Athletics

Manaea looks dialed in, ready to fill A's No. 2 starter role

Manaea looks dialed in, ready to fill A's No. 2 starter role

SAN FRANCISCO — Sean Manaea says he’s ready for the rush of a regular-season game.

He’s ready to stare in at home plate and see the American League’s best hitters staring back at him.

However, the mission goes beyond those one-on-one battles for the A’s big lefty.

Entering his first full major league season, Manaea must lean on his minimal experience and pitch like a grizzled veteran. For as long as Sonny Gray is sidelined by a strained lat muscle, Manaea slots in as Oakland’s No. 2 starter behind Kendall Graveman.

He certainly pitched Thursday night like he’s up to the challenge. Not a single Giant reached base in Manaea’s four innings at AT&T Park to open the Bay Bridge Series. That 12-up, 12-down performance was the A’s highlight in a 3-0 loss before a crowd of 39,380.

The A’s have a wealth of quality young starting pitching, but it isn’t exactly battle-hardened. That depth will be tested with Gray sidelined, however long that may be. Consider, the A’s Nos. 3-5 starters — Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs and Raul Alcantara — have started just 16 major league games.

Combined.

It’s up to Manaea to fill in behind Graveman. Thing is, the 25-year-old Manaea has just 24 big league starts himself. But manager Bob Melvin sees a maturity in Manaea. He went 7-9 with a 3.86 ERA last season, taking his lumps early on but eventually learning to maintain his composure and focus during games, particularly on the road.

After posting a 5.24 ERA and .278 opponents’ batting average before the All-Star break, Manaea improved to a 2.67 ERA and .220 opponents’ average after the break.

Coming into spring training, Manaea had a clear idea of what needed improvement.

“Just being more consistent with my off-speed pitches, especially my slider,” he said. “Last year, it was just very inconsistent. I didn’t know what I was doing with it, This year, especially toward the end of spring training, I feel like I got the grip down, got it in my hand just where I wanted to throw it.”

Added Melvin: “For a youngster who hasn’t been in the big leagues that long, to have an understanding of what he needs to work on (is important), and that’s going to be a third pitch.”

Manaea’s teammates see the difference in him, and they draw confidence from it.

“We knew who we were getting when we traded for him,” A’s reliever Ryan Dull said. “But just to see him develop his changeup, it’s even better than it was. His slider has gotten a lot better. You just can tell he’s more comfortable each outing.”

After Manaea toiled away in the spring training heat of Arizona, the crisp air at AT&T Park brought to mind what the elements will be like for early-season night games at the Coliseum. He takes the ball Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Angels in Oakland’s second game of 2017.

Manaea says he’s eager for the start of the regular season.

“Just the atmosphere. Every park has its different aura,” he said. “I’m just really excited to get out there and compete and find those challenges, especially with guys like Mike Trout. Those are fun challenges to go through.”

**

Melvin is “optimistic” about left fielder Khris Davis and third baseman Trevor Plouffe returning to the lineup Friday. Davis has missed a week’s worth of exhibitions with right quad soreness, while Plouffe hasn’t played since Saturday with a groin strain.

“They’re doing fine, doing better again today,” Melvin said. “We kept them out again today, but I’m optimistic they’ll both be in there tomorrow, and if that’s the case, we feel good about them going into the season.”

The A’s play the Giants on Friday night and Saturday in preparation for Monday’s opener. Though Melvin expressed optimism about both players, he also said final roster decisions hinge partly on their status.

“A lot of it (depends on) how Trevor and Khris are, and if they’re healthy we have a pretty good idea of what (the roster) is going to look like.”

From 2.9 to 100 percent: Tracking A's playoff chances throughout the season

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AP

From 2.9 to 100 percent: Tracking A's playoff chances throughout the season

In the last 30 seasons of Major League Baseball, no team had made the playoffs with the lowest Opening Day payroll in the league.

Until now.

Against all odds, the Oakland A's are heading to the postseason. How on earth did this happen?

FanGraphs has tracked each team's playoff chances throughout the regular season. Oakland opened the season with just a 9.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number dipped to a season-low 2.9 percent on April 14, when the A's fell to 5-10. 

Oakland's chances remained below 20 percent through the month of June, dropping to just 3.1 percent on June 15 when they were 34-36 and 11 games out of the second Wild Card position.

