A's at Dodgers Series Preview
It’s a shame that the Dodgers’ lone series against the A’s in 2020 arrives so late in the regular season. The only team the Dodgers have played this season that is anywhere close to as good as the A’s is the Padres. Entering Tuesday’s action, the second-place Padres are 34-20. The A’s are 33-20 and lead the defending AL Champion Astros by 6 1/2 games in the American League West.
This week’s three-game set between the A’s and Dodgers at Dodger Stadium would have made for an exciting series if more was on the line. However, not only have both teams clinched their long-since-inevitable playoff spots, but the A’s clinched the AL West while idle Monday night when the Mariners beat the Astros. Currently in position to be the third seed in the AL, the A’s could still slip past the White Sox and Rays, whom they trail by a half game and two games, respectively, for one of the AL’s top two seeds, but, with the division sewn up, they are more likely to prioritize reaching next Tuesday’s AL Wild Card opener healthy and rested and let the seeding fall as it may. As for the Dodgers, they own the tiebreaker for the National League West by virtue of having won the season series against the Padres. Thus, entering this series, their magic number—for the NL West title, and, in turn, the top seed in the National League—is two, making it very likely that they will clinch both during this series.
It’s additionally disappointing that this series arrives so late because it comes after the season-ending hip injury suffered by the A’s best player, third baseman and perennial MVP candidate Matt Chapman. The most partisan Dodgers fans might argue that not having to face one of the game’s best players is good news for the Dodgers, but, again, the Dodgers don’t need that kind of advantage at this late point in the season. The division and top seed are a lock (particularly with the lowly Angels completing the Dodgers’ regular-season schedule this weekend). Chapman’s absence can only help the Dodgers if the A’s somehow meet L.A. in the World Series, which is additionally unlikely given his absence.
Indeed, the A’s were already starting to lose momentum before Chapman’s season ended. Chapman’s last game was September 6, but, since August 29, the A’s have barely managed a winning record, going 11-10 over that stretch. That span started with the Astros sweeping the A’s in a double-header, after which Oakland sat idle for five days because pitcher Daniel Mengden tested positive for COVID-19 (Mengden was asymptomatic but has since been designated for assignment as the A’s upgraded his spot on the roster by acquiring Mike Minor from the Rangers at the August 31 deadline).
After returning to action on September 4, the A’s played 19 games in 17 days via three double-headers and didn’t have an off-day until last Thursday, the 17th. They had another yesterday, the 21st, so they should enter this series relatively rested. However, the Dodgers have the additional advantage of avoiding the team’s two best starters on the season, veteran righty Chris Bassitt, who is having a small-sample career year, and potential future ace Jesús Luzardo.
Here are the pitching matchups and game times for the series:
Tues. 9/22, 6:40 p.m. PT: RHP Frankie Montas (5.86 ERA, 43 IP) vs. RHP Dustin May (2.68 ERA, 47 IP)
Wed. 9/23, 6:40 p.m. PT: LHP Sean Manaea (4.50 ERA, 48 IP) vs. LHP Julio Urías (3.49 ERA, 49 IP)
Thur. 9/24, 6:40 p.m. PT: RHP Mike Fiers (4.67 ERA, 54 IP) vs. RHP Walker Buehler* (3.86 ERA, 32 2/3 IP)
Buehler is expected to come of the injured list to make the Thursday start for L.A., but he has not been officially announced as the starter as of this writing.
Tuesday’s starter, Montas, is a former Dodger of sorts. The key piece acquired by L.A. in the three-team Todd Frazier trade with the White Sox and Reds in December 2015, Montas was healthy long enough to throw 16 minor-league innings for the organization before being included with two other pitching prospects in the 2016 deadline deal for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. Montas established himself in the A’s rotation in 2018 and was in the midst of a breakout season in 2019 when he tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug Ostarine and incurred an 80-game suspension. Back in action this year, the now-27-year-old righty started off with four strong starts only to have his season jump the rails when he allowed nine runs in less than two innings in Arizona on August 18. In four starts since then, he has posted a 7.36 ERA while allowing five home runs in just 18 1/3 innings. Once a triple-digit fireballer, Montas now tops out at a still-excellent 98 miles per hour, and he now relies far less on his heater than on a sinker/slider combination to which he added a splitter last year. Despite being a member of the organization for eight months, Tuesday’s game will mark the first time Montas has appeared in a regular season game either for or against the Dodgers.
