Wild Card Takeaways: Rays catcher d’Arnaud at his best against Athletics

Tampa Bay Rays celebrate after defeating the Oakland Athletics 5-1 after an American League wild-card baseball game Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (Ben Margot/AP)

On April 28, Travis d’Arnaud unexpectedly found himself in career limbo when the New York Mets designated him for assignment.

About a year earlier, the 30-year-old catcher underwent Tommy John surgery. He’d finally made it back, but the year off had an impact. Through his first 10 games, he’d gone 2-for-23 at the plate and struggled defensively, long his strength. Injuries had already hampered a career that once made him a first-round pick and the centre-piece of two trades for Cy Young Award winners – Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies from the Toronto Blue Jays and R.A. Dickey from the Mets to Toronto.

The Mets pulling the plug was ominous.

“I don’t know,” d’Arnaud says, trailing off, when asked where he thought his career might be headed at that point. “It’s been a crazy ride.”

No doubt there, one that took him behind the plate and the cleanup spot for the Tampa Bay Rays in their 5-1 wild-card victory Wednesday night over the Oakland Athletics. Over a span of 12 wild days back in the spring, d’Arnaud went from Mets discard to Los Angeles Dodgers luxury to Rays emergency stop-gap. Sold for $100,000 by Major League Baseball’s richest team to one its poorest clubs on May 10, hours after Mike Zunino was placed on the injured list, he quickly regained past form and helped backstop a 96-win season.

Pretty crazy, alright.

“We’ve had some pretty big injuries this year. Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, huge,” says Rays manager Kevin Cash. “But you can make the argument that when Mike Zunino and Michael Perez, our two Opening Day catchers, went down, for what the catching role on our team means to our young pitchers – we do things differently and they’re just a huge part of what we’re trying to accomplish – that might have been the biggest concern.

“Give Travis a ton of credit for jumping on board really quick.”

Quick defensively, maybe, but it took a couple of weeks for his bat to get untracked after a 3-for-29 run. A three-hit game against the Blue Jays on May 27 got him rolling and in the 47 games from then through July 31st, he batted .315/.381/.638 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs.

Just as importantly, he began displaying the type of on-field leadership and game management the Rays, who have coveted d’Arnaud since his 2010 draft year and pursued him in trade talks with the Blue Jays, prioritize heavily. In 92 games for Tampa Bay, he produced 1.8 fWAR.

“I didn’t really know what to expect except that I was going to catch for a little bit because both their guys were down with some injuries,” says d’Arnaud. “For me it was just try to catch some winners and fortunately I started hitting, things started slowing down and I started playing like myself again.

“(Pitching coach) Kyle Snyder talked to me every day about these guys and still does, I’m still learning about them,” he continues. “He knows this stuff extremely well, more so than I’ve ever seen, and then a lot of the pitchers have come up to me and told me where they’d like me to set up, where they want me to put my glove, little things that help them that usually takes years of catching someone to know. They’re so mature that they know to come to me and I can pick up on it a lot quicker.”

Against the A’s, d’Arnaud was at his best, guiding starter Charlie Morton – the first pitcher to win three post-season elimination games – through five innings of one-run ball despite five hits and three walks. Diego Castillo followed with two clean frames, Nick Anderson struck out the side around a single in the eighth and K’d another batter in the ninth before Emilio Pagan closed things out.

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Next up for the Rays are the Houston Astros in a best-of-five division series that pits teams constructed by two of the smartest front offices in baseball against one another. It’s a fascinating series on multiple levels.

For d’Arnaud, it’s another opportunity to chase a championship, having lost in the 2015 World Series with the New York Mets to the Kansas City Royals, who eliminated the Blue Jays in American League Championship Series that year.

“Oh, absolutely,” d’Arnaud says of whether he was hoping to face the Blue Jays. “I thought they were going to win and it was going to be the R.A. Dickey trade World Series. It didn’t work out that way but I definitely thought it was going to be that matchup.

“That year, each series got more and more intense. It was fun hearing a ball or a strike getting cheered. The lights are bright but you can’t get blinded by them. It’s still baseball. The baseball is still the same size, first base is still 90 feet away, the game is the same and you’ve got to live in the moment as much as you can, good or bad. That’s what it’s all about.”

Wild-card win in the books, the Rays get to keep living it.

• Last weekend in Toronto, Kevin Cash was saying that the Rays’ plan was to use Yandy Diaz as a DH only, given that he’d only been activated from the injured list Sunday and there was concern about how much stress the left foot he’d broken on July 22 could handle. Instead, he was at first base for the Rays and homered on the game’s fifth pitch off Sean Manaea and went deep again in the top of the third. Sandwiched around Avisail Garcia’s two-run homer in the second, the Rays opened up a 4-0 edge and never looked back.

• Tommy Pham added a solo shot in the fifth inning, a drive that opened up a 5-1 lead, giving the Rays four homers in the game. During the regular season, they went deep 217 times, slightly below the big-league average of 226. The two wild-card games have stayed true to the regular season thus far, featuring seven homers.

• The wild-card games are spectacular theatre. A one-game, winner-take-all pressure cooker is the antithesis of baseball’s everyday grind, which is what makes the drama so compelling. Still, poor Athletics. Last year they won 97 games, finished six games behind the Astros in the AL West and lost the wild-card game 7-2 to the New York Yankees. This year they won 97 games, finished 10 (!!!) games behind the Astros and against lost the wild-card game. So that’s 194 wins over two seasons and all they got were two playoff games, only one at home. Baseball is often as cruel as it as it beautiful.

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