The Astros Are in Town, & Athletics Haven't Forgotten Cheating Scandal

John Hickey

In a normal baseball season, the reunion tonight of A’s manager Bob Melvin and Astros’ manager Dusty Baker as Oakland hosts Houston in a 6:10 p.m. game at the Coliseum would take center stage.

Baker couldn’t have a bigger fan than Melvin, who played with the Giants in 1988 when Baker was a coach with San Francisco, a team he would later go on to manage.

“He’s been a resource for me,” Melvin said. “He’s been a father figure for me in this game as far as managing. I will always look forward to seeing him.

“I don’t necessarily enjoy managing against him because he’s had such great success. I think it’s like 2,000 wins (1,869) and I don’t know how many Manager of the Years (three). ... I am happy that he got another opportunity because he deserves one. And he’s one of the great managers, really, of all time.

“Dusty is one of the great ones.”

This is not a normal baseball season. Baker is the Astros manager only after A.J. Hinch, the former A’s catcher, managed Houston to three consecutive American League West titles and two World Series appearances, one in 2017 and again last year, was fired.

It’s that 2017 title that is center stage. After current A’s starter Mike Fiers, who was on the 2017 team, talked openly about the Astros’ system of sign stealing, Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were fired and the organization was fined $5 million.

Oakland wasn’t a contender in 2017, but they have won 97 games each of the last two years to finish runner up to the Astros, and the A’s, like most teams, have long memories when they believe they’ve been done wrong.

Chris Bassitt, who starts Friday, to be followed by Frankie Montas and Jesus Luzardo in 1:10 p.m. starts Saturday and Sunday, said that while time has passed, memories of what the Astros did to win that 2017 crown remain. The A’s come into the series with a six-game winning streak that has them atop the division at 9-4 while the Astros, who have lost two straight to fall to 6-6, are in second place at 6-6.

“I think from a player standpoint, I think we haven’t forgotten about it at all,” Bassitt said this week. “But, facing them, you really can’t play that game. I don’t think we need more incentive to try to win the division. That’s obviously our goal. That’s obviously their goal. We’re in their way and they’re in our way. I think the Astros as us are going to be neck-and-neck basically the whole year.”

A’s first baseman Matt Olson, he of the newly sprouting mustache and with three homers in the last two games, said until the A’s can prove otherwise “the road to the division title goes through Houston, obviously.” And he said the inability of A’s fans to be in the Coliseum changes the characteristics of the meeting.

“I’m sure it would be a bigger deal if there were fans here,” Olson said. “Sure, they’d be pretty rowdy. I’m sure part of it is that everybody knows the story (about the scandal). Everybody’s heard about the story. I think everybody’s kind of moving on from it, or it’s not the hot topic. We’re going to go out and do what we normally do.

“We always play Houston tough.”

Strictly speaking, that’s a stretch. Oakland hasn’t won a season series against the Astros since 2014. But last year, when the A’s were the winningest team in the AL the second half of the season, Oakland won six of the final eight games from Aug-15 through the end of the season.

A’s outfielder Mark Canha said Friday the feeling inside the Coliseum will be different.

“It would have been much more intense (with fans),” Canha said. “A circus-like atmosphere. It’s going to be dulled-down a little bit. But players and staff, no one is happy about what they did. So, I think that there’s going to be some intensity on both sides in wanting to win this series. There’s going to be some ultra-competitiveness out there this weekend that I’m excited to be part of.

“I want to beat the Astros. I always want to beat the Astros, regardless of the circumstances and just for the fact that they’re such a force to be reckoned with. You go up and down their lineup and their pitching staff, and I know they have some injuries, but for me, the Astros, they’re the team in our division that is always kind of at the top, and they’re the team you want to beat a little extra.”

A’s manager Bob Melvin agrees with Olson and Canha that the lack of fans in the stands will alter the characteristic of the series. “This was a year that probably they would’ve gotten a hard time from the fans — and I don’t know that our cutouts will have a whole lot to say about that,” Melvin said. “You just want to go out and you want to play well against them. You want to beat them because they’re a good team and if we’re going to go where we want to go, that’s the team you have to go through in your division.

“I think there are a lot of teams that are probably, and rightly so, upset with them this year. But you can’t let that get in the way of going out there and concentrating on what you need to do to win a game, and if it gives you motivation, so be it.”

But at least some of the A’s believe that the Astros, who were allowed to keep their World Series title, got a relative slap on the wrist.

“It’s kind of frustrating just in the fact that it just seems like they’re getting by so easily,” Sean Manaea, who will not be starting in this series, said. “It sucks that this situation has happened and nothing’s really happened to the organization that ultimately did just some crazy stuff. ... I think there’s stuff that we can’t look past, but at the same time, we’ve just got to keep on going and put them in the rearview, honestly.”

A’s reliever Jake Diekman was with the Rangers in 2017, so the Astros’ cheating impacted him. Now, he’s a little reticent to talk about it.

“I hope we take two out of three; they’re still a pretty decent baseball team,” he said. “I feel like everyone in the division is trying to catch them. I don’t think how we pitch they is going to change. We’re going throw heaters up an in. We’re going to back them off the plate.

“They cheated. They caught. (Commissioner Rob) Manfred gave them somewhat of a discipline. But whatever.”

A’s second baseman Tony Kemp played on the 2017 Astros, although apparently he didn’t take part in the cheating.

“Honestly I’m excited to see what their ballclub has,” Kemp said. “I don’t know if tensions are going to run high or not. I don’t believe so. I think that these guys (the A’s) are just focused on winning ballgames, and there are already enough distractions going on.”

The Astros held top starter Zack Greinke back a day to face the A’s tonight on an extra day’s rest. Houston will follow Saturday and Sunday with lefty Framber Valdez and right-hander Cristian Javier. All three games will be televised by NBC Sports-California, and ESPN-Plus will also stream the Sunday game.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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