Oakland, Calif. — Yandy Diaz slugged baseball’s lowest spender into a matchup with mighty Houston, Charlie Morton silenced the powerful Athletics on the mound, and the Tampa Bay Rays beat Oakland at its own game 5-1 in the AL wild-card round Wednesday night.
After playing in only one game since late July, Diaz hit a leadoff homer and went deep again in the third inning. Avisail Garcia hit a two-run drive in the second, and Morton had all the support he needed as Tampa Bay advanced to face the AL West champion Astros in a best-of-five Division Series.
Game 1 is Friday at Houston, which racked up a major league-best 107 wins this season.
“We have a tough road ahead of us, Houston’s a great team, but we played them well this year. It’s going to be a dogfight,” Tommy Pham said.
Pham homered in the fifth for the 96-win Rays, who had the smallest payroll in the majors at $66.4 million. And in a playoff meeting between creative, small-budget teams that make the most of limited resources, it was Tampa Bay that came out on top.
The Rays were unfazed by a towel-swirling Oakland crowd of 54,005 that established a wild-card record, having recently played at Dodger Stadium and on the road against the Yankees and Red Sox in the season’s final two weeks.
Tampa Bay players raced out of their dugout to celebrate when Marcus Semien struck out to end it, and then started putting on fresh playoff T-shirts and caps.
“It’s a beautiful thing having the lowest payroll in baseball and having the success we did,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said before the game. “It always feels good to stick it to the man any time you’re able to in this game, and that’s something to be very proud of.”
The A’s have lost nine straight winner-take-all games since 2000, going 1-15 with a chance to advance to the next postseason round. Their only win was in 2006 against the Twins before being swept in the AL Championship Series by the Tigers.
A year ago in the wild-card game, Oakland’s first time back in the playoffs since 2014, the A’s fell behind fast and lost 7-2 at Yankee Stadium. They won 97 games again to earn a wild card.
This game had a far different feel in the familiar, friendly confines of the Coliseum, but the A’s dug themselves another quick hole.
And the visitors were the ones putting on a happy home run show this time. Oakland, which hit a franchise-record 257 homers, is 0-6 in winner-take-all playoff games at home since 2000.
Even a day earlier, Rays manager Kevin Cash wasn’t sure Diaz would play given how much time he missed with a foot injury during the second half of the season.
Diaz returned for the season’s final game at Toronto after being sidelined since July 23. He played in just 79 games this season, 22 of those at first base with 17 starts.
“He probably caught us off guard a little bit with how quickly he turned around over the last five, six days,” Cash said.
Never one to shy from the unorthodox – the Rays used four outfielders against Matt Olson – Cash started Diaz at first to make sure his best bat against lefties was in the lineup.
“I just was trying to get good pitches to hit and luckily they went out,” Diaz said through a translator.
Pham was impressed.
“Kudos to him. He kept himself game-ready for as long as he’s been down,” Pham said. “We really need him. I’ve been saying it all year – he’s such a good bat, doesn’t strike out much, knows the strike zone. Hits the ball hard.”
Kiermaier noted Diaz is “just one of those guys, he just wakes up out of bed and rakes. 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.”
Morton, with a career-high 16 wins and his best ERA yet of 3.05 this season, counted on his playoff experience giving him an edge. He won Game 7 of the World Series for the Astros in 2017.
Morton gave up five hits without an earned run over five innings. He struck out four and walked three in his seventh playoff start and eighth appearance, having spent the last two seasons with Houston.
The right-hander walked Mark Canha to load the bases with two outs in the first before retiring Jurickson Profar on a flyball and had already thrown 32 pitches.
Morton quickly settled in and once his turn was done, the Rays’ shutdown bullpen did the rest.
Semien reached third on a three-base error by third baseman Mike Brosseau in the third and scored on Ramon Laureano’s sacrifice fly. Oakland did little else.
Diaz hit the fifth pitch of the night from Sean Manaea over the wall in right-center. Manaea then struck out the side after Diaz’s drive, but was done after two innings.
“That’s kind of our game. They kind of beat us with our game. We’re normally a home run-hitting team,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said.
