OAKLAND — Sean Manaea spent the first five months of the 2019 season on the injured list while he recovered from shoulder surgery, finally returning to major-league action at the beginning of September.
One month later, he’s getting the call for the Oakland A’s biggest game of the year.
Manaea will start the American League wild card game on Wednesday, facing the Tampa Bay Rays at the Oakland Coliseum in just his sixth appearance of the season. While most of the A’s roster experienced the wild card game in New York last season, it will be the first playoff experience for Manaea.
“He’s one of the guys that everybody rallies around,” said manager Bob Melvin. “It’s an infectious personality, he’s always in a good mood.”
Manaea, 27, got a slow start in his first two rehab assignments, allowing nine earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. Behind the scenes, there were thoughts that he may not even be able to pitch in the majors this season. Then, the strikeouts started piling up. In his fourth outing, he fanned seven in 4 1/3 innings, then eight in six, and 10 in 5 2/3.
Oakland’s unquestioned ace last season came back to the majors and has allowed just four runs over five games, with a 1.21 ERA, averaging a strikeout per inning. Despite averaging slightly under 90 mph with his fastball, he still managed to generate a lot of swings and misses. Despite that, Manaea said, he’ll still be nervous.
“Definitely gonna take the opportunity to soak it all in for a couple of seconds, and then gonna focus on throwing,” he said. “I don’t really know what’s gonna happen, I just know it’s gonna be crazy.”
This will be the Rays’ first time seeing Manaea this year. The last time he pitched against them was in May of 2018, but that was almost an entirely different lineup than the one he’ll face Wednesday. Only catcher Mike Zunino and backup outfielder Guillermo Heredia have more than six career plate appearances against him.
“I know he’s got a lot of success here since he’s come back from the injury,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “He was a star before that, or coming into his own stardom. We’ve watched plenty of film on him, and he’s pitched well since he’s come back, creates a really deceptive angle with his delivery. He’s got a pretty solid three-pitch mix that he can do what he wants with the baseball.”
The A’s other top candidate for this start had been Mike Fiers, who was the team’s most consistently reliable arm all year long. The right-hander will still be on the active roster for the game, though, as a long reliever in case of emergency.
“It was a difficult decision and we went round and round with it,” said Melvin. “[Fiers has] been great here at home, so obviously that factored in. I think it came down to the fact that since Manaea’s been back he’s pitched great, every single game out. We were lucky to have two guys to consider in that respect and a luxury to have two guys we’d be comfortable with.”
There was no such tough choice for the Rays, who will hand the ball to two-time All-Star Charlie Morton. The right-hander struck out a career-high 240 batters this season, to go with a 3.05 ERA and one of the lowest homer rates in the league. Cash said he’d known for weeks that Morton would be his guy if Tampa Bay got the chance to play in this game.
“We wouldn’t want anybody else out there right now,” said Cash.
The A’s faced Morton twice this year, and both times he shut Oakland down. Over 13 1/3 innings, he allowed just one run — on a homer by Jurickson Profar — while striking out 13.
“He has experience, he’s had a terrific season, we’re a predominantly right-handed hitting lineup,” Melvin said. “There’s a lot of reasons to start him. And the fact of the matter is he throws hard, he gets ground balls, he gets strikeouts, and he has a really good curveball.”
Profar has the best career numbers against Morton among A’s hitters, but Matt Olson also has a homer and a double against him, and MVP candidate Marcus Semien is 5-for-14 with a pair of doubles. Khris Davis is only 3-for-21 lifetime, but two of those hits were homers. He’ll be the designated hitter on Wednesday.
Right fielder Stephen Piscotty, who missed a month to a high-ankle sprain but returned from the injured list in time to play the final game of the regular season, will not be on the active roster for Wednesday’s game.
“I feel bad for him, he worked hard to try to get back to this,” Melvin said of Piscotty, who was one the A’s best players in 2018 before struggling with injuries for much of this summer.
Over 50,000 fans are expected to pack into the Coliseum, as the two teams battle in a high-pressure game with elimination on the line. The A’s get to play host due to finishing the regular season one game ahead in the standings; Oakland also won four of their seven head-to-head matchups against Tampa Bay.
“It’s gonna be a football-type crowd,” said Melvin. “I hear Mount Davis is gonna be open. It can get pretty raucous here, so we’re excited about having it here.”
First pitch is scheduled for 5:09 p.m. Pacific Time, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN. The winner moves on to the AL Division Series, for a best-of-five against the top-seeded Houston Astros.