Postseason baseball is littered enough with mishaps, mistakes, and acts of God (we think, often as not) that turn certain triumph into disaster in less than the proverbial New York minute. The Oakland Athletics got thatclose to seeing for themselves in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday afternoon.
When A’s catcher Sean Murphy’s glove was hit by the bat of Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker with Carlos Correa aboard and nobody out, the catcher’s interference call stood an excellent chance of standing as the arguable worst postseason moment in A’s history.
That’s because it happened immediately after the A’s sacrificed their way back to a two-run lead in the top of the inning, with a pair of sac flies, one inning after Chad Pinder yanked them back from the dead and into a fresh tie with a long distance call.
The interference suddenly turned Oakland closer Liam Hendriks’s day’s work from somewhat routine with a three-up, three-down seventh into an eight-inning wrestling match. That was not what the A’s needed with a tenuous late, re-claimed lead, in a game they had to win to stay alive in the division series the Astros threatened to sweep.
It also could have made A’s manager Bob Melvin go from looking like a genius for bringing Hendriks in so soon in the first place to looking like a nut for . . . bringing him in so soon. But it turns out that Hendriks doesn’t like leaving his manager looking like a straitjacket candidate.
The husky righthander also isn’t averse to a hard wrestling match. Not even against these Astros whose 29-31 irregular season record belied their postseason batting revival thus far.
Not when Hendriks could get Yuli Gurriel to pop out to first, Aleidmys Diaz to ground out to second, and Josh Reddick to strike out so violently on a pitch that barely missed the middle of the plate that Reddick—pinch hitting for Astros catcher Martin Maldonado—fumed and broke the bat over his knee angrily as he left the plate area.
A’s fans might have a difficult time deciding the day’s biggest hero. Was it Pinder nailing Astros reliever Josh James’s first pitch after seventh inning-opening back-to-back singles for that game re-tying three-run homer into the right field corner cutouts? Was it Hendriks making Harry Houdini resemble a clumsy Watergate burglar in that 19th-nervous-breakdown eighth?
In a Game Three that featured seven home runs, a 4-2 Oakland lead turned into a 7-4 Houston lead with a five-run fifth, and five lead changes before Pinder launched—who would have wagered that the day’s heaviest drama would be an eighth inning like that? Even on a day George Springer, who treats Dodger Stadium like his personal batting cage, struck out three times and didn’t hit a lick?
Finish the Astros off in the ninth? Child’s play. Strike out Springer, lure Jose Altuve into popping out to first, and get Michael Brantley to fly out to left? Simpler than shaving in the morning, right? There’s a clearance sale on bathing suits at the North Pole waiting for you.
The Atlanta Braves throwing their third shutout in four postseason tries at the Miami Marlins earlier in the day? Ho-hum. Pending whatever came between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays in another ALDS, plus the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in another NLDS, the A’s and the Astros claimed Thursday’s Alfred Hitchcock Prize for High Drama.
To think that it looked like just another routine long distance exchange before the bottom of the eighth arrived.
Tommy LaStella, who had to leave the game in the eighth after he was hit on the arm by an Andre Scrubb pitch (and when will they change the name of the bone away from “humerus,” since LaStella thought it was as funny as a vampire managing the blood bank) opened the barrage with a first-inning, one-out launch over the center field fence.
Altuve faced Oakland starter Jesus Luzardo in the bottom of the first with one out. He caught hold of a changeup hanging a little off the middle of the zone and hung it to the same real estate but about 25 feet farther out. Brantley coming home on an infield ground out later in the inning merely made for a 2-1 Astro lead. Big deal.
A’s left fielder Mark Canha said “not so fast” leading off the top of the second and sent Astros starter Jose Urquidy’s 1-2 dangling slider dangling over and into LaStella’s and Altuve’s real estate—but landing at a mere 394 feet.
A’s first baseman Matt Olson decided the three half innings preceding him leading off the top of the fourth were a little too quiet. He hit Urquidy’s first pitch into the right field bleachers for a 3-2 A’s lead. Shortstop Marcus Semien decided the A’s punished Urquidy enough for one day, chasing him with one out in the top of the fifth with yet another launch over the center field fence.
Houston reliever Blake Taylor then put first claim on the day’s Houdini award, when he worked his way out of the subterranean chains slapped around him by LaStella’s walk and Pinder’s single by getting Khris Davis to fly out to center and—after walking Olson to load the pillows—getting Canha to fly out to center for the side.
Then it was the Astros’ turn to make up for lost time. They chased Luzardo in the bottom of the fifth when Diaz made him pay for walking Yuli Gurriel to lead off by hitting one into the left field bleachers. Luzardo rid himself of Maldonado when the Houston catcher bunted a line out to third before coming out.
But A’s reliever Yusmeiro Petit hit Springer with a first-pitch fastball, allowed Altuve to beat out an infield hit up the third base side, and served Brantley a pitch good enough to drive Springer home with a base hit. The good news for the A’s: Altuve got thrown out at third trying an extra advance. The bad news: Alex Bregman whacked an RBI double to the back of left center field.
Melvin let Petit put Correa aboard before lifting him for Jake Diekman. Tucker swatted an RBI single to short center before Diekman got Gurriel to ground out to third with the 7-4 Astros lead looking only too ominous for A’s fans’ comfort.
But when it was all over and the A’s lived to play a Game Four, the first thought would be how Melvin might have to shuffle his bullpen after Hendriks worked three innings Thursday, making him most likely unavailable until a Game Five if the set gets that far.
The second thought was who the Astros might send out to start if ailing Zack Greinke’s arm still isn’t ready to take a chance. Not to mention the sudden realisation that the Astros’ bullpen—which shut the A’s out in the first two games—may not be as invincible as Games One and Two made them look.
The third thought? Easy enough. If the A’s hang in there to overthrow the Astros, they’ll have a hard time deciding which Game Three moment was the one that lit the turnaround’s powder keg, Pinder’s seventh-inning solar plexus punch, or Hendriks’s eighth-inning escape.
They may debate that even longer than they would have debated where the interference call rated for postseason calamity.