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Another ALDS. Another Game 5. Another loss. What was once an annoying trend that could be blamed on the small sample size of playoff games is now becoming a pretty hefty sized elephant in the room, and not Stomper, unfortunately. The A’s have now reached the playoffs seven times this millennium, a very good number, but have made it out of the first round only once, in 2006, and they were swept in the ALCS by current A’s kryptonite, the Detroit Tigers, that season. The goal of the baseball offseason, like any sport’s offseason, is to assess your team, and see what needs to be done to get to the next level. Since the A’s seem stuck in a Game 5 rut, let’s go back and look at each Game 5 of the ALDS the A’s have played the last thirteen years, and see if we can spot a pattern that will make it clear what the A’s need in the off season.
2000- #2 Oakland A’s vs. #3 New York Yankees. Game 5 score: 7-5 Yankees
This was an interesting one because although the Yankees were the lower seed, they were in the midst of one of the most dominating stretches in MLB history, with two straight titles in 1999 and 1998, and having won three of the last four dating back to 1996. This Yankees’ team would in fact go on to win their third straight World Series and, despite the lower seed, were one of the most talented and experienced teams in baseball.
Game 5 itself featured one of the biggest reversals of fortune of all-time. Game 4 had been an elimination win by the A’s, in New York, by the smack down score of 11-1. 22-year old Barry Zito had out pitched Roger Clemens in Yankee Stadium, and now the series was headed back to Oakland for the decisive Game 5. The A’s went with Gil Heredia, and the Yankees countered with Andy Pettitte; neither made their manager look good. Heredia, in particular, however, blew up on Art Howe, lasting just a third of an inning, while giving up six runs. The A’s clawed back to make the deficit just two in the bottom of the fourth, but the Yankees’ bullpen locked it down, giving up only three hits, and only allowing one runner to reach scoring position the rest of the game.
Theme of loss: Starting pitcher blew up, and A’s hitters couldn’t make a difference of the opposing teams’ bullpen.
2001- #4 Oakland A’s vs. #2 New York Yankees. Game 5 score: 5-3 Yankees
The Oakland A’s won 102 games in 2001, but thanks to the record-breaking 116 wins from division foe, Seattle, they had to settle for the Wild Card. Back in 2001, MLB had the idiotic rule that two teams from the same division couldn’t play in the first round. Thanks to this rule, it meant that the A’s drew the far more talented New York Yankees in the first round instead of the paper tiger Mariners who would go on to lose to the Yankees in five games in the ALCS.
This is a shame because in 2001, the A’s were set up with Hudson, Zito, and Mulder, three aces seemingly built for the playoffs, and they looked the part to begin the series. Mulder won Game 1, Hudson won Game 2, and Zito only gave up one run in eight innings. However, Mike Mussina pitched one of his best post-season games ever, and the Yankees stole Game 3. Art Howe was now left with the decision of starting Mark Mulder on just three days rest, or going with the team’s #4 starter, Cory Lidle in the team’s final home game of the series, Game 4. At the time, Lidle seemed a perfectly good option sporting an ERA+ of 121 for the year, just five points below Game 1 starter, Mark Mulder’s ERA+ of 126. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know that Lidle was riding a bit of luck (as shown by his low strikeout totals and low batting average on balls in play), whereas Mulder was the real deal. Even with hindsight, however, Mulder on three days rest would have been just as bold a move, and it was only Game 4. As it turned out, Lidle and the A’s got rocked, 9-2 setting up Game 5 in New York.
For Game 5, Howe did go with Mulder, and the Yankees countered with Roger Clemens. Once again, neither starter pitched well, with Mulder being hit with a pair of unearned runs that proved very costly. In another similar trend to the year before, the A’s once again couldn’t figure out the Yankees’ bullpen, this time only getting two hits combined off of Stanton, Mendoza, and Rivera in the final four and two thirds innings.
Theme of loss: Tough managerial decisions, poor fielding in the deciding game (and the series as a whole), and an inability to hit the Yankees’ bullpen again.
2002- #2 Oakland A’s vs. #3 Minnesota Twins. Game 5 score: 5-4 Twins
In 2002, the A’s tied for the most wins in baseball, but settled for the two seed, matching up with the team that had the worst record of all AL playoff teams, the Minnesota Twins. The 2002 A’s sported both the AL MVP and Cy Young, the first team to sport that combination since the White Sox in 1993. However, because they were in the race for the first overall seed until the final day, Art Howe decided to start the team’s Cy Young winner on the final game of the season, meaning Zito could not start until Game 3 of the series. The A’s dropped Game 1, but bounced back to win Games 2 and 3 on the strength of Mulder and Zito. When the series went to Game 5, this time Art Howe did decide to go with Mulder on three days’ rest, and it worked pretty well. Mulder went seven strong innings giving up just two runs, and keeping his team in the ball game. Brad Radke, however, matched him every step of the way going six and two thirds innings of one run ball before giving way to the pen.
