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Wild Card Preview: Everything You Need to Know for Athletics Series

by Tim Moran

In the infamous words of Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora in 2001: “Playoffs??!!”

Yes, despite the tumultuous last week of baseball, the Chicago White Sox are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. If you want to reflect on this past week, our Jordan Lazowski has a reassuring piece here. But now is also the time to press the reset button and look ahead, both if you’re a Sox player or a fan. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and we know this team has the talent to make a run.

First up is the 36-24 Oakland Athletics, who cruised to a first-place finish in the AL West. They finished seven games ahead of the Houston Astros and did much of it without star third baseman Matt Chapman, who sustained a season-ending injury on September 6. Oakland finished with a +42 run differential, a notch down from the South Siders’ AL-best +60 mark. All in all, the A’s are a pretty even matchup for the White Sox.

Game 1 is scheduled for today, Tuesday, September 29 at 2:00 pm CT. Lucas Giolito will take the mound against 22-year-old southpaw Jesus Luzardo. For Game 2 at the same time on Wednesday, Dallas Keuchel will square off against RHP Chris Bassitt.

Like I said before, anything can happen, but let’s break down what to expect.


Lineups

Here’s how the Athletics stack up, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

The top of the order almost always features La Stella, Grossman, and Semien, followed by Canha and Olson. Grossman, Canha, Laureano, and Piscotty rotate plenty in the outfield, while Lamb has done a great job at third filling in for Chapman. As a whole, the Athletics lineup is solid. No one is having a monster season, but there is quality on both sides of the plate throughout the lineup.

Robbie Grossman is an especially underrated player, with power at the plate and speed in the field and on the base-paths. However, he finished the year slumping, so the White Sox might catch a break there. Matt Olson, although he was much more consistent in prior years, is an all-or-nothing power threat at the plate. Chicago would like to see more of his .195 batting average and less of the 14 homers this series.

As for the White Sox, the key will be production throughout the batting order. This past week, Tim Anderson got cold and Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert finally started to pick it up after about a month of the inverse. You can count on Grandal for a few walks, Madrigal for some hits, and Abreu for everything; but the production out of Anderson, Moncada, and Robert will make or break the South Siders’ run-scoring ability.

Further, the absence of Eloy Jimenez could seriously impair the South Siders’ offense. Eloy’s status is still up in the air as of this writing, but even having him as a DH would be huge. If Jimenez can’t play, look for Leury Garcia or Adam Engel in left, and a decision between McCann and Encarnacion at the DH spot.


Starters

Although Dallas Keuchel has better numbers, Lucas Giolito is this team’s ace. As he showcased in his no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Giolito can dominate opposing hitters with his plus fastball and devastating changeup. In his last seven starts, Giolito has gone at least 5.0 IP with 3 or fewer runs. Bottom line: Giolito will at minimum keep you in the game, and just might shut down the other team.

Now, what of Lucas’s counterpart? Here’s how Jesus Luzardo performed in 2020: 12 G, 9 GS, 59.0 IP, 4.12 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 3.88 xFIP, 1.27 WHIP, 9.00 K/9, 2.59 BB/9

Coming into 2019, Luzardo was rated as the 18th overall prospect in baseball. For the most part he’s lived up to expectations, but has yet to truly settle in as a starter. Over his last six starts, Luzardo has alternated between good games and bad games. Bad news for Chicago: Luzardo is due for a good game after surrendering 3 runs in 3 innings to the Dodgers last Thursday.

Good news for Chicago: Streaks are meant to be broken, and oh yeah, Luzardo is a lefty. In case you haven’t heard (doubtful), the White Sox are undefeated against left-handed starters in 2020, with a perfect 14-0 record. Luzardo is a better pitcher than most lefties Chicago has faced, so I don’t see a shellacking incoming, but the White Sox should have the edge here.

The key for the Sox’s left-handed hitters is to lay off the curveball, as Luzardo loves to throw the spinner low-and-away, to the tune of a 57.1% whiff rate vs. lefties. Against right-handers, Luzardo tends to forget the curveball and throws his changeup nearly as much as his fastball, pounding the zone down at the knees and registering a 42.2% whiff rate. There’s nothing too abnormal here, so I don’t expect Luzardo to be fooling many batters.

