Lucas Giolito Confounds the A’son September 29, 2020 at 11:02 pm

Lucas Giolito Confounds the A’s

OAKLAND — As he stood in right field to warm up before the first playoff game of his career, Lucas Giolito looked nervous. One of his first throws off of flat ground went right over the bullpen catcher’s head and into the stands. A few throws later, he spiked one five feet short. He shrugged, bemused. There was no crowd around to heckle him, but who could blame him for feeling a little tight?

If that was a sign of anxiety, the first inning didn’t help matters. He started the game off with a ball low and in to Tommy La Stella, then reached three-ball counts against Robbie Grossman and Marcus Semien. He retired all three — most plate appearances end in an out, after all — but 14 pitches, seven of them balls, didn’t bode well for the White Sox ace going deep in the game.

Fortunately for Giolito, though, past performance isn’t a good indicator of future results. He came out for the second inning, now with a one-run lead, and put his foot on the gas — three up, three down, highlighted by a lovely changeup that turned Matt Olson from a professional hitter into a man fruitlessly attempting to swat a fly. It took another 14 pitches — a deep trip into the game looking less and less likely — but the jitters seemed gone.

This is a game recap, not a teen sports movie, but if it were the latter, this is where the montage would cut in. Giolito powered through the middle innings with increasing confidence, pouring in strikes and daring an overmatched Oakland team to do something about it. The A’s responded appropriately, swinging early and often, but they might as well have kept the bats on their shoulders. Mark Canha and Jake Lamb made good contact in the fifth inning, but both drives were hit in the general direction of Luis Robert, which is another way of saying they were both caught. No one else even troubled the defense.

Only three strikeouts through five perfect innings? It hardly sounds like modern baseball, and Giolito seemed to agree; he struck out the side in the sixth inning, bullying the bottom of Oakland’s lineup with slider after slider. There was no stadium crowd to grow hushed, no increasingly frustrated collective groans as Athletic after Athletic walked back to the bench empty-handed, but the feeling was there all the same; a great pitching performance can seem like a spell cast on the opposing team, and the A’s looked entranced.

Of course, there’s a reason that perfect games are rare occurrences. The most likely outcome of any given plate appearance might be an out, but this isn’t soccer; positive outcomes for the offense happen a lot, more than a third of the time on average. No hitters and perfect games are battles against time and probability; the best pitcher on his best day isn’t likely to dance through nine innings of raindrops and come out dry.

For Giolito, the raindrops struck in the seventh. La Stella poked a grounder back up the middle, inches under Giolito’s glove, to end the perfect game bid. A burst of piped-in crowd noise, the first played during A’s at-bats, punctuated the moment. Giolito fought back — he sawed Grossman off with an inside fastball, poured another one past Marcus Semien, and retired Matt Olson on a first-pitch pop up. He labored mightily, to the tune of 21 pitches in the inning, and walked off the mound with a big grin on his face. He might not have been perfect, but he was darn close.

In a regular season game, or a playoff series that went longer than three games, that might have been it. 94 pitches is a reasonable stopping point, particularly with a 4-0 lead and a high-octane bullpen. Rick Renteria opted to send Giolito back out for the eighth, but he looked gassed. He threw five straight balls before finally throwing a 1-0 fastball down the pipe, and Lamb lined it into right for a single. First and third, nobody out — finally, his day was done.

If the game had been tighter, leaving Giolito in might qualify as a managerial gaffe. Unfortunately for the A’s, Chicago’s lineup backed up Tim Anderson‘s light-hearted boast and got the better of Jesus Luzardo. It wasn’t the same Chicago lineup that terrorized the AL Central this summer. Eloy Jimenez is sidelined with a foot injury, and Edwin Encarnacion might just be washed, which left two catchers in the lineup (Yasmani Grandal DH’ed) and three hitters with a combined 47 home runs in 2862 plate appearances — roughly half the major league rate — at the bottom of the lineup.

Today, though, the pieces that remain were enough. Adam Engel, one of the aforementioned low-power brigade, laced a line drive home run into the left-center power alley to open the scoring, and Jose Abreu clobbered a ball to roughly the same spot an inning later to stake the Sox to a 3-0 lead. Luzardo lasted only 59 pitches, and while the Oakland bullpen held Chicago to just a single run over the last 5.2 innings, the damage was done.

A parade of White Sox relievers — Evan Marshall, Aaron Bummer, and Alex Colome — finished things out without undue drama. Giolito’s final line — seven innings pitched, one run, two hits, and eight strikeouts — understates how futile Oakland looked in the middle innings, guessing wrong on pitch after pitch, accompanied by a soundtrack of increasingly giddy White Sox personnel and frustrated bat slams.

Giolito is a changeup pitcher at this point — he threw the pitch a full third of the time this season and used it nearly 40% of the time against lefties. He went against type and threw only 20% changeups this afternoon, relying instead on his fastball (54%) and slider (26%). He even broke out the slider against lefties nine times, getting three called strikes (and no contact) for his trouble; the A’s simply didn’t prepare for that pitch, which makes sense given how rarely he generally uses it.

Should Chicago advance to the Division Series, their next opponent will be able to consider Giolito’s modified approach in their scouting. The A’s bullpen also gave teams a blueprint for how to attack the shortened lineup; with James McCann catching for Giolito, the Sox can’t play Jimenez at DH, which leaves them light on firepower, and Oakland’s relievers stayed away from the power bats as much as possible while feasting on everyone else. That’s cold comfort for Oakland, however, and the White Sox will hardly care. In their first postseason since 2008, they’re a game away from advancing, and they have their best pitcher to thank for it.

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