Piscotty in a groove heading into postseason; Davis finishes at .247 again

Piscotty in a groove heading into postseason; Davis finishes at .247 again

ANAHEIM – With the A’s heading into the postseason, Stephen Piscotty is in a nice groove, which might be what you’d expect from one of Oakland’s most “big-game” type players.

In his only at-bat of the day, Piscotty crushed a two-run homer off Matt Shoemaker in the second inning of the A’s regular-season finale Sunday at Angel Stadium. The Angels came back to win 5-4 by scoring three runs off Chris Hatcher in the ninth, with Taylor Ward providing a walkoff two-run shot to end it, and now the A’s fly to New York for the wild-card game.

“We know we have a challenge ahead of us but that’s when we play our best,” major-league home-run leader Khris Davis said as he packed his back for the team flight.

Piscotty, who hit a career-high 27 homers, could be a major key for Oakland in the wild-card game and beyond if the A’s advance: He’s got a great postseason track record, too, with three two-run homers in the Cardinals’ four-game division series against the Cubs in 2015. Piscotty, then a rookie, had a hit in each game and batted .375 in the series.

“The bigger the game this year, the more he’s stepped up for us,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s hit so many big home runs for us in big games, it’s nice to have somebody like that, he seems to respond in the clutch moments at the bigger times.”

Two A’s with the potential for big milestone numbers came up short Sunday, but Jed Lowrie twice came close to getting his 100th RBI, hitting balls to the warning track in the first and the third and Davis will have to settle for 48 homers.

“I was trying,” Davis said of his push to reach 50. “But it never works out that way. But I like where I’m at and I like where this team is at.”

Davis did manage a feat that might be even more remarkable: In each of the past four seasons, he has finished with a .247 average.

“I’m kind of speechless,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s just weird. … I’m just kind of shocked. It was meant to be, that’s all I got.”

“That is just tough to comprehend,” Melvin said. “That’s almost impossible to do. The power numbers have gone up and he’s a better hitter, but I can’t explain that. The baseball gods obviously want him to hit .247.”

Oakland finished with a record of 97-65, which, even with Sunday’s loss is a bonkers number after the team’s three consecutive last-place finishes and with the A’s DL packed with starting pitchers.

“Shoot, we’re thrilled with we are to this point,” Melvin said. “And now the fun starts.”

With the A’s taking off for New York and Wednesday’s wild-card matchup against the Yankees after the game, the wild-card roster began to take shape.

Starter/reliever Daniel Mengden – who worked 4 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed one hit against the Yankees this month – said he is among the group of pitchers heading to Arizona to be ready for future rounds, if needed, and outfielder Dustin Fowler also is going to the team’s minor-league complex to catch the extra pitchers and stay sharp in the event of an injury.

Rookie reliever J.B. Wendelken, the September sensation, said he’s been told he’s on the wild-card roster; with his 0.54 ERA since being called up Aug. 30, including 10 consecutive scoreless outings over 13 2/3 innings. Wendelken could wind up with some higher leverage situations in the postseason, ala Francisco Rodriguez after the Angels called him up in Sept. 2002 en route to the title.

“You look up and look at the numbers and it’s been a quick ascent,” Melvin said.

The A’s still have not announced a starter for Wednesday, but the clear favorite is reliever Liam Hendriks to open the game, followed by a long string of relievers, and Oakland’s best bullpen arms could get multiple innings, especially closer Blake Treinen.

Melvin wasn’t ready to name a starter yet Sunday – the Yankees have not done so either – and said the announcement will come Tuesday.

Susan Slusser is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @susanslusser

A's embracing challenge of playing AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium

A's embracing challenge of playing AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium

The A’s have been one of the best road teams in baseball all season long, but the Yankees have been one of the best at home. 

ANAHEIM – The A’s were certainly hoping to host the New York Yankees Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game, but now that they know they’re heading to Yankee Stadium, they are up to the task.

“The place is going to be electric,” reliever Lou Trivino said. “I think it’s going to be a fun game. We’re very confident in the guys we have on offense, pitching, and defense. I think we have a really good shot and I’m really excited.”

Added fellow reliever Cory Gearrin: “It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be fun though. … Two great teams. It’s going to be exciting.”

The A’s have been one of the best road teams in baseball all season long. Their 47-33 record is tied for third-best in the majors and they lead the league with 134 home runs away from home.

“We’ve played well on the road this year,” said manager Bob Melvin. “We’re a power-hitting team and that’s a home-run ballpark. Obviously you’d like to play at home, but we’re not afraid to play in different venues, especially ballparks that are good hitters parks.”

