NEW YORK — Other than opening with a reliever on the mound, nothing was any different about this October for the Oakland Athletics.
They didn’t last very long ... again.
Liam Hendriks gave up a two-run homer to Aaron Judge on his ninth pitch and the A’s never recovered, making another early playoff exit with a 7-2 loss to the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card game Wednesday night.
Oakland’s dangerous bats were mostly silenced by Luis Severino and a nasty New York bullpen, sending the A’s right back across the country and home for the winter — an abrupt ending to their surprisingly successful 97-win season.
“Unless you play the last game, it’s disappointing,” manager Bob Melvin said. “So I think when you reflect back and look where we started the year, kind of where we came from, it ends up being a good year. But it doesn’t feel good right now.”
Meanwhile, the Yankees advanced to a best-of-five Division Series against rival Boston.
It was the eighth consecutive defeat for the A’s in a winner-take-all postseason game since Reggie Jackson’s homer helped beat a New York Mets team that featured Tom Seaver and Willie Mays in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series.
Despite making nine playoff appearances this century, Oakland has reached the AL Championship Series only once, in 2006. The club dropped to 1-14 during that stretch with a chance to move on, including a 9-8 loss in 12 innings to Kansas City in the 2014 AL wild-card game.
“We’ve had a tough time with it,” Melvin said. “And it’s frustrating.”
Three of those setbacks have come courtesy of the Yankees, including five-game Division Series losses in 2000 and 2001. New York also swept the A’s 3-0 in the 1981 ALCS.
With his rotation heavily depleted by injuries, Melvin started Hendriks in a “bullpen game,” a strategic trend that’s quickly catching on around the majors after an innovative Tampa Bay organization employed it often this year with tangible success.
Hendriks, a no-name reliever with starting experience, returned from the minors in September and was effective in eight games as an “opener.” He tossed seven shutout innings over the last seven, pitching one inning each time before handing the ball to someone else as the Athletics relied on a strong and deep bullpen.
That was the idea Wednesday night, too, but intentionally throwing “Johnny Wholestaff,” as it used to be called, in a winner-take-all playoff game was certainly an unprecedented experiment.
“I think the first two batters obviously weren’t the way I drew it up. Didn’t quite get ahead, got into some bad counts and they made me pay,” Hendriks said. “After that, I kind of settled down a little bit. Got into a rhythm and was able to retire the next three, but unfortunately the first two came back to bite us.”
The previous three times a pitcher with no wins in the regular season — never mind one who was cut from the 40-man roster in June — had started a postseason game, they had missed most of the season either because of injury or to serve in a war.
Judge’s home run off Hendriks put the A’s in a quick hole at a raucous Yankee Stadium. They opened the fifth with their first hits of the night, consecutive singles that chased Severino. But then Dellin Betances retired Matt Chapman and Jed Lowrie before striking out slugger Khris Davis, the 2-3-4 hitters in the lineup, to thwart the scoring threat.