2019 MLB Playoffs AL Wild Card Game Free Pick: Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland A’s

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The Tampa Bay Rays have extra incentive for Wednesday night’s Wild Card Game against the Oakland Athletics. That is a long flight for a one-game playoff. They’d surely like to fly to Houston after the game instead of make the long, quiet, five-hour flight right back home.

Jokes aside, both teams have a lot of incentive in this game because the hard work of 162 games is all for naught with a loss in this win or go home contest. It will be Charlie Morton vs. Sean Manaea in a battle of two pitchers that have gone through a lot to get to this point on October 2, 2019 when the Wild Card team with the best record hosts the Wild Card team with the second-best record. The Rays needed at least 94 wins to secure this spot and got 96, one fewer than the A’s, who will host a playoff baseball game for the first time since 2013.

The A’s are no stranger to this Wild Card Game. The one-game playoff was instituted in 2012 and this will be Oakland’s third appearance. They’ve been on the short end in both, getting blown out at Yankee Stadium last season and blowing a 7-3 lead after 7.5 innings at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City in 2014. They eventually lost in 12 innings.

Back in 2013, the Rays went on the road and beat Texas in Game 163 to win a trip to Cleveland to face the Indians. They beat the Indians 4-0 behind Alex Cobb and then lost in four games to the Red Sox in the ALDS. This is Tampa Bay’s first playoff appearance since that season.

Oakland won 97 games for the second straight year and could only have one playoff game to show for it. It’s a cruel world in MLB these days. They are, however, the favorites (-135 to -150) to advance for a date with the Houston Astros, who won the AL West by 10 games and finished with the best record in baseball. The total for this game is 7.5.

Rosters will look a lot different for this game than they will for the NL Wild Card Game. In the Senior Circuit, managers need to worry about pinch hitting for the pitchers. In the AL, the benches will be smaller in size, featuring a backup catcher and maybe another utility player or two. The decision makers will load the rosters with bullpen pitchers and high-end starters in the event that matching up is required. Fourth and fifth starters won’t be carried. Only the best of the best from each pitching staff will be involved.

Once the Indians fell off the pace both teams knew that they were going to the postseason, so they were able to set things up accordingly. Morton starts for the Rays and all of the key relief pieces are well-rested. Manaea goes for the A’s, who are likely to be very aggressive with their reliever usage.

Shy of using one of the league’s elites, Charlie Morton is a pretty good option for Kevin Cash & Co. Morton had a career year with 6.1 fWAR and a 3.05 ERA, a 2.81 FIP, and a 3.28 xFIP. He struck out 240 batters and only walked 57. Even with the juiced ball, he allowed fewer home runs in 194.2 innings than he allowed last season in 167 innings.

Oakland has a little more balance than in past seasons with some switch hitters in the lineup, but the prominent bats are mostly right-handed. Righties only posted a .247 wOBA against Morton and only hit four of the 15 home runs that he allowed.

The amount of leash that Cash gives Morton could dictate this game. We know that the Rays push the envelope on the pitching side, including their usage of the opener. Morton allowed a .258 wOBA the first time through, but a .304 wOBA and a .407 SLG the second time through. The third time through, he allowed a .239 wOBA, but faced 102 fewer batters the third time through than he did the first and second times through the order.

The Tampa bullpen was among the league’s best in the second half, posting a 3.70 ERA. The 4.01 FIP was a little on the high end, as there were some home run issues. Keep in mind, though, that guys like Austin Pruitt, Ryan Yarbrough, and Jalen Beeks had the home run problems. Those guys served as bulk relievers after openers. This game will feature more matching up and less bulk relief.

What a story Sean Manaea is. During his ascension to the big leagues, Manaea battled a myriad of injuries. He made his pro ball debut in 2014 with 25 starts for the Royals in High-A. He was a late add to the injury list after the 2018 season with an operation that was thought to keep him out most of 2019. It did, as Manaea made 13 starts across three levels, but his five starts at the MLB level were terrific. He allowed four runs on 16 hits in 29.2 innings with 30 strikeouts against seven walks.

The Rays lineup is quite heavy on lefties. The regular lineup has six of them, although, the Rays certainly have enough righties to slide in as platoon options. The A’s bullpen is a lot more balanced with righties and lefties than it used to be thanks to the addition of Jake Diekman and the returns of AJ Puk and Jesus Luzardo. Now Oakland can match up quite well with any sort of lineup, even without guys like Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino.

Offensively, the A’s strike out less, walk more, and hit for more power. The Rays got on base almost as often because they carried one of the league’s highest batting averages on balls in play (BABIP), which is something that they did last season as well. The A’s were fourth in FB%, so they purposely tried to elevate the baseball and hit for power. The Rays were 27th in FB%, as they’ve put a high priority on ground ball contact. The two organizations have very different hitting philosophies, but both have had success this season.

Going into this game, it is hard to know how Manaea will fare. Based on my handicap and what I know about the A’s, I do like the way that Morton matches up. Along with his strikeouts, he’s induced ground balls at a 48.2% clip. That could make it very difficult for the A’s to score a lot of runs. We’ll see how they structure their lineup, but Morton’s dominance over right-handed batters could be a factor in how this game plays out as well.

The plus money price on the underdog Rays is very attractive here. I’d especially be looking at the 1st 5 on Tampa Bay. I’m not sure how the Rays bullpen holds up as the game goes along, but I do like Morton against this lineup over Manaea in a tricky spot for a guy with only five MLB starts this season. Manaea could draw a left-handed-heavy lineup and the Rays were mere percentage points better than the Tigers in K% against left-handed pitchers. Manaea also faced the Yankees, Tigers, Rangers twice, and Mariners in his five starts, so I don’t want to anoint him as a rotation savior yet.

With this game, I’d look at the Rays at plus money for the 1st 5 and look for live betting opportunities on the full game. If forced to play the full game, I would lean Rays at the current price.