The game headed into the ninth inning with the A’s down 2-1. Art Howe once again faced a difficult decision that, hindsight being 20/20, he wouldn’t have made again. Howe sent his closer Billy Koch to the mound to attempt to keep the A’s close. Koch struggled mightily, giving up three runs (including an RBI double to David Ortiz — yes, he was doing clutch things even back in Minnesota) and bloating the Twins lead to four. This would end up being very important as the A’s would go on to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning on a Mark Ellis home run, however still falling just short in a 5-4 loss.
A few words on Howe’s decision. The thought among modern baseball brains today is that managers who are slaves to using closers in strictly save situations are idiotic, and these managers are sheep who don’t deserve their jobs. So, in this case, Howe bringing out his closer in a non-save situation (granted, since it was a home game, there would be no possible save situation later in the game) would seem to be the correct move. Here’s the catch, though. The reason baseball brains want managers to use their closers in the most important moments of the game, and not just save situations, is because the closer is usually the team’s best pitcher. In 2002, Chad Bradford was actually the A’s best pitcher, and he had thrown only eleven pitches in the top of the eighth. Howe should have left his best pitcher out there, especially since there was a decent chance of the game going to extra innings, in which case he would certainly rue using his best bullpen arm for a measly eleven pitches in the eighth. However, all that being said, the Game 5 loss does not fall on Howe, as the question of whether Bradford would have pitched better than Koch, and whether the A’s would have still scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth is all specualtory.
Theme of loss: Tough luck, decisions breaking the wrong way (starting Zito in the final game of the regular season and putting Koch out for the ninth), and a lack of hitting until it was too late.
2003- #2 Oakland A’s vs. #4 Boston Red Sox. Game 5 score: 4-3 Red Sox
The A’s once again had to face a tougher opponent because of baseball’s bizarre rule banning divisional opponents from facing each other in the first round. This is a series that often flies under the radar because of the instant classic that was the 2003 ALCS in which the Red Sox and Yankees played, but this 2003 ALDS series may have been even better. Game 1 was a 12-inning walk-off win for the A’s. In Game 2, the A’s made the most of their home-field advantage, jumping on Tim Wakefield for five runs in the second inning, and riding Barry Zito the rest of the way for the 2-0 series lead.
The A’s turned to Ted Lilly in Game 3, and he delivered, matching Derek Lowe’s seven inning, zero earned run performance with an exact mirror stat line. Both pitchers gave up unearned runs, however, and the game went to the eleventh before the Red Sox were able to walk-off on a Trot Nixon pinch-hit home run. Game 4 was another (painful) classic with future Red Sox hero Keith Foulke giving up two runs in the bottom of the eighth to the Red Sox, thus playing his part in Boston lore before he was even a member of the Red Sox organization. By the way, three guesses who hit the go ahead double — frickin’ David Ortiz.
Game 5 was back in Oakland and featured arguably baseball’s two best pitchers in the game at this point, Barry Zito and Pedro Martinez. If it weren’t such a painful end to a painful series, this game would be worth another watch because it was an incredible game. Both pitchers held serve until the bottom of the fourth when Jose Guillen drove in the first run of the game. Jason Varitek tied up the game in the top of the sixth before Manny was just being Manny, hitting a soul-crushing three-run home run later in the sixth. However, the A’s showed some serious fight, and by the time Pedro left after not recording an out in the eighth, they had a man on first with no one out, and were down only one run. The Red Sox used four pitchers to get those final six outs (including Derek Lowe getting Adam Melhuse to strike out looking, with men on second and third and one out in the ninth; I’m going to pretend I don’t have to remember this), however, and moved on to the ALCS, once again leaving the A’s with a devastating loss.
Theme of loss: This is getting old, two iconic pitchers dueling, gloom and doom
So that covers the Game 5’s from 2000-2003. Was it just me, or was that a bit of a cleansing, cathartic adventure? Maybe it’s just really dull, constant pain. Either way we’ll be back tomorrow to look at the last couple Game 5’s and see if we can spot any trends among the recent wounds.