By Hal McCoy
There was a stranger in Tampa Bay’s lineup, seldom-used Yandy Diaz and he was playing first base, a strange position for him.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash was asked before the American League wild card game Wednesday night in Oakland, “Why is Diaz in the lineup.”
Said Cash, “Because he annihilates left handed pitching.”
And the Oakland Athletics felt the Diaz annihilation the first two times he faced left handed A’s starter Sean Manaea.
Batting leadoff, Diaz led the game with a home run and homered again in the third inning, both home runs landing in the vicinity of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.
The Cuban-born Diaz, obtained via trade last December from the Cleveland Indians, normally is a third baseman/outfielder of dubious defensive skills. Cash, though, wanted his noisy bat in the lineup and the sound was eardrum-shattering.
And the usual skrimp, scrape and scrap Tampa offense hit four home runs in the first five innings to send the Rays to a 5-1 victory.
Avasail Garcia crushed a two-run home run in the third and Tommy Pfam launched a solo shot in the fifth.
It was a shocking and stunning turn of events for the A’s. It is usually the green-and-gold knocking the cover off the ball. They hit 257 home runs this season, fourth most in the American League.
The A’s, though, were facing Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton. It is as difficult hitting home runs off Morton as it is to extract a wisdom tooth with tweezers. He gives up only 0.67 home runs per nine innings, best in the American League.
Morton expended 94 pitches in five innings and left after giving up one unearned run, five hits and three walks.
But the Tampa Bay bullpen grasped the reins and sent the A’s home with their ninth straight series-deciding post-season defeat. The Rays, owners of baseball’s lowest payroll ($53.5 million) move on to face the Houston Astros in the best-of-five American League Division Series.
Diego Castillo followed Morton with two scoreless innings, Nick Anderson pitched a scoreless eighth, striking out the side after giving up a hit.
Anderson struck out the hitter in the ninth, his fourth straight, then Cash brought in closer Emilio Pagan, who pitched for the A’s last season. Pagan retired the final two.
The Rays got rid of Manaea after only two innings, second quickest exit of his career. And the three home runs he gave up are a career-high.
Diaz furnished two runs for his team and one for the A’s. Playing first base for one of the few times in his career, he missed an in-the-dirt throw in the third inning that led to an unearned run.
Diaz blooped a single to center in the seventh, his third hit, and Cash removed him from the game for defensive purposes.
Oakland had a couple of early chances that evaporated. They had two on with one out in the second, but Wright State University product/catcher Sean Murphy hit into double play.
The put two on in the fourth with one out and A’s manager Bob Melvin elected to pull Murphy in favor of pinch-hitter Seth Brown. He hit into a force play and Marcus Semien grounded out.
The A’s had runners on base in the first eight innings but left nine on base and were 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position in that span.
Anderson and Pagan combined for a 1-2-3 ninth to send the A’s off to golf, fishing and vacations.
Tampa Bay manufactured only seven hits. Four were home runs to go with 12 strikeouts. But that is baseball as it is played these days.