Why the A's keep losing playoff series

Reddick frustrated by A's lack of offense against Verlander

Why the A's keep losing playoff series
October 11, 2013, 10:00 am
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Sonny Gray allowed three runs on six hits over five innings in his second career postseason start. (USATSI)

Gil Heredia won Game 1 of the 2000 ALDS against Yankees, only to allow six earned runs in 1/3 inning in Game 5, which the A's lost 7-5. (AP)

The same thing keeps happening to the Oakland Athletics, over and over again. Get into the playoffs, linger a moment, and then get back out. So what can we make of this?

Well, nothing, really, except maybe don’t lose to Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera, Brad Radke, Pedro Martinez, Justin Verlander, or slightly better Justin Verlander -- the other team’s starting pitchers in Oakland’s six ALDS losses.

Or try to mix in a home run -- they’ve only had two in those six games, by the notorious bombers Ray Durham and Mark Ellis.

Or try to win one close-out game. In their seven playoff years since 1992, they are 1-12 in games in which they could have closed out the series.

The danger in drawing big conclusions here is that those games are spread over 14 years, under two ownerships and three managers. And two constants -- Billy Beane and clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich -- have changed their approaches and philosophies in that time to meet market conditions.

In other words, MSG in the food is down, fabric softener is up, home runs are emphasized and de-emphasized, speed is downgraded and upgraded, and yet there is the same result.

And why? Because in the all-in game, the other team has the better pitcher. If you want to say that’s because of the A’s decision to keep their payrolls down, you go right ahead, but here are the matchups in those games:

Gil Heredia v. Andy Pettitte.
Barry Zito v. Mike Mussina.
Cory Lidle v. Orlando Hernandez.
Mark Mulder v. Roger Clemens.
Tim Hudson v. Eric Milton.
Mulder v. Brad Radke.
Zito v. Pedro Martinez.
Hudson v. John Burkett.
Ted Lilly v. Derek Lowe.
Dan Haren v. Radke.
Jarrod Parker v. Justin Verlander.
Dan Straily v. Doug Fister.
Sonny Gray v. Verlander.

Of those, only the two Hudson games give the A’s a better pitcher, and in the 2003 game against Burkett he left after one inning with an injury to his left side that some folks still think was caused by a fight in a Boston bar days before.

And in those 13 games, the A’s have scored more than three runs only five times, and more than five only twice -- in the Haren-Radke game that completed the sweep over Minnesota in 2006, and the Straily-Fister game, which the A’s lost when their bullpen cratered.

There is a third game of note -- the Clemens-Mulder game in 2001, in which neither starter finished the fifth and the Yankee bullpen of Mike Stanton, Ramiro Mendoza and a middle-aged guy named Rivera outpitched Hudson and Jim Mecir.

For the most part, though, the A’s went into those games as the lesser team, with the lesser pitcher, and in the 12 losses, they averaged 2.5 runs per game, and almost never hit a home run even when they were built for that very thing.

This would be cause to blow up the roster, except that this monument to flirting without payoff was done by seven different rosters built three different ways.

So what conclusion do we draw here? Is there a conclusion to draw? Can "homegrown and thrifty" work except when you need a Game 5 starter? Is that where the one team sends out the Hall of Famer (and Brad Radke) and your guy is just starting his career?

Maybe that is the theme, then. Not that Bartolo Colon should have started instead of Gray, which was a red herring from the start, but that Verlander made the point moot. That Hall of Famers start the biggest games, and hitting Hall of Famers is more difficult than hitting Derek Lowe or Eric Milton.

Maybe the lesson, ultimately, is that when you do as Oakland has -- building pitching staffs on the come while they’re still cheap and unscarred -- you get to that moment where your guy simply isn’t as good on his best day as their guy on his. The A’s should have lost to Verlander both times because Verlander is better.

And so it goes. The A’s are not yet the Atlanta Braves, the perpetual bridesmaid, or the Brooklyn Dodgers, who lost the big one all but once. They are, however, stuck in that fifth-through-eighth part of the meet, where you get a green ribbon, a small participant’s trophy and orange slices when you dream of a medal, a big honking trophy that the mantel can't hold, and dinner at Morton's. And whether it is by a deliberate design flaw or just the nature of things, it seems unlikely to change.

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