A’s manager Bob Melvin has selected former White Sox arm Chris Bassitt to start Game 2 on Wednesday, and it’s no surprise with his numbers: 11 GS, 63.0 IP, 2.29 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 4.49 xFIP, 1.16 WHIP, 7.86 K/9, 2.43 BB/9

Notice anything there, though? That’s right, Bassitt is certainly due for regression based off his peripherals. According to Statcast, Bassitt’s expected ERA is actually 3.78. That’s still good, but Bassitt is no elite pitcher. Notably, though, Bassitt has a unique approach on the mound. 77.7% of his pitches are sinkers, cutters, or four-seamers. The cutter operates about 4-5 mph slower than the sinker and four-seamer, so it can be considered Bassitt’s main off-speed option.

The White Sox’s kryptonite seems to be righties with dirty off-speed pitches that drop out of the zone. Bassitt doesn’t exactly fit that profile. On the contrary, Bassitt just won AL Pitcher of the Month with a September ERA of 0.34. So while his overall profile doesn’t seem like a Sox-killer, he’s coming into the game extremely hot. This should be a difficult matchup, but one where the Sox can hope to put up a couple runs against Bassitt.

Stocked with playoff experience, the soft-tossing Keuchel will toe the rubber for Chicago in Game 2. Dallas, a ground ball artist, earned a sparkling 1.99 ERA in the regular season, to go along with a 3.08 FIP. He’s been about as consistent as a pitcher could possibly be, so the A’s will also have their hands full in Game 2.


Bullpens

Here’s a short outlook of the Athletics pen:

Liam Hendriks is the star here, and rightfully so. The all-star closer boasts one of the best Statcast profiles in the game and an absurd 12.18 K/BB ratio. Dylan Cease‘s, for example, is 1.29. The rest of the bullpen is not far behind. Oakland just activated Wendelken (another former White Sox!), and has significant depth anyway.

Chicago’s numbers aren’t so pretty, but we all know that’s heavily influenced by injuries and questionable managerial decisions. With a fully healthy slate of Fry-Heuer-Marshall-Foster-Bummer-Crochet-Colome, Rick Renteria‘s bullpen can go toe-to-toe with Bob Melvin’s any day.

Needless to say, very few runs will be yielded by these two units. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a game decided in extra innings.


Game 3

Feeling well-prepared for Games 1 and 2? Forget all of that for the possible Game 3. Both teams have yet to announce a probable starter, and most likely won’t until after Game 2 if the series is tied. Neither side’s starting options are enticing.

For the White Sox, they could opt to throw one of their struggling youngsters, Dane Dunning, Dylan Cease, or Reynaldo Lopez. Depending on fresh arms, they also may try their luck at a bullpen day. Both options are scary.

The Athletics’ situation is not much better. From their rotation, their choices are lefties Sean Manaea and Mike Minor, or righty Mike Fiers. All sport ERAs in the mid-4s or above, and none have the peripherals to suggest improvement is on the way.

Basically, Game 3 would figure to be a high-scoring affair with early bullpen usage. Here’s hoping the boys in gray and black can end the series in a quick two games.


Prediction

If I sound confident in the White Sox’s chances, it’s because I am. The offense truly hasn’t been that bad this past week, as they put up respectable numbers against the Indians pitching juggernaut and scored repeatedly in the last two games versus the Cubs. Meanwhile, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel are proven studs, and the bullpen is back to full strength.

Still, the South Siders come into today having won one game out of their prior eight, and the Athletics have some postseason experience. Taking Oakland lightly, especially when facing them in the dreaded Coliseum, would be a recipe for disaster.

All that said, I’m predicting a 2-0 series sweep for the White Sox by the narrowest of margins, with wins in of 4-3 in Game 1 and 5-4 in Game 2. Bold prediction: Luis Robert homers early in Game 1 to boost his team’s confidence and propel them to a victory.

Sox fans have struggled through 12 years just to get to this day. It’s time for this talented Sox squad to make our wait worth it.


Featured Photo: Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) / Twitter

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