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Rays-Athletics AL wild-card game: What we learned

Thomas Bassinger: Tampa Bay is moving on because it hit home runs and Oakland didn’t. Next stop: Houston.
Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Avisail Garcia (24) tosses his bat after connecting for a two-run homer in the second inning against the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 in Oakland. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Rays right fielder Avisail Garcia (24) tosses his bat after connecting for a two-run homer in the second inning against the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card game Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 in Oakland. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Observations from the Rays’ 5-1 wild-card playoff win over the Athletics on Wednesday:

1. When the Rays traded franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria in December 2017, it triggered accusations that they were tanking. Fast forward 22 months. They’ve won a playoff game and will head to Houston for a best-of-five series against the Astros. Game 1 is Friday. Tampa Bay won four out of seven against Houston during the regular season. Ah, October baseball.

2. The Rays loaded up with right-handed hitters against Athletics left-hander Sean Manaea. Nothing unusual about Tampa Bay playing matchups. What was interesting, though, was that manager Kevin Cash inserted Yandy Diaz, who had a grand total of three at-bats over the past two-plus months, at the top of the lineup. The decision was a smashing success. In his first at-bat, Diaz took an up-and-away fastball to right field for an oppo boppo. The home run, which had an exit velocity of 106 mph and traveled 386 feet, was the first leadoff home run ever in a Rays postseason game.

3. Diaz wasn’t done. He hit another home run in his second at-bat, and it mirrored his first almost perfectly. Fastball up and away. Opposite field. Exit velocity of 105 mph. 397 feet. It shared virtually the same trajectory, too. During the regular season, Diaz hit four of his 14 home runs to the opposite field.

4. It seemed as if the Rays’ game plan was to sit on Sean Manaea’s inside pitches and attack the outside ones. Like Diaz’s dingers, Avisail Garcia’s two-run home run in the second inning was off an outside fastball up in the strike zone. He smoked it, too. Exit velocity: 115 mph. Distance: 437 feet. It was one of the five hardest-hit postseason home runs on record.

5. Manaea faced only 10 Rays hitters. He allowed a career-high three home runs and four runs total. He had given up only four runs in his past five starts.

6. Of course this game came down to home runs (the Rays hit four and the Athletics hit none). It’s 2019! There were a record 6,776 home runs hit this season. Seven of the top eight leaders in home runs hit reached the playoffs, and seven of the top eight leaders in fewest home runs allowed reached the playoffs.

7. Charlie Morton’s curveball has become a weapon in recent seasons. This season, he threw it 37 percent of the time, a career-high rate. During the first inning, he struggled locating it, throwing it for a strike four out of 14 times. He recovered afterward, throwing it for a strike about two-thirds of the time.

8. With two outs in the bottom of the third inning, the Rays deployed a four-man outfield vs. left-hander Matt Olson. Why? Olson clubbed 36 home runs this season, and his 49.7 percent pull rate ranked fourth in baseball. Morton ended up walking him.

9. One decision that didn’t work for Cash: In the bottom of the third inning, he shifted infielder Mike Brosseau, who made only 13 plays at third base this season, from second to third. The ball found him right away. After fielding a Marcus Semien ground ball, Brosseau’s throw to first was low and Diaz wasn’t able to scoop it. Semien ended up at third on the throwing error and later scored the Athletics’ only run on a sacrifice fly.

10. It seems as if road teams aren’t at a significant disadvantage in these wild-card games. Since they became part of baseball’s postseason format in 2012, the visiting team has won nine of the 16 games. The visiting team has outscored the home team 69-56.

11. Tampa Bay has won two straight winner-take-all postseason games (it beat Cleveland in the AL wild-card game in 2013). Oakland, which was 1-for-16 with runners on base, has lost nine straight.

12. The Rays are happy, but it’s a shame one of these teams had to exit. It would have been interesting to see both challenge the big-budget Astros and the bigger-budget Yankees.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

Rays-Astros AL Division Series schedule

Game 1: Friday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 2 p.m. (FS1)

Game 2: Saturday: Tampa Bay at Houston, 9 p.m. (FS1)

Game 3: Monday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (MLBN/FS1)

*Game 4: Tuesday: Houston at Tampa Bay, TBD (FS1)

*Game 5: Oct. 10: Tampa Bay at Houston, TBD (FS1)

*if necessary

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