Left-hander Sean Manaea earns AL wild-card start for A’s

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              Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sean Manaea throws to a Seattle Mariners batter during the first inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Just more than a year after shoulder surgery, Sean Manaea will make his most important start yet when he takes the mound for the Oakland Athletics in the AL wild-card game.

Manager Bob Melvin named Manaea his starter for Wednesday’s winner-take-all home game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The left-hander earned the nod over Mike Fiers in a tough decision.

“I think it came down to the fact that since Manaea’s been back, he’s pitched great every single game out,” Melvin said Tuesday before his team held a workout. “We were lucky to have two guys to consider in that respect and a luxury to have two guys we’d be comfortable with, but Manaea will start.”

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,” the 27-year-old Manaea said of his first playoff start.

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.

“Mike’s been the ace of the staff this year,” Manaea said.

Fiers also was passed over for last year’s wild-card game started by opener Liam Hendriks in a 7-2 loss to New York at Yankee Stadium.

Rays right-hander Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05 ERA), who is set to start for Tampa Bay, praised Manaea’s remarkable comeback.

“It’s nice to see that,” Morton said. “That’s a really big deal. The shoulder is a tricky thing to come back from and it’s not a guarantee and then to make it back and pitch well enough to not only be on the roster but start this game is a big deal. It speaks for what I’m assuming what was a really rough and prolonged rehab. It’s nice to see that, it’s good for baseball.”

It’s been a long journey back for Manaea with a couple of setbacks during his recovery. Oakland waited patiently, hoping to return Manaea to the form he showed during a no-hitter against the eventual World Series champion Red Sox on April 21, 2018.

“No-hitter, that was huge, but it’s only one game,” Manaea said. “I know it was against the Red Sox. This is a completely different beast.”

Having let his hair grow since January, Manaea was headed to get it braided before his outing. When Melvin called Manaea into his office a couple of days ago and asked the pitcher whether he wanted the ball Wednesday, Manaea’s answer was immediate:

“Hell, yeah!”

“Crazy how things turn out,” Manaea said. “Obviously there’s a lot of pressure. You can’t shy away from that. This game means everything.”