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Inside the Numbers: An Unlikely AL West Rematch

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Long time division rivals have an ALDS matchup that could only happen in a year like 2020.

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Astros. Athletics. Mike Fiers. October baseball. What could make the storylines for this series more perfect? Oh right...this series happening at Dodger Stadium? With the primary tenants of the facility in Southern California playing in...Texas of all places? Better believe it because it is happening. If this comes as a surprise, clearly you haven’t paid attention to the wild quirks and bizarre circumstances 2020 has brought to this planet.

On Monday afternoon, these two American League West rivals will renew hostilities in the first contest of a best-of-five division series at Dodger Stadium. Major League Baseball opted to shift to multiple bubble settings for the remainder of the postseason, and the American League will play at National League parks in California, while the NL will travel to Texas (both AL stadiums) in order to keep any teams from being provided with home field advantage.

That these two conference rivals would get to this point was highly improbable. The Astros finished the regular season below .500 and were simply not given much of a chance against the Twins in the wild-card series. However, Houston’s young pitching was dominant, allowing just two runs in 18 innings at Target Field and the offense did just enough to secure a two-game sweep.

On the other hand, the A’s had to exorcise postseason demons that had existed ever since Magglio Ordonez sent a Huston Street offering to the next county to lift Detroit to the 2006 Fall Classic. Including that ALCS, Oakland had lost six straight postseason matchups (four series, two wild-card games), but they were able to outlast the White Sox in an intense battle of the bullpens in Game 3 on Oct. 1.

While Houston and Minnesota had not faced off in 17 months before battling last Tuesday, the Astros and A’s are quite familiar with one another. The regular-season series was mostly one-sided as Oakland claimed seven of ten games, with an Astros doubleheader sweep on Aug. 29 making matters look a bit more respectable. A benches-clearing skirmish on Aug. 9 was also a major topic in the baseball world and MLB will surely be hoping for no further funny business between the two sides.

This inside the numbers preview will focus mostly on how players fared throughout the season series, as well as postseason performances. As a reminder, the “edges” given are opinions only.

Catcher:

Martin Maldonado was shut down by Oakland pitching in the regular season, finishing just 2-for-18 with seven strikeouts. Defensively, Maldonado came up with one of the plays of the series against the Twins, doing an exceptional job of blocking the plate to tag out Luis Arraez and preserve a tie in the fifth inning of Game 2.

With the A’s staring at yet another heartbreaking exit from the playoffs, Sean Murphy delivered what was arguably the franchise’s biggest postseason hit in 14 years when he smashed a two-run homer to cut the White Sox’ lead to 3-2 in the fourth inning on Thursday. Murphy also has a multitude of success against the Astros in his brief big league career. In just 63 regular-season games, he has 11 long balls and four of them have come against Houston pitching. He was 3-for-15 against the Astros this season with a homer off Cristian Javier.

Edge: A’s. Murphy is a youngster who simply doesn’t seem fazed by the moment, as proved with his clutch blast against Chicago. His prior yard work against the Astros should give him an extra boost of confidence heading into the series.

First base:

After hitting a robust .435 against Oakland in 2019, Yuli Gurriel was held to a .200 mark this year. However, he did take Jesus Luzardo deep twice and also had a pair of knocks against Chris Bassitt and Frankie Montas.

How to put this nicely? Astros pitching owned Matt Olson this year, as he went 4-for-36 with 14 punchouts. He also struggled in the Wild Card Series against the White Sox (0-for-9, 6 strikeouts), but did work a key bases-loaded walk in the middle of a four-run fourth-inning rally in the finale.

Edge: Astros. Despite Gurriel’s struggles, he has always been a hitter who can find his stroke in October and make life miserable for opposing hurlers.

Second base:

Jose Altuve’s trying season has been well-documented. It was a scuffle for him against everyone, including Oakland, as he was 4-for-21. Altuve was hitless in the two games with the Twins but may have delivered the most crucial at-bat for the Astros so far in 2020. After Jorge Polanco’s error kept Houston alive in the ninth inning of Game 1, Altuve worked the count full and took a bases-loaded walk to give his team the eventual-game winning run.

The scrappy Tommy La Stella has seen a lot of the Astros this year, playing in a total of nine games between the Angels and A’s. He is 8-for-32 against Houston with a home run off Cristian Javier on Aug. 25, when he was still a member of Anaheim. An oddity is that La Stella played in the Angels/Astros doubleheader that day and was then a member of Oakland by the time the Astros finally took the field again four days later for, you guessed it, another twinbill.

Chad Pinder has assumed the role of super utility player for the A’s, playing four positions this year, spending more time at the keystone sack than anywhere else. Pinder was 5-for-13 against Houston and his two-run single was the difference in their Game 3 triumph over the Pale Hose.

Edge: A’s. As much as Astros fans hate to continue to hear it, Altuve simply can’t hit this year, no matter the venue or opponent. There is always a chance he will get going, but La Stella’s .289 average since being acquired by Oakland presents a problem at the top of the order.

