Last night, the Oakland Athletics got out to an early lead, but they failed to put their opponent away and lost the game at the last minute. That has become something of a trend for Oakland lately; they are having serious trouble holding leads. The trend continued tonight. Oakland got out to an early 6-2 lead, but allowed the Chicago White Sox to chip away until, suddenly, Oakland was trailing, 7-6.
Fortunately, another old trend resurfaced after that: the late-inning comeback.
In the end, Oakland held on for a big win against a contending team on the road. Continue after the jump to read all about it!
Tonight's game featured Chicago starter Francisco Liriano, who struck out 24 Athletics in 14 innings this season as a Minnesota Twin, and Oakland starter Travis Blackley, who spent the last couple of weeks in the bullpen despite despite a 3.62 ERA and 2.5 K:BB rate as a member of the rotation. The two pitchers got off to a blazing start, combining to strike out the first 5 batters of the game. The first hitter to not strike out was Adam Dunn, who walked with two outs int he bottom of the 1st. The first batter to put a ball in play was Alex Rios, who made the last out of the 1st. This would be the high point of the night for both pitchers.
The White Sox got the scoring started in the 2nd inning, plating a run on an RBI groundout by Dayan Viciedo and an RBI double by Tyler Flowers. The Sox lineup is full of dangerous hitters, but Blackley gave up runs to the guy named "Diane" and the guy named "Flowers." Somewhere, Ted Lilly and Taylor Teagarden shared a high five.
At this point, there was cause for concern. Liriano has looked dominant against the A's this year, and he was already staked to an early lead. Was this game over already? No. No, it wasn't. It was only just beginning.
In the top of the 3rd, Oakland got runners to the corners with two outs for Yoenis Cespedes. Liriano hit Cespedes in the foot with the 1-0 pitch, loading the bases. There was a bit of a beanball war last night and, given that there were four batters hit by pitches in this game, you might deduce that the war continued tonight. Rest assured, though, that none of the four HBP's were in any way intentional, and the high total was just a coincidence (plus poor control by Oakland pitchers). In this case, the ball was in the dirt, and it just happened to knick off of Cespedes's foot. The important part is that it loaded the bases for Chris Carter. You should never, ever load the bases for Chris Carter.
On the 1-0 pitch, Carter drilled a single to left field, plating two runs to tie the game 2-2. After Brandon Inge walked to re-load the bases, Derek Norris ripped the ball down the left field line and into the stands for a ground-rule double, scoring two more runs for a 4-2 lead. Adam Rosales followed with a single to left to make it 5-2, and the inning ended exactly as it began: a flyout to center by Jemile Weeks.
Blackley shut down the Sox in the bottom of the inning, and in the 4th, the A's picked up right where they had left off. Coco Crisp doubled, and Josh Reddick singled him in, increasing the lead to 6-2 and knocking Liriano out of the game. Philip Humber entered with his 6.04 ERA, and proceeded to pitch like the guy who threw a perfect game in April. Humber recorded the next 9 outs without allowing a hit, striking out 5 and keeping the White Sox in the game.
While Humber kept Oakland quiet, Chicago's hitters started chipping away at Travis Blackley's lead. In the bottom of the 4th, the Dynamic Duo of Diane and Flowers struck again, with Viciedo doubling ahead of an RBI single by Flowers to cut the lead to 6-3. In the 5th, Blackley grazed Alejandro De Aza's elbow with a pitch, and then paid for his mistake by allowing a 2-run homer to Kevin Youkilis. After 5 innings, Oakland's comfortable lead had been cut to 6-5.
Jordan Norbero relieved Blackley in the 6th, and looked completely in control after striking out the first two batters he faced. But then, up stepped the terrifying Tyler Flowers. The back-up catcher had entered the game with a .558 OPS on the season, and he had already driven in runs in his two previous at-bats. This time, he got ahold of a changeup from Norberto, and sent it into the seats for a game-tying homer and what I can only assume was the game of his life. It didn't really look like he got all of it when he hit it, but U.S. Cellular Field is considered quite a good hitter's park, and the ball carried nearly 400 feet.
Oakland came up in the top of the 7th hoping to respond. Brandon Inge reached on a walk, and Jesse Crain came in to relieve Humber (which was also quite a relief to the A's, I would assume, given the rate at which he was mowing them down). Pinch-hitter Cliff Pennington jumped all over a slider, and it looked like the A's may have already re-taken their lead.
Now, home-field advantage is a concept that is often talked about in sports. The idea is that playing in your own home park, in front of your own fans, after sleeping in your own bed, puts you at an advantage over the other guys, who arrived from their hotel to an unfamiliar ballpark and hostile fans. Tonight, the White Sox enjoyed a different kind of home-field advantage: Their ballpark literally saved them a run, because it is a big jerk. Unlike the fences at the Coliseum, the ones at U.S. Cellular are sort of chain-link with a thick layer of padding at the top which is wider than the fence itself. Pennington's drive sailed past center fielder De Aza, and bounced once before hitting the wall. It then kicked up toward the padding at the top of the wall, and disappeared, presumably over the fence for a ground-rule double. In reality, though, the ball got lodged under the padding, in the field of play, sort of like a much lamer version of getting lost in the ivy at Wrigley Field. Had the ball bounced normally off the wall, Inge would have scored without a play and Pennington may have made it to third. As it was, the runners had to stop at 2nd and 3rd, where they would be stranded after Weeks struck out to end the inning. A tie game in the 7th inning, and the cooky outfield wall essentially stole a run from Oakland. Screw you, U.S. Cellular Field.
