OAKLAND — Sean Murphy’s voice was low, almost a whisper. “It’s not this team’s last big game,” he said, in the far corner of a subdued A’s locker room Wednesday night.
In the biggest game he’d ever played in as a professional — the Oakland Athletics’ wild card game against the Tampa Bay Rays — and in the biggest spot — two on and one out, down 4-1 — he’d been removed for a pinch hitter. The A’s wound up stranding two men en route to their ninth straight winner-take-all playoff loss.
On Thursday, during the team’s annual post-mortem press conference, manager Bob Melvin said he still had to call his club’s No. 3 prospect — or at least text him. Murphy is part of Oakland’s future, a future brighter than the last two years, which saw them rank fourth in the Major Leagues in wins.
“I don’t expect that to happen much to him over his career,” Melvin said. “He’s one of those guys that I believe is going to be a premier player at that position. We’re lucky to have him, and I’m glad he got his feet wet here this year. He was impactful when he got here.”
So were the other top two rookies in the system, A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo. Along with the rest of a core that will be around at least another four seasons, the fact that Luzardo (the 18th-ranked prospect in baseball), Murphy (the No. 43 prospect in baseball) and Puk (the No. 42 prospect in baseball) all played major roles down the stretch is the root of the optimism that pervaded the A’s post-game clubhouse, and the post-mortem presser on Thursday.
The A’s have won fewer games than only three other MajorLeague teams in the last two years — the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros. The last is the most problematic: They’re in the A’s division. It’s why, 20 minutes after the loss on Wednesday, Melvin, Chapman and closer Liam Hendriks — who allowed a two-run homer as the opener in the 2018 game against the Yankees — had set their sights higher.
“What we need to do is win the division if we want to play a longer series,” Melvin said Wednesday, after lamenting the fact that, in baseball, there’s always another game in a series, except for in the wild card.
Oakland won 97 games for the second year in a row despite enduring a rare down year from Khris Davis (partially due to a hip injury that messed with his mechanics, which snowballed into self-imposed pressure), missing Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano and Stephen Piscotty for a month each and seeing its hottest young pitcher —Frankie Montas — suspended for 80 games due to PEDs. A bad game following a good season was vexing, but it was not representative.
“You do look around the room and see the possibilities,” said general manager David Forst.
Nearest the door to the A’s locker room, Luzardo — Oakland’s top prospect — stood waiting for reporters, still in his jersey after his three shutout innings of relief.
“We have a lot of young talent here and a good mix of young and kind of experienced,” Luzardo said. “I know we’re going to be excited for the future and hopefully do a lot of good things.”
The electric left-hander with a triple-digit fastball admitted to looking at the radar gun during his three shutout innings. In front of a record crowd, with the season on the line, he said he had fun.
“I zoned out,” said the 22-year-old Luzardo. “I just felt like I was pitching a normal game. Afterwards, I realized where I was and what was going on.”
The fact that he’ll come back next year as a starter is reason enough for optimism. The fact that Puk and likely Jharel Cotton will join him, and that the trio of youngsters will join Montas, Mike Fiers and Sean Manaea is enough to be positively giddy.
“They’re going to be stars,” Melvin said.
Add in the fact that the entire infield is back — including a pair of Gold Glovers (Matt Chapman and Matt Olson) and the third-best shortstop in baseball in Marcus Semien — and so are all five outfielders — Laureano, Mark Canha, Chad Pinder, Robbie Grossman and Piscotty — and the A’s aren’t just another cute small-market team that can sneak into the postseason as a wild card.
The immediate present “sucks,” said Manaea, the only one to blame himself for the wild card loss. It certainly wasn’t fun for the fans who have seen three straight wild card losses and nine straight losses in winner-take-all games.
It’s hard not to look at Semien’s performance this season — he’s a lock for a top-three spot in MVP voting — and be reminded that he’s a free agent after next year (the A’s have internally discussed an extension). But Chapman, Olson and Piscotty are under team control through 2023. Despite the fact that Brett Anderson, Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey are free agents, the A’s are more than equipped to replace them with their young arms. Then there’s Murphy, who, despite falling into a bit of a slump toward the end of his first big league experience, is as renowned for his offense (a 137 OPS+ with four homers and five doubles in his 20 games with the A’s) as he is for his defense.
Even if the new stadium doesn’t materialize due to the current or any future lawsuits, that’s at least four more years of arguably the most exciting young core in baseball. Enough for a fan base to latch onto.
“The crowd was electric,” Chapman said of the crowd of 54,005. “I feel bad that we let our fans down.”
Still, Chapman, Oakland’s 26-year-old Platinum Glove third baseman, stood on the top dugout step and watched the Rays celebrate. Then, after Manaea and Semien addressed the media, he was standing at his locker Wednesday night, ready to face the media, after Manaea and Semien did the same.
“We got a lot of guys returning, a lot of young guys,” Chapman said. “The future is definitely bright and I think we can hopefully use this as motivation. I know that we do belong here. We just have to get better.”
Then, he wended his way through the locker room, the last player still dressed in his dirt-stained uniform, and hugged each of his teammates.
“From the minute he got here, he showed leadership qualities, in his style play,” Melvin said. “He morphed into more of a voice in the clubhouse. Now he is the voice in the clubhouse.”
Two years ago, in Chapman’s rookie campaign, the A’s were en route to losing 87 games and finishing last in the American League West as the Astros charged toward their first World Series title. During one particularly rough stretch, he told Melvin, “This is the first losing team I’ve ever played on.”
“He said, ‘It’s gonna be the last losing game I ever play on,’ and to this point, he’s right,” Melvin said. “That’s the type of guy he is. His expectation, first and foremost, is to win and get the most out of himself and get the most out of his teammates. And that’s what we should do.”