros for the AL West lead, Lucroy’s teammate, Jed Lowrie has tried to counsel patience and detached awareness about the club’s situation to the club’s younger players. After a 6-3 win over Oakland’s possible Wild Card game opponents — the New York Yankees — in the team’s 18th game in 18 days, Lucroy deviated from that veteran advice.
“I’ve always tried to keep the viewpoint that every game’s just as important as the next, but whenever you’re playing a team like the Yankees, and you’re fighting each other for the Wild Card … yeah, this is pretty important,” Lucroy said. “You do understand the importance of this game, of this series.”
If past is prelude, then there’s little reason to think that a one-game Wild Card matchup between the New York and Oakland wouldn’t be massively entertaining; it’s just something the A’s would rather avoid, especially given the state of the pitching rotation (in tatters).
“The whole goal is to not have to play that Wild Card game,” Lucroy said. “It’s to get the division … Every game is just as important, not only to send a message to them, but to send the message to the league: We’re coming after them, and we want it.”
In the teams’ previous meeting in May, the A’s won 10-5, but dropped the second game, 7-6, in 11 innings, and eventually dropped the series to fall to 19-21. They would go on to win six of the next seven games on their road trip. They hadn’t yet hit their stride, but they soon would. Since that day, the A’s are 64-35.
“I think that was probably the start of when some of these younger guys realized that we had the ability to compete with the best teams in the league,” said Lowrie, a veteran of the 2014 A’s playoff chase that ended in a Wild Card game loss to the Kansas City Royals.
Trailing New York by 3 1/2 after Monday’s game, the A’s would be playing at Yankee Stadium in the 2018 edition of that Wild Card game. Unless, that is, they can stay hot down the stretch and the Yankees stumble, or unless they can catch the Astros, who they trail by 2 1/2 games. With a crowd of 40,546 — the largest non-Giants crowd of the season — behind them, Oakland made a strong second impression.
“It’s nice to see the Coliseum banging like it was today,” Lucroy said. “We had a good amount of fans here. It’s good for the young guys here to kind of get a taste of that to get a feel for what the playoffs are like for the guys who haven’t been in it before.”
After falling behind 1-0 in a 21-pitch first by Trevor Cahill on Monday, the A’s battered 38-year old Vallejo native C.C. Sabathia in the bottom of the frame. Matt Chapman laced a frozen rope over shortstop, Jed Lowrie sent a flare to right — the first of his two hits on the day — and then Khris Davis slapped a 2-1 single to right to tie things up.
Stephen Piscotty then laced a hard grounder to the left side, where Adeiny Hechavarria made a dive to stop it, but couldn’t get up to make the throw. That infield single loads the bases, and a walk to Matt Olson brought home Lowrie.
Mark Canha sent a grounder to the left side, but third baseman Miguel Andujar’s throw pulled Luke Voit off the first base bag, allowing Davis to score to make it 3-1.
“He executed fairly well,” Lowrie said of Sabathia. “We got a few soft his there, and found some holes. Then, we got some big hits when we needed them. That’s what we do. Our lineup is relentless.”
The Yankees answered back by cashing in a leadoff walk in the second, when Voit slugged a two-run full-count home run to right.
In the bottom of the second, Sabathia walked leadoff man Marcus Semien on four pitches, only to see Chapman lace a would-be triple when left fielder Brett Gardner and center fielder Aaron Hicks got crossed up on a ball in the gap. Chapman was retired 7-6-5, but Semien came home to score. Sabathia finished having allowed five runs — four earned — in 3 1/3 innings.
Cahill came into Monday with a 4-0 record and a 0.85 ERA at the Coliseum this season — compared with a 1-3 mark and a 7.02 ERA on the road — and didn’t look anything like that lights-out stopper for the first two innings, allowing two singles, a double and a home run. Then, after a two-out double in the second, Home Cahill returned, retiring seven straight.
“After that first couple innings there, he really settled in, made some good pitches when he needed to,” Lucroy said. “We just kept trying to mix and keep them off balance … Our whole plan coming in was just a mix to keep them off balance, and just execute.”
With two outs in the top of the fourth, Lowrie gave Cahill a cushion with his second hit of the day, driving home Semien — aboard on a leadoff double — with a single, and Canha hit his 16th homer of the season — a solo shot — with two strikes and two outs in the fifth off of reliever A.J. Cole.
After Cahill exited, reliever Lou Trivino struck out the 2-3-4 men in the Yankees order in the sixth — Giancarlo Stanton, Hicks and Andujar — effectively subbing in for a spot where the A’s may have used Fernando Rodney, who was unavailable after pitching Sunday.
Yusmeiro Petit the first two men reach in the seventh — Gary Sanchez on a passed ball strikeout and Gleyber Torres on a six-pitch walk. Petit then caught Voit looking, before giving way to Ryan Buchter, who had only pitched once since August 26. Buchter fanned pinch hitter Neil Walker, and then got Brett Gardner to pop out to left.
Jeurys Familia got into a spot of trouble in the eighth, walking Hicks and Andujar and throwing eight of nine pitches out of the strike zone. After a mound visit, he got behind 2-0 to Gary Sanchez before finally putting away the Yankees catcher with a cut fastball up to end an eight-pitch at-bat.
“We had a great crowd today, and that’s always pretty inspiring,” Melvin said. “Some of the outs, like the last out in the eighth, you can really kind of feel it. Our fans are really loud. That’s a little extra help.”
Oakland will start reliever Liam Hendriks, and throw him for one inning on Tuesday, with Frankie Montas set to be called up and be the bulk guy. The Yankees will send left-hander J.A. Happ (15-6, 4.00 ERA) to the mound for the 7 p.m. start.
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