AL wild card preview: The A's and Rays clash in a bout of unconventional teams

The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are well-matched opponents for a wild-card game because in baseball’s most unpredictable game, they’re two of baseball’s most unconventional teams.

You never look at the A’s or Rays and think they’re going to be one of baseball’s elite teams. Heck, it’s probably hard for the casual fan to name more than five players combined on the two teams.

That’s not a knock on either the A’s or the Rays or their talent — rather, it’s an admission that they are baseball’s anonymous success stories. They’re two teams that have carved out their own ways to win given their small-budget constraints.

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Both teams are typically looking to find a window to win in which their young players on team-friendly contracts simultaneously hit a groove. For the A’s, they’ve put together a potent offense with Matt Chapman, Matt Olsen and Marcus Semien, plus the always dangerous veteran Khris Davis. The Rays win with pitching, adding wild-card starter Charlie Morton as the wily veteran to complement their core of young pitchers. Add breakout seasons from Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, and you have a Rays team whose 96 wins might have played in the AL East if the Yankees hadn’t won 103.

That struggle of pitching against hitting will be at the core of this matchup, as the Rays have the best bullpen ERA in baseball and the second-best overall ERA. The A’s pitching isn’t bad (they rank 8th overall), but their bullpen isn’t bulletproof.

It will come down to whether the A’s bats can do better against Charlie Morton, who held the A’s to one earned run in 13.1 innings this year.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Game Details

First pitch is Wednesday at 8:09 p.m. ET from the Coliseum in Oakland with TV coverage on ESPN.

Previously

The A’s held the season edge 4-3 over the Rays, but they haven’t played since June. The A’s won two of three at Tropicana Field, back when they were hovering around the .500 mark and the Rays were in first place in the AL East. The two teams split a four-game series in Oakland later in the month.

Pitching

Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA) vs. Sean Manaea (4-0, 1.21 ERA)

The Rays certainly have the edge in starting pitching in the sense that Morton is a veteran starter and has been quite good all season. Morton, 35, made 33 starts with the Rays after coming over as a free agent from the Astros, with whom he won a World Series in 2017. He’s having his best year yet in Tampa Bay, where he’s had more strikeouts and logged more innings than any season of his career. He throws a lot of breaking balls, particularly after getting that Houston spin-rate training, which makes him tricky. If he’s on, he can be lethal.

Manaea is an interesting choice for the A’s. He may, in fact, be their freshest arm. The 27-year-old lefty returned from shoulder surgery in September, making his season debut for Oakland. He’s made five starts since then, lasting at least six innings in three of them. He fanned 10 in one start and hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in any appearance. Manaea was having a breakout season in 2018 and was Oakland’s best pitcher before being sidelined with that shoulder injury. He could be a formidable opponent for a Rays less-than-potent Rays lineup.

Rays keys to victory

The Rays need to score first. Getting to the A’s and Manaea early would swing the momentum in their favor and make Oakland play catch-up. Keep in mind this is an A’s team that has lost the AL wild-card game twice in the last five years. If the Rays can get on the board, and give Morton enough of a cushion to settle in, that could send them to the ALDS to face Houston.

A’s keys to victory

The A’s are a much better homer-hitting team than the Rays. Oakland ranked fifth in the league while Tampa Bay ranked 21st. The A’s lineup includes seven guys who hit at least 20 homers and three who hit 30. So they are more than capable of hitting it into the seats. The Rays don’t have the same firepower, so Oakland’s strategy should be to get a lead, keep it and head to Houston.

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