The A's will face a stiff challenge in Wednesday's AL Wild Card Game when they face the Tampa Bay Rays, but more specifically, when they face Charlie Morton.
The All-Star right-hander had his way with Oakland in two starts during the regular season, allowing just one run on six hits in 13 1/3 innings. Overall this year, Morton went 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts in 194 2/3 innings.
More than half of those punchouts came on Morton's curveball, which has quickly become one of the best pitches in all of baseball. It's a big, sweeping curve with an average velocity of 79 mph, and it's devastating against right-handed hitters.
Morton, 35, has increased his curveball usage in each of the last four seasons, this year throwing it more than 37 percent of the time. He has limited opponents to a meager .151/.192/.228 slash line against the curve, with 135 strikeouts compared to just eight walks.
In his first outing against the A's this season, Morton threw 32 curveballs, surrendering a lone single with seven swings and misses. In the second meeting, he threw 39 curveballs, allowing just two singles with five swinging strikeouts and five additional outs.
Unfortunately for the A's, their best hitters struggle against curveballs and sliders. Marcus Semien is hitting a combined .235 against those pitches. Matt Chapman isn't much better at .239 and Matt Olson is at .231. Ramon Laureano has the best average at .240, while Mark Canha and Khris Davis are at .212 and .192, respectively.
[RELATED: Projecting A's wild card roster]
Those top six bats in the A's lineup have combined to strike out 271 times on curveballs and sliders while hitting just 41 home runs, an average of seven per player. The good news is that Oakland hitters tend to work deep into counts and drive up pitch counts. That could be critical on Wednesday.
Plate discipline will also be crucial -- the A's can't afford to help Morton by chasing curveballs out of the strike zone. If they can force him to pitch behind in counts and throw fastballs in the zone, they will have a much better chance of moving on to the ALDS.