A’s loss nothing do with cheating, everything to do with pitching

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

All the talk of villainy didn’t matter. This American League Division Series between the Athletics and Astros had nothing to do with morality, with cheating.

It had everything to do with pitching. Which, in the end, the A’s lacked.

This was supposed to be the A’s year, this season of Covid-19 and altered schedules, the year Oakland broke through. Instead it was not unlike any other year of the past few decades.

The A’s didn’t break through, they broke down. Or, in truth, were battered down. The Astros pummeled the A’s 11-5 on Thursday, down at Dodger Stadium, and won the best-of-five series, 3-1. They move on to the next round, leaving the A’s shaken and the East Bay disappointed.

The Raiders fled to the wealth of Las Vegas. The Warriors moved to the pretension of San Francisco. Only the A’s — “Rooted in Oakland” is their slogan — remained the last team, the holdout.

Oakland, which led in each game of the series, was in front when Ramon Laureano — with two men on — hit the first of his two home runs..

But the holdout couldn’t hold on. For a brief moment, the A’s and their fans could feel good.

A very brief moment.

The Astros were called cheaters for the illegal manner in which they stole catchers’ signs. You also can call them hitters. Eleven runs Thursday, 10 in the first game of the ALDS, 33 in the four games.

No A’s starter went beyond the fifth inning in any one of the games. “We just couldn’t hold them down,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin.

The question is, will the Athletics ever move up?

They did win a round this season, the wild card, after falling there in 2018 and 2019, progress of a sort. Yet, even back in the real world, spring training in February and March before the coronavirus wrecked sports — really, wrecked our lives — the talk was that Oakland had the best team in the American League.

The pitching was questionable, however. Liam Hendriks was a superb closer. Sean Manaea was dependable. Chris Bassitt became the Pitcher of the Month for September. Still, there was doubt.

Even when Oakland won seven out of 10 from Houston in that abbreviated regular season.

There’s something called presence, which can also be called experience. Teams develop, confidence builds. The Astros won a World Series three years ago, were in the World Series in 2019, losing in seven games to the Nationals.

Houston didn’t have an injured Justin Verlander this ALDS. What the A’s didn’t have was a way to halt the Astros.

“As far as pitching,” conceded Melvin, a one-time catcher, “nothing was sustained through nine innings.”

It remains that the Athletics are a small-spending team, which is not to be confused with a small-market team. There are more than seven million people in the Bay Area, and even if the Giants have a larger following the A’s have their fans and support.

As we’ve been told, by executive Billy Beane, what they don’t have is a ballpark or a large season-ticket base. The budget is small. It always has been. “If we had $50,000 more we could have beaten those guys,” Beane said after the A’s lost a playoff to the Yankees.

If they had one more great arm, would they have beaten the Astros?

They don’t, and so when people such as Carlos Correa or Jose Altuve come to bat for the Astros in critical situations — Correa hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the fourth, Altuve a two-run shot in the seventh — Oakland is in trouble.

Frankie Montas was the ill-fated A’s starter.

“We just couldn’t do enough on the pitching end to hold them down,” Melvin said. “And then you start to press a little bit even though our guys had a good attitude every inning, even going into the ninth inning, and get some guys on. We battled until the end as you would expect, just not enough.”

Just not enough. The line is an old one for the A’s.