By Ben Ross
Special to The Examiner
The A’s put an end to multiple streaks of postseason futility Thursday afternoon when they edged the White Sox 6-4 to win their first-round playoff series two games to one.
It was Oakland’s first victory in a winner-take-all game since 1973, snapping an MLB-record nine-game losing streak. It was also the franchise’s first postseason series win since 2006, ending a run of six consecutive playoff disappointments.
“We’ve had a couple of tough ones in the past two years,” manager Bob Melvin acknowledged. “It was rewarding, obviously. We had to do a lot. I woke up this morning feeling like this was going to be a hard game, and it was a hard game. We had to use a lot of guys and make some uncomfortable decisions at times, but man, some guys really responded. So they’re having a good time in (the clubhouse), as they should.”
Added Chad Pinder: “Just a little bit of the weight off the shoulders. After the last two years, finally moving on and now getting to a five-game series, it’s awesome. Extremely grateful and just looking forward to it.”
After Game 1 of the series, it looked like the A’s were destined for yet another playoff flop. Chicago breezed to a 4-1 win Tuesday at the Coliseum, immediately driving Oakland to the brink of elimination. But the Green and Gold bounced back with a hard-fought 5-3 win Wednesday, followed by Thursday’s series clincher.
“I think just getting an opportunity after that first game to come back and redeem ourselves, it just shows the spirit that we’ve got going,” closer Liam Hendriks said. “It shows the ability we have to bounce back no matter what happens and the ability to kind of come out there and, whatever happened the day before, brush off, and come back out here and put a good game together.”
Game 3 certainly didn’t start well for the home team. The visiting White Sox jumped ahead 3-0 on a second-inning home run by Luis Robert and third-inning RBI singles by Robert and Nomar Mazara.
But the A’s answered right back in the fourth with a two-run homer by rookie catcher Sean Murphy and bases-loaded walks to Mark Canha and Matt Olson to claim a 4-3 lead.
“Getting those two runs, I think, was big,” Murphy said. “Momentum plays a role in these things. Hit the home run, put together some good at-bats, and ended up scoring four that inning.”
Added Melvin: “The guys on the bench were really inspirational. When we were down 3-0, they were having nothing to do with feeling sorry for themselves. They were really encouraging the hitters every pitch of the game.”
Chicago showed some resilience of their own, tying the game at four on a fifth-inning RBI single by Mazara, but again the A’s responded. In the bottom half of the frame, Chad Pinder ripped a two-run single into left field, serving Oakland a 6-4 advantage.
“There were some really big hits, big everything, in that game that swung it back,” Melvin said. “You want your best and toughest players in there in games like that and those guys showed up today.”
From there, it was up to the league’s best bullpen, and Melvin’s relievers got the job done. J.B. Wendelken, Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman, Joakim Soria, and ultimately Hendriks combined for four scoreless innings to close it out.
Hendriks’ performance was probably the most impressive of all. After throwing a season-high 49 pitches in Wednesday’s win, the right-hander summoned the energy to notch three strikeouts in the ninth inning Thursday, sending Oakland to the American League Division Series.
“To be honest, I need a nap,” Hendriks joked. “Three 12:00 games in a row, throwing 50 pitches yesterday, it was tough. It’s been hot out here, it’s been humid, it’s been a roller coaster of emotions. I was just happy that I was able to kind of redeem myself after yesterday, not putting my best foot forward.”
Added Pinder: “He’s a bulldog. He goes after people. He’s fun to play behind. There’s no other person you want in that spot right there.”
The A’s will now face the Houston Astros in the best-of-five ALDS, beginning Monday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Oakland won seven of the 10 regular season meetings against their division foes, a rivalry that heated up significantly following the Astros’ notorious sign-stealing scandal.
But the A’s say they aren’t worried about any of that now; their sole concern is winning three more games to advance to the American League Championship Series.
“We had a good record against them this year,” Hendriks noted. “They know that, we know that. And now we’re going to go into a series and hopefully take care of business early. … It’s going to be a matter of who executes the best. I believe in this team and we’re going to try to stick it to them as best we can and prove that we’re the best team in the AL West now.”
Added Murphy: “We don’t take them lightly. That’s a good team. That’s a really good team. Obviously some history there, so it will be a fun series.”
Admittedly, the A’s feel a strong sense of relief now that they’ve finally won their first playoff series in 14 years. With the metaphorical monkey removed from their backs, the team can take a deep breath and let their talent and chemistry shine through.
“It’s really a close-knit group that’s been together for three years now, less a few additions and a few subtractions,” Melvin said. “It’s a team that expects to win. When we came into spring training this year, we expected to be in this spot.”