OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Bob Melvin has been counting on his young Oakland Athletics to build on last season's playoff return that ended in a lopsided wild-card loss at Yankee Stadium.
Gain some experience under pressure. Get a little feel for October baseball. Understand how much has to go right to win on the big stage.
Reaching the Division Series again would be a significant step this easygoing group knows it must take now. The A's have lost eight straight winner-take-all games since 2000, going 1-14 with a chance to advance to the next round. Their only win was in 2006 against the Twins before being swept in the AL Championship Series by the Tigers.
The timing seems perfect for these A's to make a major statement in the East Bay if they can win Wednesday night against the Rays: the Golden State Warriors left for San Francisco and the Oakland Raiders are relocating to Las Vegas.
Oakland's own MC Hammer will get things started by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Coliseum, where more than 50,000 are expected to pack the ballpark with the upper deck seats open.
"I've never pitched in front of 50,000 people," said A's left-hander Sean Manaea, who will be making his first playoff start at age 27 and after missing nearly a year following shoulder surgery.
This is a wild-card matchup featuring two of baseball's lowest-spending franchises — Tampa Bay ranks last at $66.4 million while Oakland sits 25th at $95.3 million. The A's won 97 games, the Rays 96.
The teams have never met before in the playoffs, and they haven't seen each other this season since June.
Many consider these clubs mirror images of one another, each with ballpark concerns, and there are plenty of other similarities — not to mention a lot to gain. The Rays return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
"Certainly appreciate the Bay Area's support, and if the magnitude of this game helps that, we're better for it," Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said.
The slugging A's got back to the playoffs last season for the first time in four years before a 7-2 road defeat to the Yankees.
"I knew last year this team was good," Rays starter and Cy Young Award candidate Charlie Morton said. "The A's being good is good for baseball."
Morton went 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts. He allowed just one run in 13 1/3 innings against the A's this season.
For weeks, Tampa Bay planned for Morton to start this game if the Rays made it.
"We wouldn't want anybody else out there right now," Cash said.
Here are some things to watch for heading into Wednesday's game:
The Rays have a few decisions to make on their roster.
While infielder Eric Sogard — who played for the A's from 2010-15 —"turned a pretty significant corner" in his recovery from a bone bruise in his right foot, according to Cash, the Rays were waiting until Wednesday morning to set their roster.
Sogard hasn't played since Sept. 15 at the Angels.
Third baseman Yandy Diaz, who played in just 79 games and was activated Sunday after being out since July 23 with a foot injury, was going to take groundballs Tuesday but hasn't yet played the field, so his status was unclear.
Melvin waited until Tuesday to announce Manaea as his starter over Mike Fiers.
Manaea returned later than he had hoped following surgery last September but immediately found a groove, going 4-0 with 1.21 ERA in five starts last month.
"This is one of those opportunities I think about a lot," Manaea said.
Fiers (15-4) pitched a no-hitter May 7 against the Reds to begin a 21-start unbeaten stretch in which he went 12-0.
THE DAVIS FACTOR
Khris Davis' drop off this season has been perplexing. He was last season's majors home run leader with 48 but hit just 23 this year. He batted a career-low .220 and drove in just 73 runs following four straight seasons in which he hit .247.
Yet the A's still hit 257 home runs, fifth-most in the majors.
Seven players hit 20 or more homers. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson finished with 36 apiece and Marcus Semien had 33 in his best season yet at the plate and playing shortstop while appearing in all 162 games.
Against the Rays, Olson hit three homers in seven games and Chapman and Ramon Laureano each hit two.
"I'm not really concerned about what Khris Davis has done this season to date, he's been a model of consistency for three or four years now," Cash said. "Very, very dangerous. I think they complement each other really well. We've got our hands full."
A's right fielder Stephen Piscotty was left off the roster
"I feel bad for him," said Melvin, now baseball's longest-tenured manager.
Piscotty has been out with a sprained right ankle since Aug. 25 and the challenge was not having a place to get rehab at-bats. He also missed extended time with a sprained right knee from June 30 to Aug. 2.
He batted .249 with 13 homers and 44 RBIs when healthy.
Melvin was fortunate to have the versatile Mark Canha to fill in for both Piscotty and center fielder Laureano.
Canha's 26 homers ranked fourth on the team.
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