OAKLAND — While the New York Yankees were eerily quiet at the July 31 trade deadline, the Oakland Athletics made perhaps two of the most impactful trades of the year in their acquisitions of starters Homer Bailey and Tanner Roark, both of whom factored into a late-August sweep of the junior circuit leaders.
On Thursday night, it was the latter that suffocated the league’s top scoring offense, paving the way to a 5-3 A’s victory that finished off a sweep of the Yankees – a team that entered the three-game series in Oakland with the best record in baseball.
Including the sweep, the A’s (74-53) – a season-high 21 games above .500 – have taken six of their last seven games against the Yankees and Houston Astros, a stretch that has not only vaulted them into the first AL wild card spot but also demonstrated that Oakland can contend with the AL top dogs.
“We’re not in this to slip in the wild card and play a wild card game,” said Mark Canha, who hit a two-run single in the first. “We’re in this to win the World Series.”
Both the Yankees and Astros are likely first-round opponents for the A’s should they qualify for and win the wild card game and, in the past week, Oakland outscored the two teams by a total score of 36-25.
What proved the difference in the A’s series against New York was starting pitching, widely regarded as the difference-maker in the postseason. In the first two games of the three-game set against New York, Bailey and Mike Fiers comfortably outperformed their counterparts, while the Oakland bats toyed with a mediocre Yankees rotation.
Roark threw 95 pitches over 6 1/3 two-run innings on Thursday, turning in his most efficient outing since joining the team at the trade deadline.
By giving his team length, Roark added to his game the one element he has been missing throughout the 2019 season. Though he registered a 2.55 ERA over his first 17 2/3 innings with Oakland, Roark entered the game with the highest pitches per inning average among qualified starters at 18.2.
“What I think I do well is challenging guys,” Roark said. “Just attack in and out, up and down. Keep them on their toes.”
His performance against the Yankees was his third straight quality start – a drastic shift for a pitcher who had made just four quality starts in 21 outings with the Nationals – making the Oakland front office look more and more prudent with every passing start.
“He relies on his fastball and he locates it,” said manager Bob Melvin. “You locate your fastball, especially in our ballpark, you’re going to have a lot of success.”
Meanwhile, the A’s offense battered Masahiro Tanaka early and often, scoring three runs in the first and two more in the third.
A leadoff double for Marcus Semien followed by a pair of walks loaded the bases with nobody out. Semien scampered in on an RBI groundout by Matt Olson in the next at-bat and Canha – 10-for-24 in his last six games – extended his hitting streak to seven games with his two-run single to add to the scoring.
The A’s repeated the feat – bases loaded with no outs – again in the third and scored two more runs on a Matt Chapman RBI single and a Stephen Piscotty groundout.
Tanaka would settled down in his next three innings, but to no avail, as the trio of Jake Diekman – another deadline acquisition – Lou Trivino and Joakim Soria covered the final 2 2/3 innings, ceding only one more run, a two-out homer to Gleyber Torres in the ninth.
Trivino has now allowed just two earned runs over his last 6 1/3 innings in five appearances, striking out six. Getting him back to his rookie form would be effectively yet another late-season add, as he was among baseball’s best setup men in 2018.
“We know we’re playing good baseball right now,” Canha said. “I think we can beat anybody.”