But then something happened. Despite numerous injuries to their starting rotation, the A's caught fire. Oakland would win 21 of its next 27 games to reach the All-Star break at 55-42. Suddenly, the A's playoff chances were up to 30.9 percent.

Surely this was just a fluke. There was no way Oakland could maintain this level of play into the second half.

But they did. The A's won nine of their first 13 games out of the break, raising their playoff chances to 51.8 percent on August 2, the first time all season they had crossed the 50 percent barrier.

As August went on, the A's just kept winning. Following a 3-2 victory against the Dodgers on August 8, Oakland's playoff chances reached 70 percent for the first time. On August 21, they climbed above 80 percent. The A's finished August with a record of 81-55 and a 90.9 percent probability of reaching the postseason.

On September 24, that number hit 100 and it became official. For the first time since 2014, the Oakland A's are going to the playoffs.

A's have opportunity to build reputation as elite team in MLB playoffs

A's have opportunity to build reputation as elite team in MLB playoffs

The A's playoff chase did not end with the traditional cathartic bang, but it came close enough given the circumstances.
 
Oh, they got in all right. It’s just that their postgame celebration after beating Seattle, 7-3, was a bit muted (wet but controlled is probably the best way to put it) by the fact that the achievement had been achieved in pregame. Tampa Bay finally ended the last shredlet of doubt by expiring at home to the New York Yankees four hours earlier, and the value of the A's winning was mostly to stay on New York’s considerable heels.
 
That, ultimately, is the only discordant note the A’s have played in the last 100 days – they didn’t get to do the deed themselves.
 
In fact, they not only didn’t do the deed themselves, they watched the team they’ve been chasing do it for them and stay an arm’s length ahead of the Oaklands for the right to host the wild card game next Wednesday. They still trail New York by the equivalent of two games with five to play, so there is no benefit to kicking back and soaking anything in. The work is done when the work is done, and this work is not yet done.
 
But it’s damned fine work by any measure.
 
The Elephants have made themselves the fourth-best team in baseball in half a season by not shrinking before the task thrust upon them, by never letting up as they continued to consume starting pitchers at a rate that should be found in last-place teams, by being the equivalent in those 100 days of a 113-win team.
 
It therefore becomes impossible to make a compelling case that these are merely plucky overachievers getting hot at the right time. Overachievers don’t do this for 3½ months. They have earned the right to walk with the game’s kings.
 
Now, they have to prove they can run with them. That’s October’s task.
 
It’s perfectly acceptable to marvel at the Oakland turnaround, not just from their middling start this year but the three years of uninspiring sub-mediocrity before that. It’s fine to be amazed at the way they chewed through their own starting rotation, in some cases more than once, and still ended up a formidable team. It’s normal to note that they were a mediocre team at home until mid-June, then won three-quarters of their games at the grim Carpathian castle known as the Coliseum.
 
Why, it’s even acceptable to mock them for their modest home attendance, as though that has anything to do with what the roster did before all those empty seats.
 
But they earned all of it, and now all that accomplishment looks to get them the rawest deal of all the playoff paths – a game in the Bronx against the more solidly built Yankees, and then if that goes well, a series against the team with the best record this year and one of the 15 best in the game’s history by winning percentage in Boston.
 
And they’ll be the team people know the least about because, well, because people seek out only that knowledge they want to possess, especially when it comes to baseball. They don’t have a Cy Young or MVP candidate, or even a Rookie of the Year. They have the likely Manager of the Year in Bob Melvin, a potential Mariano Rivera Award winner in Blake Treinen, and two Gold Glove candidates in first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman. They may even have an Executive of the Year in Billy Beane.
 
But they also have that twitchy postseason history over the past 25 years, in which they have carried teams as strong and solid and in some ways deeper and more complete and still have been left behind by better teams with better players doing better things when the things mattered most. That history may not be this team’s, but this team is wearing the laundry of those other teams, and that’s just how history works.
 
So the A’s for all their good deeds still have a national reputation to build, and this is that opportunity. Whether it is done in Oakland or New York, Boston or Houston, they are on the verge of becoming a national team again, of being the 2013 Warriors en route to a glory nobody could imagine even now.
 
Or they could fail, in which case all they’ve done is serve notice that they are badasses in training. That would do as well given their modest origins in spring.
 
But if they’ve gone to the trouble of becoming this good, they might as well stay and enjoy the décor awhile. The A’s are either going to be the real deal, or they’re going to be close enough to see the landmarks and read the signs that led the way.