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Barber: Sean Manaea wasn't the easy choice, but he was the right one for A's in wild-card game

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OAKLAND — Bob Melvin didn’t make the easy choice when he selected a starting pitcher for Wednesday’s American League wild-card game. He made the hard choice. And the right one.

The easy choice would have been Mike Fiers, because Fiers has done so much to earn the honor.

He was probably the A’s top starter after joining the team last year in an Aug. 6 trade. And he has certainly been their most reliable arm this season. Fiers was here before Homer Bailey arrived, and after Frankie Montas was suspended for a positive PED test, and before Sean Manaea returned from rehabbing a shoulder injury.

Fiers was a rock throughout the 2019 campaign. He led the A’s in starts (33), innings (184⅔) and wins (15). He threw the A’s only complete game this season, a no-hitter against the Reds on May 7.

And it isn’t just that slice of recent history. It’s a debt the A’s have owed Fiers for a year.

He earned the wild-card nod last year, too. But the Angels had battered Fiers in his final start of the regular season, and his road splits in 2018 were terrible compared with his starts at the Oakland Coliseum, where he had gone 3-0 with an ERA of 2.91 and a strikeout-to-walk ration of 33/5.

Melvin didn’t fully trust Fiers to walk to the mound in Yankee Stadium and tame the Yanks’ powerful bats. In fact, the manager didn’t trust any of his starters. He had reliever Liam Hendriks open the game, and it was a disaster. The Yankees scored two runs off Hendriks in the first inning, the New York crowd raised a din and the A’s never fully recovered in a 7-2 loss that sent them quietly into the offseason.

By handing the ball to Fiers this Wednesday, Melvin could have make amends for that previous playoff decision while rewarding a pitcher for his consistency and effort. Instead, Melvin announced Tuesday that he is going with Manaea.

“It was a difficult decision,” the manager said. “We went round and round with it, make sure everyone got their opinion out and talked in depth about it. Mike Fiers has had an absolutely terrific season. He’s been great here at home.”

But he will not face the leadoff batter in the AL wild-card game. Imagine how uncomfortable it was for Melvin to have that conversation with the 34-year-old right-hander, one year after a very similar interaction. Fiers is popular in the A’s clubhouse. In bypassing him, Melvin risks being second-guessed within and without the organization. And yet it was the right thing to do.

This single game is hugely important for the A’s, and Manaea is the superior pitcher.

Fiers has thrown a pair of no-hitters in his MLB career. He knows how to get batters out. But he isn’t what you’d call dominant. He’s more of a battler.

Fiers averaged 6.1 strikeouts per 9 innings this season; Manaea averaged 9.1 after returning to the team on Sept. 1. Fiers gave up 1.5 home runs per 9 innings in 2019; Manaea surrendered 0.9. There are other numbers to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness, for sure.

The point is that Fiers is built to keep his team in the game. Manaea is a guy who can frequently throttle an opponent.

That’s relevant to the wild-card game, because the A’s opponent on the mound is Charlie Morton, a bona fide ace who is a combined 31-9 over the past two years with Houston and Tampa Bay, with 441 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.09. He was an All-Star both seasons.

The A’s can slug, but they can’t expect to spray the ball around the park against Morton and his vexing curveball. They need someone who can match him inning for inning. They need Manaea, who was nothing short of brilliant in his five September starts. The worst of them — the absolute worst — was a 5⅔-inning, two-run, six-hit win against the Rangers on Sept. 21. All told, opposing hitters hit .160 against him. Their cumulative OPS was a laughable .509.

“We had a number of starts to be able to evaluate it,” Melvin said. “It wasn’t like he came off (the injured list) at the last minute and had two starts, and you weren’t sure where he was gonna go. We had him on a week’s rest, we had him on one extra day’s rest, we had him on regular rest. We looked at him in every scenario, and he basically threw the same game every time out.”

There’s another thing. Fiers can be a little excitable. He blows up sometimes — like when the Astros put up nine runs against him in an inning of work on Sept. 9. It may have something to do with why Fiers has tended to struggle on the road. And yes, this upcoming game isn’t on the road. It’s right here in Oakland. But it won’t be comfy, or normal in almost any way. It will be a pressure cooker, and Manaea has the right demeanor for it.

“He’s in the same mood every day,” Melvin said of his chosen starter. “You can’t tell if it’s a pitch day or if it’s an in-between day for him.”

When it was his turn to speak to reporters Tuesday, Manaea looked like a kid — albeit a kid with beard, mustache and majestic afro — preparing to play a round of miniature golf with his friends.

Asked what it will be like to pitch in front of 50,000-plus people Wednesday, he said, “I’ve never pitched in front of 50,000 people, so I don’t know.”

Asked his biggest start prior this one, Manaea said, “Umm, I was thinking about it. Like when I was real young, I pitched in like the (Wisconsin Amateur Baseball Classic) World Series game when I was like 15 or something, and I did really, really bad. I think I went like two-thirds of an inning. At that point in my life, that was tough to swallow. Everybody was counting on me, and I failed miserably. But you come from that and you learn from those, things start to get a little bit easier and easier.”

Good athletes are able to ignore pressure. Great athletes do more than that. They embrace the magnitude of a huge moment. They feed off of it, are elevated by it.

Manaea is the opposite of brash, but he has the quiet, upbeat confidence of a champion.

“Honestly, there’s a lot of pressure, and you can’t shy away from that,” he said of Wednesday’s all-or-nothing matchup with the Rays. “This game means everything. I think it’s comforting to know there’s guys behind me that are able to come in if something bad happens. But you’ve got to take that pressure. It’s always gonna be there.”

This is the guy best suited to deliver the A’s first postseason series win since 2006. Give Melvin credit for recognizing that. The AL wild-card game hasn’t even started yet, and the A’s manager is already making bold decisions.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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