Shortstop:

New year, same old clutch Mr. Correa. He came through once again in the postseason last Wednesday, belting a go-ahead solo homer in the seventh inning in a 3-1 clinching victory over the Twins. Correa was 6-for-32 against the A’s in the regular season, with half of the knocks coming against Chris Bassitt. His relay throw to the plate in Game 2 was also massive as it kept the game tied and set up his offensive heroics.

The Astros pitching staff did a nice job of containing the always dangerous Marcus Semien as he was just 5-for-28 this year, but the hits came in important spots. He launched a long ball off Framber Valdez and picked up a game-winning base hit in the bottom of the 13th on Aug. 7. Semien also took Zack Greinke and Jose Urquidy deep last season, something to keep in mind for when they toe the rubber in this series. Semien’s two-run homer against the White Sox in Game 2 is a major reason why the A’s are still playing.

Slight edge: Astros. Both players are electric and can make things happen in a flash, but Correa’s contributions on both sides of the ball in Game 2 at Minnesota were simply on another level. To go from a perfect relay throw home to a go-ahead home run in a span of a half-hour is vital when it comes to trying to win games in October.

Third base:

Alex Bregman shined in a big way against the A’s in 2018 and 2019 with a total of 12 home runs, but recorded just two hits in 21 at-bats in the season series this year. He did come up with RBI hits off late-inning relievers J.B. Wendelken and Liam Hendricks, experience that might pay off if he is up with the game on the line.

Oakland lost arguably their most important piece when Matt Chapman was lost for the season and underwent hip surgery, but former Diamondback Jake Lamb has proven to be a viable option. He was released by Arizona on Sept. 12 after posting a .116 average in 43 at-bats, but hit .267 with three homers in 13 games down the stretch for the A’s. Lamb only had two plate appearances against the Astros this year and did not reach base.

Edge: Astros. As has been said throughout the year, one never knows when Bregman will strike. He is still looking to get back to the groove he was in during August before a hamstring strain sidelined him, and facing a division foe in which he has raked against during his career might just be the perfect storm.

Left field:

Kyle Tucker was one of Houston’s most valuable position players this year and although he was held to a .167 average against Oakland pitching, the damage he inflicted on a pair of quality arms on Aug. 29 may have left a mark. In the first game of that doubleheader, he launched a three-run homer in the first inning off Chris Bassitt, then tagged Frankie Montas with a three-run triple in the opening stanza of the nightcap. The Astros lineup continued to scuffle in Minneapolis, but not Tucker. His two run-scoring hits on Wednesday helped sink the hearts of Twins fans in the playoffs once again.

Ah, a member of the 111-loss Astros team! Robbie Grossman was part of the “infamous” Houston squad that was in the midst of a historic rebuild before eventually being released. Grossman is in his second season with Oakland and hit .267 against the Astros this year with long balls off Javier and Josh James.

Edge: Astros. Unlike last year, Tucker has shown he is still locked in during the early stages of this postseason. Bassitt and Montas are sure bets to pitch early in this series and if he can replicate his big hits from late August, look out.

Center field:

Similar to Tucker’s success against members of Oakland’s rotation, George Springer took Luzardo and Montas for long rides this season as part of a .296 mark in the season series. Despite going just 1-for-9 in the contests against the Twins, Springer struck out only once, so his luck with balls put in play should improve if he continues to make contact.

Ramon Laureano was in the center of the aforementioned Aug. 9 brawl, charging the Astros dugout after being plunked by Humberto Castellanos, who was likely not throwing at Laureano intentionally. He caused damage with his bat and glove in the season series, batting .314 including a 5-for-9 mark against Zach Greinke with a homer. Laureano ended consecutive games against Houston, ripping a walk-off single on Sept. 9 and making a terrific diving catch for the final out on Sept. 10.

Edge: Tie. Springer has been coming up huge in the postseason since 2017, but Laureano is also a terrific young player with a chance to shine on the national stage now. Laureano’s ability to make acrobatic, out-of-this-world catches and then smoke a ball 430 feet makes him one to watch at all times.

Right field:

Josh Reddick fared well against his former team in the regular season, as he finished 8-for-28 with a long ball, coming against Bassitt. However, a cause for concern is his pedestrian career postseason numbers, a .206 batting average with 12 runs batted in over 63 games.

The A’s might go a couple of different ways here. The options are Mark Canha or Stephen Piscotty, as both have alternated playing time throughout the season, with Canha spending time in left field as well. Canha was 6-for-32 with just two extra-base hits against Houston in the regular season while Piscotty doubled once as part of a 4-for-17 effort.

Edge: A’s. Canha might have struggled at the plate in the previous series but shines in the outfield wherever he plays, and they can also lean on Piscotty’s postseason experience from his time in a Cardinals uniform.