The key prospect acquired by the A’s in the 2015 deadline deal that sent Ben Zobrist to the eventual world champion Royals, Sean Manaea emerged in the A’s rotation in 2016. He had a tremendous April in 2018 (1.03 ERA over six starts including a 10-strikeout shutout of the eventual world champion Red Sox), but shoulder issues wore away at him until he ended the 2018 season the surgeon’s table, where he had his labrum and joint capsule repaired. Manaea didn’t return to a major-league mound until September 2019, though he again had a great month (1.21 ERA over five starts). Now 28, Manaea got off to a slow start this year but has been excellent over his last six turns, posting a 2.45 ERA while allowing just two home runs and three walks in 33 innings. He’s not pitching deep into games—his 89 pitches in his last start were a season high—but he has been doing a fine job of getting the ball, and quite often a lead, to the A’s outstanding bullpen. Manaea is a left-handed changeup artist who throws a low-90s fastball with his change and slider in the low 80s. None of the Dodgers have faced him since 2018.
Mike Fiers will be best remembered for blowing the whistle on the Astros, for throwing a no-hitter for them, or for doing this to his beard. That’s because he has otherwise been an almost perfectly ordinary major league starting pitcher, posting a 101 ERA+ over parts of 10 seasons with roughly average peripherals. He has been less than that this year, as his strikeout rate has declined for the third straight season, and he remains an extreme fly-ball pitcher with a correspondingly high home run rate. Now 35, Fiers has become something of a kitchen-sink soft-tosser, throwing a high-80s fastball, which he mixes pretty evenly with a variety of mid-80s offspeed pitches and a low-70s lollipop curve. This will be his first start against the Dodgers since August 8, 2018, the day after Sean Manaea’s last start against the Dodgers.
As befits the team that bullpenned the wild-card game in 2018, the A’s bullpen deserves more attention than I typically pay to an opponents’ relief corps in this space. Oakland’s bullpen has been its biggest strength this year, leading the majors with a 2.42 ERA (the Dodgers relievers are second at 2.86) and holding opponents to a mere 62 OPS+ (again the Dodgers are second at 66). Leading that charge have been closer Liam Hendriks (1.23 ERA in 22 innings, 13 saves, 13.1 K/9), lefty Jake Diekman (18 1/3 scoreless innings with just one inherited runner allowed to score, 12.8 K/9), late-blooming righty J.B. Wendelken (1.96 ERA in 23 innings, 11.3 K/9), and veterans Yusmeiro Petit (1.83 ERA across 24 appeaerances) and Joakim Soria (3.10 ERA, 10.2 K/9, in 20 1/3 innings).
Meanwhile, the A’s have had good early returns from two recent additions to the lineup, deadline acquisition Tommy La Stella, who has solidified second base, at least from an offensive standpoint, and Chapman’s emergency replacement at third base, Jake Lamb. The Diamondbacks released Lamb a little more than a week ago. He signed with the A’s two days later, joining them for the nightcap of their September 14 doubleheader, and has started, hit safely, and either driven in a run or scored one in all six of the A’s games since, homering twice after having gone homerless in 50 plate appearances for Arizona.
Here’s how the A’s usually line up against righties:
L – Tommy La Stella (2B)
R – Marcus Semien (SS)
R – Mark Canha (DH)
L – Matt Olson (1B)
R – Stephen Piscotty (RF)
L – Jake Lamb (3B)
S – Robbie Grossman (LF)
R – Ramón Laureano (CF)
R – Sean Murphy (C)
Against the lefty Urías on Wednesday, look for Khris Davis to be the designated hitter, pushing Canha to left field and Grossman to the bench. Manager Bob Melvin also tends to swap La Stella and Semien at the top of the order against lefties.
Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.