Among the changes made to the Major League Baseball schedule this year to accommodate a rapid-fire 60-game spring of a season was increased regional interleague play to shorten travel and keep teams within small geographic pods.
One of the results of that change will be seen this weekend when the Oakland Athletics visit the San Francisco Giants for three games at Oracle Park.
Originally scheduled to play just four times over the course of the season under the normal interleague matrix, the weekend set in San Francisco will be the first half of six games between the two foes, making the local rivals a much more significant part of each other’s schedule than usual. Rather than playing four games out of 162, they make up a tenth of the schedule, giving the games significance far beyond bragging rights for fans.
The familiarity will extend beyond the head-to-head matchups, with interleague games accounting for 20 of each team’s 60-game schedule. The A’s will quickly go from asking the Giants for help in an attempt to bury the Houston Astros in the standings to needing to beat them to maintain or extend their lead in the American League West, an advantage that currently sits at four games over the Texas Rangers and 4.5 over the Astros.
Oakland (13-6) sits atop the standings just shy of the one-third mark of the season, fueled largely by a three-game sweep of Houston last weekend at the Oakland Coliseum. In the final game of that series, center fielder Ramon Laureano was ejected and ultimately issued a six-game suspension for charging the visiting dugout after being hit by pitches three times in three games and being taunted by Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron. He is currently in the appeals process, and though his suspension may be reduced, he could be out for part or all of the weekend set, depending on if MLB hands down a ruling by the end of the business week.
While the A’s are the better team on paper, losing their number two hitter and stellar defensive outfielder, who robbed a game-tying homer during the seventh inning of Wednesday’s win over the Los Angeles Angels, would certainly leave a hole. That outfield depth has been shored up, though, with the unexpected breakout performance from left fielder Robbie Grossman. Expected to play as a steady defender and acceptable albeit unspectacular hitter during his second year with the club, Grossman has hit three homers, stolen four bases and is batting .311, to go with an on-base percentage of .466 and .600 slugging percentage. His hot start helped offset early struggles from third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson, and now that the Gold Glove corner infielders have started to produce, the A’s have put up 24 runs over their last four games.
That lineup will make a formidable challenge for the Giants’ pitching, but they’ll be rolling out three starters that have put up solid early returns. Johnny Cueto took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his most recent outing, Kevin Gausman held the loaded Dodger offense scoreless until the seventh on Sunday by repeatedly pumping in 99 mile per hour fastballs and rookie Logan Webb, who grew up an A’s fan in Rocklin, has a 2.81 ERA even after getting roughed up by the Astros on Monday.
San Francisco (8-12) will need the trio to be at their best, especially with the A’s opening the series with the 1-2 punch of Frankie Montas and rookie sensation Jesus Luzardo. Sean Manaea, who has failed to make it out of the fifth inning in any of his three starts, will toe the rubber on Sunday for the visitors. They’ll be followed up by a bullpen that’s been charged with just two blown saves in 19 games, led by 2019 All-Star closer Liam Hendriks, a resurgent Joakim Soria and former Giant Yusmeiro Petit.
The Giants have had far less bullpen success, with their relievers posting the seventh-worst ERA entering Thursday’s day off, but if there’s one advantage manager Gabe Kapler will have, it’s unpredictability. Aside from Trevor Gott assuming the closer role and Tony Watson serving as a reliable lefty setup man for a third consecutive year, it’s hard for opponents to prepare for a reliever in any specific role. That certainly gave the Oakland bats problems in the two exhibition games the teams had played three weeks ago, and it could be an issue once again.
One of the unsung heroes who Kapler could put in a higher-leverage role is lefty Sam Selman, who’s allowed just one run and one walk while striking out 11 over his first seven innings.
The winner of the overall six-game season series, which will conclude with three games in Oakland on September 18-20, will claim the Bay Bridge Trophy, which was introduced in 2018 and is made out of metal from the old bridge. San Francisco currently holds the trophy after winning three of four meetings in 2019.