“It’s fun to be a part of,” added Khris Davis, who leads MLB with 48 homers this season. “I’m just going to embrace whatever comes my way and accept the challenges that are out in front of us.”

As for the Yankees, they have been terrific at home this season, going 53-28, second behind only the rival Boston Red Sox. The Bronx Bombers have lived up to their name, leading the league with 144 home runs at home and setting an MLB record with 266 total homers.

“I’m glad they got that out of the way,” Melvin laughed. “They have a really deep lineup. You look at [their] eight and nine [hitters], they have potential 20-home-run guys down there. (Yankees general manager) Brian Cashman has done a great job building that team to that ballpark.”

But the A’s are a confident bunch. Perhaps Davis summed it up best when asked for his thoughts on the matchup: “My thoughts are win no matter what. That’s about it.”

A's starter Mike Fiers hints at coming out of bullpen for AL Wild Card

A's starter Mike Fiers hints at coming out of bullpen for AL Wild Card

ANAHEIM – Mike Fiers made his first relief appearance of the season in Friday’s 8-5 loss to the Angels. It sounds like he might do it again Wednesday in the American League Wild Card Game against the New York Yankees.

“There’s been talk of it and it might happen, so I’ve got to get used to it,” Fiers said after the game. “I think this is one of the games where it was kind of a feeler and kind of, ‘Hey this is what we’re going to do.’ So I’ve got to be ready for it on Wednesday.”

If the A’s do repeat Friday’s strategy, they’ll have to hope it goes a lot better than it did in Anaheim. Fiers replaced Lou Trivino in the second inning and allowed six earned runs on seven hits, including two home runs, in just 3 1/3 innings.

“I’ve got to pitch better,” he said. “I came in and threw strikes, they swung at some good ones and hit two over the fence with guys on base. I’ve just got to make better pitches in those situations.”

Added A’s manager Bob Melvin: “Normally when he elevates, he gets it a little bit higher than maybe he did tonight. When he was down, it was more mid-thigh, so just not his best night. They had some pretty good swings off him.”

It was only Fiers’ second poor outing in 10 appearances since joining the A’s from Detroit. In his nine starts with Oakland, he has gone 5-1 with a 2.90 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. Overall this season, Fiers is 12-8 with a 3.56 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 30 starts, and now one relief appearance.

“[I’ve got to] do whatever this team asks from me,” he said. “It may be a little different than the first 30 games, but I’ve got to get used to it. If that’s the way we’re going to do it, then we’ve got to do it that way and I’ve just got to be better.”

As for Trivino, Friday marked the first start of his MLB career. The rookie right-hander retired the Angels in order in the first on 11 pitches and says he would feel comfortable starting against the Yankees on Wednesday, if asked.

“Yeah, I mean if they want me to a be a bat boy, I’ll do whatever it takes for this team to win,” he said jokingly. “Whatever role that is, I’m down.”

Neither the A’s nor Yankees have announced their pitching plans for Wednesday. Melvin said before Friday’s game that he didn’t expect to make a decision until after Sunday’s regular season finale in Anaheim.

Fiers would seem to be a strong candidate to start the game, but he has struggled in two career starts at Yankee Stadium, allowing nine earned runs in 10 2/3 innings for an ERA of 7.59.

Regardless of who starts the game, expect both teams to call the bullpen early and often.

Oakland A's clinch playoffs despite MLB's lowest opening day payroll

Oakland A's clinch playoffs despite MLB's lowest opening day payroll

The Oakland Athletics, baseball’s “Moneyball” pioneers, on Monday became the first MLB team on record to clinch a playoff berth despite having the lowest payroll in the league on opening day.

The A’s opened the 2018 season with a total payroll of just $66 million, according to Baseball Prospectus. By comparison, the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants, the teams with the sport’s highest payrolls, each exceeded $200 million on the balance sheet. The majority of baseball’s 30 teams had a payroll of $100 million or more.

“We’ve had some younger players mature and become, for me, stars,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said Monday.

The A’s are guaranteed at least an appearance in the American League wild card round after the Tampa Bay Rays lost to the New York Yankees on Monday night. Oakland currently sits in second place in the AL West with a 95-62 record.

Oakland has won more games this season than any team with the lowest opening day payroll in MLB in the last 30 years, surpassing the 1990 Chicago White Sox, ESPN reported.

A’s General Manager Billy Beane was an early adopter of the use of analytics to aid in roster construction. Beane’s tactics, dubbed “Moneyball,” later became a feature film starring Brad Pitt.

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'Good night, Mr. Young': A's closer Blake Treinen on Cy-worthy run

'Good night, Mr. Young': A's closer Blake Treinen on Cy-worthy run

Since departing D.C. and heading west, righty Blake Treinen has turned his career around — and helped Oakland become baseball’s biggest surprise. 

