For the A's and Angels, tonight's game was one of lost opportunities. Through seven innings, each team had managed only a single run despite having put eight and nine men on base, respectively. In the end, the first team to not squander a prime scoring opportunity won the ballgame — it just happened to take an additional eight innings for either team to push a run across.
Leaving runners in scoring position was the theme of the night for both clubs. Through those first seven innings, Anaheim was 0-5 with runners in scoring position; their run had come on a Mike Trout solo shot off of Sonny Gray in the top of the first. That pitch would prove to be the only major mistake Gray made all night, as he proceeded to hold the Angels scoreless for the next six innings despite giving up an additional four hits and a walk. At this point, it seems like it would take a pretty substantial decline in performance for Gray not to be a part of the four-man playoff rotation. But the rookie has showed no signs of slowing down, turning in another strong performance tonight against a team that, despite its record, has some big bats and an offense that can be potent from time to time.
Oakland, meanwhile, was 1-5 with RISP in that period. The A's squandered scoring opportunities multiple times throughout the evening, the first of which came in the 4th, when Alberto Callaspo struck out with runners on first and second. Josh Donaldson did the same thing in the next inning with runners at the corners, adding to Oakland's frustrations.
Josh Reddick made easily the best defensive play of the evening in the sixth inning, when he came out of absolutely nowhere to make a spectacular diving grab of Mark Trumbo's sinking line drive. As we've seen him do time and time again, Reddick took an excellent route to the ball, entered an all-out spring, and layed out horizontally to make the play to steal extra bases from the Angels' first baseman.
Oakland narrowly escaped disaster in the 7th after Ryan Cook hit Howie Kendrick and Mike Trout with pitches after allowing a single to JB Shuck — Jerry Blevins had to come in and mop up, striking out Josh Hamilton to get out of the inning. Hamilton was the only batter Blevins faced tonight, but Jerry got the job done when it counted.
The A's failed to do anything with Donaldson's leadoff single in the 8th; leaving Grant Balfour to try to hold off Anaheim and give the A's a chance to walk off. He did just that — Balfour returned to his early and mid-season form in the 9th inning, striking out Andrew Romine, JB Shuck, and Howie Kenrick in order to give the A's the opportunity Even though the bottom line is the only thing that matters, stress-free frames from Balfour would really come in handy in the playoffs, and throughout the rest of the season as the A's try to finish off Texas and earn their second consecutive AL West crown.
With Michael Kohn pitching for Anaheim, Alberto Callaspo hit a line drive the other way for a single to lead off the bottom of the 9th, and was immediately pinch-run for by Jemile Weeks. Stephen Vogt failed to reach base, but advanced the runner to second on a medium-deep fly ball to the left field corner that Weeks read perfectly — as soon as he realized that Hamilton was going to make the play, he hustled back to the bag at first, timed his push-off perfectly, and dove into second base about two steps ahead of Hamilton's one-hop throw.
That left Eric Sogard to face Kohn with the winning run in scoring position, but Melvin brought in Jed Lowrie to pinch-hit for him. Mike Scioscia and the Angels opted to walk Lowrie and set up the double play, giving Coco Crisp the chance to drive in the winning run with one out and runners on first and second.
Coco didn't get the walk off, but he did work a walk after an epic, 10-pitch battle with Kohn. That left the bases loaded for none other than Daric Barton, who was essentially tasked with getting the ball out of the infield, as the Angels brought Cole Calhoun in from right field to play first base and spread the four original infielders throughout the rest of the diamond. After taking the first pitch up and in, Barton proceeded to take two uncharacteristically huge cuts at pitches, took another ball to push the count to 2-2, and then took another huge cut on a 95mph four-seamer that he didn't come close to touching.
Josh Donaldson came close to suffering same fate after falling into an 0-2 hole, but in the end, he did what an All-Star and MVP-caliber player does — he hit a line shot to the gap in right-center field that Mike Trout had no prayer of getting to, allowing Jemile Weeks to trot home for the game-winning run.
It was Balfour that earned the win in the end, and as problematic as I find that statistic, he deserved it after working a positively dominant 9th inning. With the exception of Cook, the rest of the bullpen also performed well — Sean Doolittle's scoreless eighth and Blevins' strikeout of Hamilton in the 7th were game-altering sequences that, had they not gone Oakland's way, might have prevented Donaldson from ever being in a position to come up with the game-winner.
Cook does continue to struggle, and it's certainly worrisome. He's supposed to be Oakland's best right-handed setup man, yet at this point, many fans would rather see Dan Otero in the high-leverage situations that Cook has gotten the call for all year long. Cook's September has been awful beyond belief — his opponents' slash line against him in that timeframe is a cringe-worth .435/.480/.609. Their wOBA is .474. Worst of all, his WHIP is 2.77, while most setup men probably would be unsatisfied with a figure half as large. He might have a mechanical issue, or a mental issue, or worst of all, be injured. But whatever it is, the A's are going to need him to find his stride before the postseason, because meltdowns like the one's he's been prone to all month long aren't part of the recipe for winning playoff games.
Oakland's magic number for the AL West now sits at 6 with five games remaining on the homestand. I don't want to jinx anything, but it's looking increasingly likely that the A's can clinch at home, especially given the fact that four of those five games are against the Minnesota Twins.
They'll try to reduce that number to 5 tomorrow (maybe even 4, with a little help from the Tampa Bay Rays) in a 12:35 tilt with the Angels, the last meeting of the year between the two clubs in Oakland. Baseballgirl will have your thread.