After six months of fighting their way into the postseason, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics will square off in the American League Wild Card Game to keep their hopes of winning a championship alive.
The Rays earned their first postseason berth since 2013 thanks to a 96-66 record. The win total is tied for the second-most in franchise history and one shy of the most. This is also their second consecutive 90-win campaign.
The Athletics are in the AL Wild Card Game for the second straight year. They are hoping for better results after losing 7-2 to the New York Yankees in 2018. Manager Bob Melvin led his team to a 46-23 record after the All-Star break, including 18 wins in September.
2019 AL Wild-Card Schedule
Date: Wednesday, Oct. 2
Start Time: 8:09 p.m. ET
Location: RingCentral Coliseum (Oakland, California)
Charlie Morton (TB) (16-6, 3.05 ERA, 194.2 IP, 240 K's) vs. TBD
Playing at home has been a huge advantage for the A's this season. They finished the regular season 52-27 in Oakland, their most wins since 2013.
Key differences between this year's Athletics and the group that was bounced in the Wild Card Game last year is relief pitching and offensive depth.
The 2018 A's were carried by relievers Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. That duo combined to allow just 31 earned runs with 182 strikeouts in 154.1 innings. Both players were inconsistent this season before injuries forced them to be shut down in September.
Making up for their drops in performance, Liam Hendriks emerged as one of the AL's best closers. The 30-year-old right-hander was named to his first All-Star team and finished with a 1.80 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 85 innings.
General manager Billy Beane patched together a starting rotation by acquiring Homer Bailey at midseason and signing Brett Anderson.
One notable absence for the A's this postseason is Frankie Montas, who is ineligible due to a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. The Dominican Republic native emerged as their ace with a 2.63 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 96 innings.
Making up for the lack of starting depth is an offense that packs a lot of punch at the top. Mark Canha, Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano and Matt Chapman all have OPS+ totals above 125, putting them at least 25 percent better than the league average.
From that group, Laureano is the only who didn't hit at least 25 homers during the regular season.
The Rays have an excellent way to counter Oakland's power with Charlie Morton. The right-hander turned into one of the best free-agent bargains of 2019 after agreeing to a two-year deal worth $30 million in December.
Morton finished fourth among AL pitchers with 6.1 FanGraphs wins above replacement and set a career high with 240 strikeouts. The 35-year-old matches up well against the A's best hitters, four of whom bat right-handed. He limited righties to a .562 OPS with just four homers allowed in 351 at-bats.
Tampa Bay's offense doesn't pack as much pop as the A's, but it isn't lacking for production. Austin Meadows was an All-Star in 2019 and posted a .922 OPS with 33 homers to lead the team. He was one of nine Rays to hit at least 10 homers this season.
Willy Adames and Ji-Man Choi should present matchup problems for the A's predominantly right-handed pitching staff. Adames has an OPS 250 points higher against righties (.820) than lefties (.568). Choi has a .373 on-base percentage and hit 16 of his 18 homers off right-handed pitchers.
Playing on the road doesn't seem like it will be an intimidating factor for Tampa Bay. The team's 48-32 record away from Tropicana Field was the second-best in MLB (behind the Minnesota Twins' 55-25 mark).
Given how evenly matched both teams appear on paper, the Rays get a slight edge because their starting pitcher is better than anyone the A's will be able to throw out in a must-win scenario.
Prediction: Rays 4, A's 2