During a recent homestand, Blake Treinen was on his way out of the Oakland Coliseum when he passed by a security guard who addressed him as “Ty.” Although the Oakland Athletics‘ closer was confused, he didn’t think much of it at the time. A couple of days later, Treinen walked by the same guard.

“Good night, Mr. Young,” said the sentry.

For a moment, Treinen was offended by the notion that the guard, someone with whom he had almost daily interaction, didn’t know his name. Then it occurred to him that previously, the guy hadn’t called him Ty, but rather Cy.

As in Cy Young.

With all due respect to Oakland’s game-day staff, Treinen will most likely not win the American League Cy Young award. Not in a year when Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, he of the sub-two ERA and sub-one WHIP, has reached 20 wins in a breakout campaign. Not in a field that includes Houston’s Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, both of whom are flirting with the hallowed 300-strikeout mark. Not in a world where Zach Britton had arguably the best relief season ever in 2016 and couldn’t crack the top three in the Cy Young balloting. But the fact that Treinen is even being mentioned in the conver-Cy-tion is a testament to just how dominant he has been — and just how far he has come.

As recently as last year, Treinen was damaged goods. An experiment gone horribly wrong. Following a 2016 campaign in which he excelled in a setup capacity, Treinen — who was drafted by Oakland in the 23rd round back in 2010, then traded to Washington in January 2013 — was one of three hurlers engaged in a heated spring training competition to become the Nationals’ closer. It was a role that had long been a sore spot in D.C.

During a 10-year stretch from 2007 through 2016, eight different pitchers led the Nats in saves. One of them was Drew Storen, whose late-inning meltdowns played a key role in Washington losing each of the first two playoff series in franchise history (2012 and 2014). Storen was replaced by Jonathan Papelbon, whose tenure featured him famously choking Bryce Harper in the dugout. Papelbon was replaced by Mark Melancon, whose contract expired at the end of the 2016 season.

Despite the obvious need for an established closer, the Nationals — who won the National League East in ’16 and were expected to do so again in ’17 — whiffed in free agency as Melancon (Giants), Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) and Aroldis Chapman (Yankees) all inked megadeals elsewhere. It was against that backdrop that Treinen stepped into the closer’s role in Washington, beating out veteran Shawn Kelley and rookie Koda Glover for the gig.

It didn’t go well.

Treinen, who entered the 2017 season with one big-league save to his credit, notched his second career save on Opening Day by pitching a clean ninth inning. Two days later, he picked up another save, but allowed a run on two hits in the process. The day after that he blew a save, and followed that up the next day with a shaky save in which he served up a two-run homer. Less than two weeks later, he was out as the Nationals’ closer.

It didn’t matter that he’d been lights-out in spring training. It didn’t matter that he featured a heavy sinker that reminded folks of Britton and helped him lead all NL relievers in ground-ball rate the year before. It didn’t matter that Treinen’s sinker was routinely clocked in the high-90s and even hit triple digits once, a feat so rare it resulted in him being the subject of a clue on the game show “Jeopardy!” None of it mattered. All that mattered was that he wasn’t the right guy for the closer job. Not yet, anyway.

“They needed somebody that had done it before,” says Treinen, standing in front of his locker before a recent series against the Orioles at Camden Yards. “It’s such a high-profile team. The moment you get in there, it’s got to be success now because that city wanted a World Series from Day 1 of the season. It’s a lot of pressure.”

“Dude’s nails. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Matt Chapman

The pressure was so great that, even after being removed from the closer’s role, Treinen continued to crack. Pitching almost exclusively in low-leverage situations, he posted an ERA north of five, and opponents hit better than .300 against him. Things got so bad that in mid-July of last season, the Nationals severed ties with the hard-throwing righty, sending him back to Oakland in a trade that brought relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to Washington.

The fresh start worked wonders.

Within two weeks of joining the A’s, Treinen took over for struggling closer Santiago Casilla. Over the final two months of 2017, he worked to a 2.13 ERA and collected 13 saves, a performance that earned him the full-time closer gig heading into 2018. This season, he has been even better: Through Sept. 23, Treinen led all MLB relievers with a microscopic 0.81 ERA and ranked among the top five in WHIP (0.83, fourth), saves (37, T-fourth), and WAR (3.4, second). As much buzz as Seattle’s Edwin Diaz has generated in his quest to break the single-season saves record, Treinen has been every bit as good, and then some. And all it took was a little change of scenery.

“It’s just a lot more relaxed for me,” says Treinen. “It’s the perfect fit for me at this point in my career.”

