The Rays win the battle of the unwanteds

2019-10-03 YandyDiaz
When you survive Castro’s Cuba and gun-toting Venezuelan fans, hitting two bombs in an American League wild card game is child’s play.

Yandy Diaz probably has a different view of pressure than Joe and Jane Fan watching postseason baseball. He’s native to Cuba, from which he required a second escape to freedom by raft after being caught once. And, he’s played winter baseball in Venezuela, where fans are believed to behave the way some American fans merely threaten.

“In Cuba, they probably had knives and machetes,” Diaz through an interpreter told a post-American League wild card game reporter in the middle of the Rays’ celebration. “In Venezuela, if you made an error you’d probably get shot.”

Take a moment of relief for hapless Brewers rookie Trent Grisham that his eighth-inning National League wild card mishap happened even in today’s over-polarised Washington, and not in Caracas. Now, marvel at what Diaz and his Rays did in the Oakland Coliseum (sometimes referenced as Rickey Henderson Field) Wednesday night.

These Rays weren’t supposed to be sluggers; they entered the postseason with the lowest total of home runs among the entrants. In the apparent Year of the Home Run the Rays hit 217. (Their pitching staff also surrendered 181.) These Athletics, by comparison, were the old Strategic Air Command: 257 home runs. (Their pitchers surrendered 201.)

Beyond that, the two had too much in common. Each team plays home games in ballparks described charitably as toxic waste dumps. Each team is run on two of baseball’s tightest and least flexible budgets. And each team could be called baseball’s version of your friendly neighbourhood animal rescue foundation. Send them your unwanted, abused, unappreciated. They’ll get love, support, three squares, and chances to play even minimally championship baseball.

And somehow, some way, their managers get away with the kind of moves that defy logic, sets, numbers, and anything else they can think of defying. Including opening the game with a guy who’d barely received his medical re-clearance a few days earlier.

A corner infielder for whom the Indians had no room figured out early enough what A’s manager Bob Melvin lamented after the Rays bombed their way, 5-1, to a division series date with the juggernaut Astros: “They kind of beat us at our own game.”

Without even pondering the prospect that Rays starting pitcher Charlie Morton—formerly a valued postseason arm including and especially Game Seven of the Astros’ 2017 World Series conquest—would have little enough command, Diaz checked in to lead off the top of the first.

He’d only returned Sunday from the injured list on which he was a prominent member for almost the entire regular season second half. He figured A’s starter Sean Manea out somewhere along the way of seeing two fastballs, a changeup, and another fastball for a 3-1 count. Then, another fastball came in right down the pipe, and Diaz hit it the other way into the right field bleachers.

The game wasn’t ten minutes old and the Rays had the earliest lead possible. Then Manaea struck out the side. But one inning later Matt Duffy led off with a single made possible by A’s shortstop Marcus Semien playing so deep he could only field it at the outer edge of the hole and throw off-balance and on the bounce to first. And Avisail Garcia followed by hitting a 2-1 fastball over the center field fence.

The early lead was crucial for Morton scuffling his way through five innings. The A’s helped make his life simpler, though. They loaded the bases on a single and two walks in the first and stranded them. They put a man on first with one out in the second only to have the next man dial Area Code 5-4-3.

And Diaz led off the top of the third, this time seeing Manaea change the plot with a diet of sliders sandwiching a pair of changeups. Then after opening 0-2 but coming back to an even count, Manaea decided the sandwich needed mustard. Diaz decided it needed to be served into the right field bleachers. Again. To the same spot, just about. For all anybody knew, to the same fan who snagged the opening blast.

Diaz is the kind of muscularly stocky fellow that puts you in mind of a middle linebacker if you meet him wearing something besides his royal blue Rays jersey. But name one middle linebacker who comes back from two months’ medical leave and launches incendiaries out of errant fastballs as if he hadn’t missed even an hour.

