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Barber: A's lose yet another elimination game, 5-1 to Rays

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OAKLAND — What did the A’s do to deserve this? Where did the wretched curse begin?

Did Charlie Finley make a pact with the devil, then fail to pay off the $50 he promised in the bargain? Is the Oakland Coliseum built upon a Miwok burial ground? How could the A’s, a franchise with a history that is rich in both colorful characters and exciting baseball, become the team that can’t win the big one? And how can that dubious legacy survive over so many generations?

I’m going to tell you something you wouldn’t believe, except you’ve probably heard it before, because it is by now infamous: The last time the A’s won an advance-or-die postseason game was Game 7 of the 1973 World Series.

THE 1973 WORLD SERIES. Willie Mays played in that series. The designated hitter was a brand-new concept. That’s how long ago we’re talking about.

Since then, the A’s have played in nine elimination games, and have lost every one of them. It’s a Major League Baseball record. Heck, it was already a record before Wednesday night, when this team was drubbed 5-1 by the visiting Tampa Bay Rays in the American League wild-card game.

Those nine games have little in common, other than all of them ushering in the offseason for the boys in green. They have occurred in five-game AL divisional series and one-game AL wild-card contests. They have been pitchers’ duels, such as when Detroit’s Justin Verlander outdueled Sonny Gray in 2013, and they have been slugfests, like the wild 9-8 loss to the Royals in 2014. They have come in Oakland, and on the road.

Some of them have been extraordinary in the creative ways they crushed the A’s soul. The Athletics held a 7-3 lead going into the eighth inning of that game at Kansas City five years ago, and an 8-7 lead heading into the bottom of the 12th, but let victory slip through their hands.

Remember Game 3 of the 2001 AL Division Series? Yankees fans recall it fondly as the Derek Jeter “flip” game; to A’s fans, it will always be the night Jeremy Giambi failed to slide into home. How about the valiant comeback attempt in 2000 that fell short against the Yankees because of Gil Heredia’s very bad first inning? Boston’s Manny Ramirez going deep against Barry Zito in 2003? Bob Melvin’s “opener” strategy going south at Yankee Stadium a year ago?

I could go on and on. Because the A’s seem to go on and on, cracking under the pressure of a win-or-go-home situation.

It was futile to address this subject with the players in the losing clubhouse Wednesday night. Those guys have been responsible for only one or two of those wrenching losses. None of them were even alive the last time the A’s won an elimination game.

“No, it’s not one of the streaks you kind of like to focus on,” said Liam Hendriks, who threw the final inning of relief for Oakland on Wednesday. “It’s not something that I know of, personally. But at the end of the day, we’ve lost two in a row, like now. And that’s two too many. We came into the season not only hoping to make the playoffs, but to win the division. It didn’t work out that way. And then in this wild card, it never crossed our minds that we’d be going home tonight.”

But I’ll bet it crossed the mind of every A’s fan over the age of 20. History is bearing down upon the franchise like an anvil in a coyote-and-roadrunner cartoon at this point. Certainly, Melvin is aware of the drought. He was born in Palo Alto, went to high school in Atherton, played at Cal. And he has skippered the A’s in four of the nine elimination losses. Melvin wasn’t much interested in discussing the streak, though.

“We’ve lost the last two with this group here. So it’s a different group every year,” he said. “I don’t think they’re too wound up about that. You get into this wild-card game and a lot of time it comes down to pitching and timely hitting, and they got us on the run early in the game and we really couldn’t answer.”

That’s fair. Matt Chapman has little connection to Eric Chavez beyond an ability to patrol a wide swathe of foul territory at the Coliseum.

The fans, though. What of the beleaguered Oakland fans who have seen nine brutally sudden losses in 20 years? Many of them root for the Raiders and Warriors, too, and those teams have already abandoned the city, or soon will. The A’s are the only team Oakland will be able to claim in 2020, and they are building a postseason track record that makes you cringe.

Tuesday morning, A’s boosters woke up to news that an Alameda County Superior Court judge had granted a restraining order to the city of Oakland, blocking the county from selling its 50% share of the Coliseum site to the team. It’s a move that further delays the A’s dreams of building a new stadium here.

That didn’t appear to be bothering anybody Wednesday afternoon, as 54,005 people crowded up the ramps and into their seats at the sagging stadium. It was a new record for MLB wild-card attendance. That crowd was a deciding factor waiting to happen. They roared, banged drums and cowbells, and waved yellow towels as if this were the start of the World Series.

But the A’s fell behind so quickly — it was 4-0 heading into the bottom of the fourth following three Rays home runs — and mounted so little offense against Tampa Bay starter Charlie Morton that the fans found their enthusiasm unsustainable.

“They came out, and they supported us,” said Chapman, the third baseman. “They were here early. They were loud. And even when we were down, they were loud and trying to get us going. And we wanted so badly to get a big hit or get some runs in or get some momentum going, give them something to cheer about. But it seemed like today, we didn’t really give them anything to cheer about. I’m sorry to our fans that we let them down.”

The A’s are brimming with promise. Chapman is 26 years old. Slugging first baseman Matt Olson and dashing outfielder Ramon Laureano are 25. Wednesday’s starting pitcher, Sean Manaea, is 27. Jesus Luzardo, who threw three strong innings against the Rays, is barely 22. This team has a chance to challenge for years.

But Oakland also shares a division with the Houston Astros, who look very much like a dynasty in the making. The A’s can win 97 games every year, and there’s a good chance they’ll remain a wild-card entry for the foreseeable future. And even if they aren’t subjected to a one-game playoff on an annual basis, sooner or later they will find themselves in another elimination game.

The pressure will mount again. The Oakland fans will watch with one eye closed. The A’s are a proud and accomplished franchise that is currently saddled with a most unfortunate reputation.

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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