Kelley, the former Nationals reliever who was traded to Oakland in August, has noticed a huge difference. “I see a bulldog who’s on the attack,” he says of his two-time teammate. “He knows now how good he is. I don’t know if he really knew in Washington how good he was. He’s the same guy. He’s got the same stuff. But now he has the confidence to back it up.”

Thanks to that confidence, he has a new weapon.

When Treinen was with Washington, he would often mess around with a cutter while playing catch with Nats starter Tanner Roark. Although Roark encouraged his teammate to bust out the pitch in game situations, the suggestion fell on deaf ears.

“I just didn’t want to get beat with it,” Treinen says. “That was the mentality that was given to me along the way — don’t get beat with your third or fourth pitch out of the bullpen.”

Instead, he relied almost exclusively on his high-90s sinker and high-80s slider, while mixing in an occasional four-seam fastball. This season, liberated by his new surroundings and newfound swagger, Treinen has finally given himself permission to unleash the cutter. A mid-90s offering that starts off resembling a fastball but then darts to the right-hander’s glove side, he throws it only about 10 percent of the time. But that’s more than enough to keep opposing hitters off balance.

“He’s not predictable anymore,” says A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson, who has been with the organization since 2003 and knew Treinen from his first go-round in Oakland. “That’s made him the complete pitcher.”

Setup man Lou Trivino, who has relied on the cutter ever since he was drafted in 2013, served as a consultant for Treinen earlier this season and marvels at how quickly his fellow reliever has been able to master the pitch. “I’ve been working on the cutter for five years,” Trivino says. “He started working on it for two months, and it’s unbelievable.”

How good has Treinen’s cutter been? Opponents are hitting just .083 against it, the lowest mark in the majors among hurlers who have thrown at least 100 cutters. It has made all his other pitches more effective too: Overall this year, he’s limiting the opposition to a .155 average, fourth best among AL relievers and more than 100 points lower than his career clip entering this season. Detractors will point to Oakland’s spacious park as an external factor that has no doubt helped Treinen’s numbers, but the truth is he has been just as dominant on the road (.406 OPS allowed) as he has been at home (.421 OPS). In other words, everything about Treinen’s remarkable transformation is real.

“I’ve seen what great closers are,” says A’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy, a nine-year veteran who was the backstop of record when Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman recorded his 600th save. “Blake has all the ingredients to be that guy. He’s got all the tools to be a special player for a long, long time.”

As for this season, one of the things that has made Treinen special is how versatile he has been. He has had eight saves of more than one inning, most in the American League, and second in the majors behind Cincinnati’s Raisel Iglesias. He has entered prior to the ninth inning in nearly a quarter of his outings, and entered in tie games more than a dozen times. He even has nine wins to his credit, more than any reliever not named Ryan Yarbrough.

Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why Treinen’s average leverage index — a statistic that measures the importance of game situations in which pitchers work, where 1.00 is considered neutral — stands at 2.24, the highest in the majors. In other words, the guy who couldn’t handle the heat in Washington is thriving out west, despite being subjected to more pressure than any pitcher on the planet.

Treinen has been so dominant that, according to ESPN.com’s Cy Young Predictor, he’s presently ranked second, ahead of luminaries such as Verlander and Cole, and just behind Snell.

“To say that I haven’t thought about it, that’d be kind of a lie,” Treinen says about the prospect of becoming the first reliever since Eric Gagne in 2003 to win a Cy Young. “But I don’t put a lot of stock in it.”

What Treinen does put a lot of stock in is being the anchor of an Oakland bullpen that has been one of the best in baseball and a key ingredient in the team’s Cinderella success.

After finishing last in the AL West each of the past three years, the A’s were expected by many to do so again. Instead, they’ve already clinched a playoff spot and are on pace to win 98 games, their highest total since 2002. Owners of the best record in the big leagues since early June, they’re the wild card that nobody wants to face in October, a time of year when relievers reign supreme. As integral as MVP candidate Matt Chapman and slugger Khris Davis have been to Oakland’s roll, the guy at the back end of the bullpen has been pretty instrumental too.

“Dude’s nails,” Chapman says. “Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

Perhaps the truest sign of just how much Treinen means to the A’s is this: Even though Oakland acquired Mets closer Jeurys Familia in July, then went out in August and got 16-year vet Fernando Rodney, whose 325 saves are second most among active players, Treinen’s role remained unchanged. Not that he didn’t offer to defer. Shortly after the trades, Treinen approached Emerson and told the pitching coach he’d be more than happy to pitch in the seventh inning. Or the sixth or the eighth or wherever the A’s needed him. Emerson scoffed at the notion.

Said the coach to his hurler: “We all know you’re the closer.”

For the first time in his career, so does Treinen.