That missed opportunity would look even worse in the bottom of the 7th. Norberto allowed a single to Youkilis before striking out Adam Dunn, and then Bob Melvin pulled him in favor of...Ryan Cook? Wait, what? You mean this Ryan Cook?
Melvin says Cook has not lost the closer job but he wants to get him a clean inning or two in a less high-pressure situation.
(from Susan Slusser)
You want to get him a clean inning in a less high-leverage situation, so you bring him into a tie game with a runner on to face the cleanup hitter of the team with the 8th most runs scored in the Majors? A guy (Alex Rios) who has been OPS'ing 1.000 over the last 6 weeks? Um, ok. I guess that's lower-leverage than being informed that you have to hit the "defuse" button on a bomb from 60 feet away or else all the kittens will explode, and you only have one ball and everyone is watching and you're only wearing underwear. That would be pretty high-leverage. But as far as baseball situations are concerned, this is about as high-leverage as it gets. But, wait, it was only the 7th inning, so it must not be a crucial situation according to Managerial Conventional Wisdom™. Nothing is more high-leverage than a 3-run lead in the 9th with the bottom of the order coming up, because that is a save situation. Games are never won or lost in the 7th, right? (And I know, this one wasn't either, but shut up, I'm making a point.)
Cook entered a bafflingly high-leverage situation, and did pretty much exactly what you would expect right now: He blew it. Rios smashed a slider down the 3rd base line, but Brandon Inge made an incredible diving stop to hold him to a single and prevent a possible run from scoring. It looked like Inge may have hurt himself on the play, but he stayed in the game. Wondering what actually happened to him?
Inge says his shoulder was dislocated and he popped it back in himself. He's done it before with his left shoulder.
Holy crap, seriously? Dude. Nails. Inge is a trooper. If you didn't already love him for his many timely RBI, love him for his toughness.
Disappointed that his attempt to give Chicago the lead had been thwarted, Cook laid a fastball over the plate to the even-hotter A.J. Pierzynski (1.340 OPS in August). Pierzynski drilled it into right for a base hit, scoring Youkilis and giving Chicago a 7-6 lead. The next batter, Alexei Ramirez, bounced one to Inge. When one of your players gets banged up, you'd prefer not to see him become immediately involved in a crucial play. Baseball can be cruel, though, so a couple of minutes after apparently dislocating his throwing shoulder and popping it back into place, Inge found himself right in the thick of things. After initially clanking the ball off his glove, though, Inge recovered to start an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play and prevent Rios from scoring from 3rd. The damage had been done, though. Oakland had 6 outs to come up with a run. As it turned out, it would only take one.
Matt Thornton entered the game, and got Coco Crisp to ground out. His first pitch to Jonny Gomes, though, was a hanging slider which Gomes absolutely crushed to left field for a solo Gomer. It was one of those shots which took about 2 seconds to go from his bat to the fan's glove. After Reddick flied out to the warning track, Cespedes beat out an infield flare and Carter blooped a duck snort to right. Manager Robin Ventura had seen enough, and Brett Myers was summoned to relieve Thornton.
The first batter due to face Myers? Why, Brandon "Dislocated Shoulder" Inge, of course! Baseball wouldn't have it any other way. Just in case you weren't convinced of Inge's grittiness and resilience, he lined a single off the chalk in right field to plate Cespedes, putting Oakland back in front 8-7. After dislocating his shoulder, Inge became the hero on both defense and offense. Dude. Nails.
Cook and Jerry Blevins set down the White Sox in the 8th, and Oakland added an insurance run on a double by Coco and an RBI single by Gomes. With the heart of Chicago's order due up in the 9th, Grant Balfour was called on to record the final three outs. He started the inning by hitting Youkilis, but then set down Dunn, Rios, and Pierzynski to wrap up the game and set the all-time record for saves by an Australian (18 career saves, passing Graeme Lloyd).
I don't have a whole lot to add to this game. It was long (3 hours, 38 minutes), but it was exciting. I would prefer to see the A's do a better job of protecting their leads, but it's nice to know that they can still put together a late-inning rally when they need to. Blackley wasn't his sharpest, but he did register 6 strikeouts and only one walk. Gomes and Inge were the clear heroes of this game, but Carter and Coco had big games as well, combining to collect 6 hits and score 4 runs. The pitching was shaky, but Chicago has an excellent lineup and a hitter-friendly stadium, so there's that. In the end, this was a road win against a good team who may end up being a Wild Card rival (if Detroit passes them in the AL Central standings). I'll take it.
On an unrelated note, something pretty cool happened while the A's were playing tonight. The Petaluma Little League team defeated a team from Hawaii to advance to the Little League World Series. According to CSN's Amy Gutierrez in that linked article, the Hawaiian team was particularly notable for being the first team in LLWS history to have two girls on its roster. Just as the Pride of Petaluma was Gomering to boost the A's, the youngsters were giving Petaluma another reason to be proud.
Good luck in the next round of the LLWS, fellas! If you win the championship, maybe you can come back and share some postseason advice with Gomes and the A's.