Khris Davis, slugging A’s hope to build off surprising year

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              Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Fernando Rodney reacts during the sixth inning of the American League wild-card playoff baseball game against the New York Yankees, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The Oakland Athletics surprised most everyone but themselves.

A young team that gained momentum with a strong September a year ago slugged its way right into the playoffs and onto the national radar by hanging tough in the difficult AL West this season.

Still, it all ended with the same result: a playoff defeat in an elimination game. After a 97-65 regular season, Oakland lost the wild-card game 7-2 to New York on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium.

“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, you know kind of where we came from, it ends up being a good year but it doesn’t feel good right now.”

Khris Davis and the A’s rallied all year long to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014 following consecutive last-place division finishes.

Davis led the majors with 48 home runs, his third straight 40-homer season.

A sensational second-half surge made the difference. The A’s trailed the Mariners by 11 games in the wild-card race on June 15.

“If you told us at the beginning of the year we’d have 97 wins at the end of the year and we have about five guys with career years and had an opportunity to be in a wild-card game against a team with a hundred wins, I think we’d all take that,” closer Blake Treinen said.

The A’s believed from the start they could do this, even with an opening-day payroll of $66,039,675 that ranked lowest in the American League and second-lowest in baseball ahead of the Phillies.

Then they captured the country’s attention — and opponents took notice, too — with a team with a knack for late-game rallies.

Led by Davis and all his power-hitting sidekicks like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, the A’s overcame losing key starters from their rotation down the stretch. That included left-hander Sean Manaea, who pitched a no-hitter on April 21 against Boston then had arthroscopic shoulder surgery last month.

“It’s pretty hard but I’m not disappointed at all,” Davis said. “I think we showed some people we can do some things and I think next year, we’re a little bit more of a threat. I hope we can just continue this and build on it.”

With his starting staff slim, Melvin recently turned to using an “opener” for an inning before going with another pitcher as a long man, and most everything he tried worked beautifully.

Here are some things to take from the A’s year:

DAVIS DELIVERS: Davis earned that hefty raise he received last offseason of $10.5 million, more than doubling his salary after he beat the team in arbitration the previous winter.

The 30-year-old Davis had career highs in home runs and with 123 RBIs. He joined Jimmie Foxx from 1932-34 as the only players in A’s history with three straight 40-homer seasons.

PISCOTTY’S TRIUMPH: Newcomers such as Stephen Piscotty carried the load in a career year — and for him after dealing with the heartbreak of losing his mother, Gretchen, in May to ALS.

Piscotty, acquired from the Cardinals last December, batted .267 and had eight of his 27 home runs and 25 of his 88 RBIs in 25 September games.

COMEBACK KIDS: After dropping so far back of the Mariners in mid-June, the A’s answered by going 63-29 from June 16 through the rest of the season. It was the best record during that stretch in baseball — ahead of Boston’s 60-31.

Oakland also went a majors-best 31-14 in one-run games and had 10 walkoff victories.

TREINEN SHINES: Treinen, who knew of him before this season started?

Then the unassuming closer went 9-2, saved 38 games, finished with a career-low 0.78 ERA and career-high 100 strikeouts. He didn’t allow an earned run over his last 15 outings.

The right-hander is the first pitcher to finish with at least 30 saves, an ERA below 1.00 and 100 strikeouts.

OCTOBER TROUBLE: Oakland has lost eight straight winner-take-all postseason games since beating Willie Mays and the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 1973 World Series. The A’s are also 1-14 in potential clinchers since 2000. They reached the AL Championship Series in 2006, the lone time since 2000 the club has advanced past the first round of the playoffs.

Since losing in the ’14 wild-card game to the eventual AL champion Royals 9-8 in 12 innings, low-budget Oakland had won just 68, 69 and 75 games the past three seasons. This year, the A’s shined while still playing at the rundown Oakland Coliseum they share with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

This was considered a significant step to getting back to the big October stage.