“[J]ust one of those guys, he just wakes up out of bed and rakes,” said Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, one of the team’s few lifers-so-far. “Everyone knows him for his muscles and what he can do in the weight room and stuff like that, but the guy finds the barrel so much throughout this whole season, and any time we’re able to have him available, we’re happy.”

But the Rays didn’t have to gift the A’s what proved their only run of the game in the third. With early pinch hitter Brandon Lowe staying in the game to play second, moving Michael Brosseau to third, Semien grounded one to third which Brousseau picked moving to his right.

The long throw across bounced past Diaz playing first, the excess of Coliseum foul territory enabling Semien to go all the way to third and score when Ramon Laureano lofted a sacrifice fly down the right field line. The A’s ended up stranding first and second this time. But they stranded first and second in the fourth, a man on first in the sixth through the eighth, and went almost unobtrusively in order in the bottom of the ninth.

A team made up of enough of the abandoned could now be tried by jury for abandonment themselves. The fifth, you say? The noisiest event of that inning was  former Cardinal Tommy Pham facing A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit, a veteran who’d been part of the Giants’ last World Series conquest (2014), and who’d kept the Rays quiet since relieving Manaea after Diaz’s second blast.

Petit threw Pham a cutter that didn’t cut down enough, and Pham cut the air sending it over the center field fence with the fifth and final Rays run attached. Things got almost too quiet from there, with both bullpens pitching up admirably enough. A team who hadn’t seen the postseason even knocking on the door since 2013, the Rays finished what they started as if they were trying to sneak home past curfew.

They even took a big risk handing the game to 29-year-old rookie Nick Anderson to close out, since manager Kevin Cash foolishly warmed him up and sat him down four previous times before getting him up and throwing again a fifth time and finally bringing him in.

Normally, that portends disaster with a gassed arm going in at last. For all anyone knew, Anderson—an independent league product who’d somehow clawed his way to the Show after all—threw the equivalent pitch volume of a quality start in those warmups.

But Anderson struck out Robbie Grossman on five pitches to open. He got Jurickson Profar on a second-pitch ground out to shortstop. He opened with ball one on Semien before throwing a called strike and two swinging strikes to finish the game.

And Morton managed somehow to prevent disaster despite the lack of command and the seeming abundance of A’s basepath occupants. “Charlie, been there, done that, his veteran, his experience, I think allowed that,” said Cash after the game. “And I would still say, I don’t think Charlie was at his best today, but he certainly made his best pitches when they counted the most.”

Manaea earned the start with a dazzling September’s 1.21 ERA after he’d missed almost a year thanks to shoulder surgery. That, if you take the hint from San Jose Mercury-News writer Kerry Crowley, may not have been Melvin’s but the front office’s idea. Ride the hot hand. The eighteen earned Fiers surrendered in 20.2 September innings probably factored, too.

Made perfect sense. And on Wednesday night Manaea generally pitched well enough. Except for three mistakes. Two of which he made to a man who’s lived to tell about escaping the Cuban nightmare and surviving armed fans in Caracas and was only too ready to exact Manaea’s penalty.

But now the A’s have lost back-to-back wild card games. Mastermind Billy Beane says, perhaps too often, that his ways and means are good enough to get them to the big ballroom but can’t get them too far through the door. Except for three straight dead-last AL West finishes (2015-2017) the Elephants have competed. Since the turn of the century they’ve lost six division series and (a sweep by the former Tigers) an American League Championship Series.

They went out this time almost too quietly for their own good. It’s easy to say the A’s will be back next season. It’s as impossible to predict the net result as it was to predict the Rays would turn their own game against them and keep them quiet and stranded Wednesday night. Not that it fazed the Rays any.

“You can put pressure on yourself,” Diaz said after it ended. “But you have to act like this is a normal game, just another game.” Against the Astros—whom they edged by one in their regular season series—that’s an attitude devoutly to be taken and sustained.

 

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