Designated hitter:

Surprise, surprise, Michael Brantley fared well against Oakland this year. He was a force in Houston’s lineup for the duration of the season with a .300 average, and hit .286 when facing the A’s. Brantley hit a long ball (two-run blast off Montas) and also collected five doubles. He continued to prove his worth in the Wild Card Series, picking up a pair of hits in the opener and scoring two runs in the clincher.

Khris Davis has supplied massive power throughout his career, but his productivity has begun to decline. After three consecutive seasons of 40 or more homers, Davis hit just .220 in 2019 before limping to a .200 mark in an injury-marred campaign this year. He matched that average in the season series against Houston (3-for-15), although he did double and homer off Greinke.

Edge: Astros. Brantley has been a steady presence in the lineup since the first day he put on a Houston uniform and that has carried over to both playoff runs he has been part of. He seemingly remains calm and locked in no matter the situation.

Starting pitching:

It is still up in the air how the rotations will line up for the series, but it is a safe bet that Greinke will be on the mound Monday afternoon. He labored through four frames in Game 1 at Target Field but only allowed one run. Greinke was brilliant at the Coliseum on Aug. 7 when he tossed six scoreless innings, then the A’s touched him up to the tune of four runs in six frames a month later.

Jose Urquidy could possibly get the ball in Game 2 after adding to his brilliant early postseason resume with 4.1 innings of one-run ball in Minneapolis. He has allowed just two tallies in five playoff appearances dating back to last year. Urquidy was hit with a tough-luck loss in Oakland on Sept. 10 after only giving up two runs and two hits in six frames.

After not pitching in the opening series, Lance McCullers Jr. should be more than well-rested to face the A’s. He last worked on the penultimate day of the regular season and his one outing against Oakland this year was a good one: 6 innings, 1 earned run, 7 strikeouts on Aug. 29.

Chris Bassitt has been the most reliable starter for the A’s this year, with a 2.29 ERA in 11 starts followed up with seven outstanding innings to beat the White Sox in Game 2. He pitched brilliantly against the Astros twice - seven frames of one-run ball opposite Greinke on Aug. 7 and 21 more outs without allowing a run in a Labor Day contest. Bassitt was hit hard once, the aforementioned Aug. 29 twinbill opener when Tucker tagged him for a three-run jack.

The anticipation of Mike Fiers making his first start against his former team since he helped uncover the scandal is something that has been discussed quite often in the sporting world. It is likely to happen in this series, at Dodger Stadium in a wild twist of fate. Fiers posted a 4.58 ERA in 11 starts this year and was absolutely torched the last time he faced the Astros, Sept. 9, 2019 at Minute Maid Park. He surrendered five home runs (Bregman, Altuve, Brantley, Robinson Chirinos, Yordan Alvarez) while failing to record an out in the second inning.

Rookie Jesus Luzardo made two starts against Houston in the regular season, giving up a total of four runs while fanning 12 batters in 12.2 frames. Frankie Montas turned in his best outing of the year when he held the Astros to a pair of hits without giving up a run in seven innings on Aug. 8. But Houston was able to knock Montas out in the fourth three weeks later in the game where Tucker cleared the bases with a triple, then he earned a win on Sept. 8 despite Brantley’s homer.

Edge: Astros. Even without Justin Verlander, a team has to feel solid any time they can roll out Greinke and McCullers in a short series. They will have that luxury while Oakland’s starters are still mostly trying to overcome jitters on the big stage, aside from Bassitt’s dominance last week.

Relief pitching:

The Astros seemed to find a successful formula in Minneapolis: ride the swingmen for as long as possible. It worked to perfection with Framber Valdez as he worked the final five innings of Game 1 and earned the win. The next day, Javier did not allow a hit in three hitless innings, also recording a postseason victory. This helped Dusty Baker avoid having to turn to rookies such as Castellanos, Enoli Paredes, Cy Sneed and Andre Scrubb in the toughest of spots. However, this might not be a feasible way to go about business for the entire postseason. The youngsters may be called on, and as Astros fans saw during the regular season, it was far from smooth sailing.

Oakland’s bullpen has been the best in baseball, simply put. Their 2.72 ERA led the majors and they struck out 229 batters in 208.1 frames while allowing just 159 hits. Liam Hendriks was second in the circuit with 14 saves and southpaw Jake Diekman also tantalized hitters all summer long. Bob Melvin also has the luxury of going to veterans such as Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria.

Edge: A’s. Numbers don’t lie, but Baker and the coaching staff hope Valdez and Javier will be able to provide length once again.

This is sure to be a battle, with Houston arriving at Dodger Stadium with abundance of confidence after knocking off the Twins in two games - and of course, their postseason history in SoCal. Due to the bubble format, there is no need for off days between games for travel, so the teams will play up to five games in five days from Monday to Friday. It is a good thing many Americans are still working remotely, because this series should provide can’t-miss action that will be talked about for years to come.