OAKLAND — The last time Stephen Piscotty faced off against Trevor Hildenberger, he was at Stanford, and Hildenberger an average, overhand reliever at Cal with an ERA north of five. On April 9, 2012, Piscotty hit a three-run home run off the Bears righty in a Cardinal rout.
Six years and literally hundreds of pitchers later, Piscotty hardly recognized Hildenberger. Neither did Piscotty’s Oakland Athletics teammates Mark Canha and Marcus Semien, who played with Hildenberger in Berkeley. In 2013 — well after Canha, Semien and Piscotty had been drafted — Hildenberger became a side-armer. In 2014, he set the program’s single-season saves record, and began his path to the big leagues.
Now with the Minnesota Twins, Hildenberger — who posted a 3.21 ERA in 37 games as a rookie in 2017 — came on to pitch the ninth inning in a 2-2 game on Saturday against the A’s. All three — Piscotty, Canha and Semien — came to the plate in that frame, which ended with Piscotty scoring the game-winning run on a Hildenberger wild pitch, meaning that on Sunday, the A’s could clinch their first playoff berth since 2014 in front of a home crowd.
“It should be pretty rowdy,” manager Bob Melvin said. “I can’t help but think back in 2012, when we came a long way back and swept Texas to win. Man, it was hard not to, at times, focus on the crowd, because they were so into it. My guess is, they’ll be pretty spirited tomorrow.”
Piscotty sparked the rally with a leadoff double, and Semien then sent a one-out grounder to short, which was bobbled by Ehire Adrianza. Adrianza recovered, but Semien’s speed forced a rushed throw to first. Joe Mauer couldn’t swipe-pick it. Hildenberger intentionally walked pinch hitter Matt Joyce to bring up Canha with the bases loaded, and a five-man infield loaded to the left side. Though Canha struck out, he made his former teammate work, throwing nine pitches.
“He threw him everything,” said Semien, who teamed with Hildenberger for two years, while Canha only crossed over with Hildenberger during the right-hander’s 2010 redshirt season. “Hildenberger’s got the kitchen sink, so when you see that shift out there with a lot of guys in the outfield, sometimes you chase some pitches you normally wouldn’t, because you want to get it out there so bad. It was a good at-bat. We all went to school together, so it was a cool moment for Cal.”
Hildenberger’s first pitch to Matt Chapman sailed outside, allowing Piscotty to score.
“Mark probably had a little to do with that,” said manager Bob Melvin.
“It’s crazy how you win ballgames sometimes,” Piscotty said. “It’s not exactly how we drew it up, but we’ll take it.”
The win was the 15th walk-off loss for Minnesota on the season, tying a club record set in 1964. It was also the first time Oakland had won on a wild pitch since April 26, 1997 against the Kansas City Royals. It was the 10th final-at-bat win for the A’s this season, and the ninth win for closer Blake Treinen, who pitched the top of the ninth.
“We always have a really good feeling when we’re in the ninth inning and have a chance to win here,” Melvin said. “Typically, it’s Blake who gets the top half of it because we’re tied, and you look at his record, he’s been on the right side of that many times. When Stephen leads off with a double, I don’t think anybody in our dugout didn’t think it was going to get done.”
With a loss by the Tampa Bay Rays earlier on the day, Oakland’s magic number shrank to one. One A’s win — or one Tampa Bay loss — would ensure Oakland the second Wild Card spot behind the New York Yankees. New York still leads by 1 1/2 games, but the A’s have seven games left against the Twins, the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who are a combined 231-232 (.499).
Not only is there a strong possibility that Oakland clinches at home on Sunday, but a strong finish could mean they host that winner-take-all Wild Card game at home. The most likely candidate to start that game would be Saturday’s starter, Mike Fiers.
The late-season acquisition from the Detroit Tigers went six strong, threw 79 pitches, allowed one run on four hits and struck out five en route to lowering his Oakland ERA to 2.90 in his ninth appearance.
“Good again,” Melvin said. “He looked like he started getting better as the game went along, too. Any time you get six innings and you have a lead, you feel pretty good about that … He’s been terrific for us. Just as consistent as you could really hope for every single time, maybe less one outing.”
Fiers — though he got the no-decision — provided a preview of what the start of a wild card game would look like.
Semien got the A’s on top 2-1 with a two-run homer in the fifth, and Fiers handed the lead to Jeurys Familia — one of three All-Star closers at the back of the A’s bullpen — in the seventh.
Familia — who has had long stretches of dominance punctuated by losses of command — allowed a one-out double to Adrianza, then a Williams Astudillo single. With Adrianza steaming around third, Canha uncorked a throw up the third base line, which bounced up and out of Lucroy’s mitt, allowing Astudillo to take second, and tying the game at 2-2. After Semien hauled in a Gregorio Petit pop up on the dead run in shallow left, Ryan Buchter came on to retire Joe Mauer on a fly out to center to end the inning.
“Off the bat, it didn’t look like he was going to get to it,” Melvin said of Semien’s catch. “He got a great read on it, great jump, ended up getting to it fairly easily, didn’t have to dive. That’s a huge play, obviously the home run was huge. We were doing nothing for a little bit there, and then all of the sudden we get the lead like that. Marcus had a nice night.”
The three principles in the ninth — Canha, Piscotty and Semien — are all Bay Area natives. Clinching at home, for them, would be admittedly special.
Oakland clinched on the final day at home in 2012 and in 2015. The only man in the clubhouse who’s seen the Coliseum on clinch days is Jed Lowrie. The longest-tenured Athletic — Canha — has only heard stories.
Playing the one-game playoff at the Coliseum would be even sweeter.
“It was really loud [tonight],” Semien said of the crowd of 36,071. “That at-bat with Canha up there, this place was pretty loud. They said 36,000, and it felt like it was packed. That’ll get us going.
“It can be even louder. It puts pressure on the other team, and it gets us going. That’s why it’d be great to host. If we don’t win the division, it’d be great to host here. Tonight, that’s the kind of atmosphere the playoffs have.”