Melvin handed Manaea the ball based on his triumphant September return after missing nearly a year following shoulder surgery. Manaea went 4-0 with 1.21 ERA in five starts last month.
Manaea earned his first career playoff start over 15-game winner Mike Fiers, who pitched a no-hitter May 7 against the Reds to begin a 21-start unbeaten stretch in which he went 12-0.
Indians bring back Kluber
The Indians wasted no time on one of their biggest offseason decisions: Bringing back Corey Kluber was a no-brainer.
Cleveland said it intends to exercise Kluber’s $17.5 million contract option for next season, when the two-time Cy Young Award winner is expected to be healthy – and maybe rejuvenated – following an injury-shortened 2019.
Kluber made only seven starts before a line drive in Miami broke his right arm. The 33-year-old endured months of inactivity and rehab and was nearing a return when a strained oblique muscle set him back.
On Wednesday, team president Chris Antonetti announced the team’s decision on Kluber. And while the move wasn’t unexpected, the timing was unusual because the Indians typically take their time with major moves.
The difference this time is that it’s Kluber, who has been one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers the past six years. His track record gives the Indians confidence he’ll bounce back — and maybe be as good as ever.
Kluber’s been a workhorse, logging at least 203 innings in each of the previous five seasons. It’s taken a toll on his body, but manager Terry Francona thinks the down time could help Kluber going forward.
“I think this is almost a blessing in disguise. Yeah, we missed the heck out of him, but come next year I bet you he has a chance to be the Kluber that we’ve seen and relied on. For the innings and what he has given our team, I betcha he has a chance of being that again because of having a little bit of a layoff.”
The Indians could buy out Kluber’s 2020 option for $1 million. The club has an $18 million option for 2021 with a $1 million buyout.
Antonetti also said the team plans to decline options on second baseman Jason Kipnis ($16.5 million) and reliever Dan Otero ($1.5 million). Kipnis, who has spent his entire nine-year career with Cleveland, would get a $2.5 million buyout. Otero would receive a $100,000 buyout.
Kipnis was having a solid season for the Indians, who won 93 games despite being ravaged by injuries. The 32-year-old doubled in his final at-bat before tests revealed he broke the hamate bone in his right hand — the same injury that sidelined third baseman José Ramírez during Cleveland’s playoff push.
Antonetti said it’s possible the team will consider re-signing Kipnis, a two-time All-Star.
“I wouldn’t close any doors,” Antonetti said. “All this means is that we’re not going to exercise his option. It just wouldn’t work at that value. We’ll remain open to Kip potentially returning. Irrespective of whether or not he returns, he’s made a huge contribution to the organization in the time he’s been with us. If you think back to him getting drafted as an outfielder in the second round. We were talking the other day about remembering the instructional league games where he was working on the conversion to second base.
“He put in a tremendous amount of work to turn himself into a really good and productive major league player. And he’s been part of a lot of really good teams at the major league level. We’re really appreciative of all the contributions he’s made and are thankful for that.”
If Kipnis is gone, the Indians might move Ramírez back to second base. However, that would leave a hole at third and the club doesn’t currently have an experienced player to fill that position.
Francona said Ramírez told him he’d play wherever needed, but would prefer not to bounce around.
“We’re comfortable that José can play both at a premium defensive quality,” he said. “I agree with him, going back and forth is hard, especially at this point in his career. Wherever he plays, he’s going to be good.”
Astros’ Correa expected to play
Astros manager A.J. Hinch expects shortstop Carlos Correa to play on Friday the AL Division Series opener.
Correa missed the last week of the regular season because of a sore back, but Hinch said Wednesday that he has been working out all week and feels great.
Hinch says Justin Verlander will start Game 1 on Friday against Oakland or Tampa Bay, followed by Cole on Saturday in Game 2 and Zack Greinke in the third game. Hinch wouldn’t commit to a Game 4 starter. Houston could go with rookie José Urquidy instead of veteran Wade Miley after the left-hander had a 16.68 ERA in five starts in September.
The 25-year-old Correa played just 75 games this season after sitting out from May 26-July 26 because of a broken rib. He missed a month because of a back problem, which also caused him to sit out last week.