The A's are back in second place, looking up at the Texas Rangers, after a 3-2 loss to Houston tonight at the Coliseum. The Astros have now taken three of the last four games in Oakland between the two clubs, and the A's once-perfect record against them has now fallen 12-4.
Former Athletics farmhand Brad Peacock was absolutely dominant through seven innings before faltering in the eighth. But despite the poor ending, his performance would be the difference-maker in tonight's contest.
The A's dropped tonight's game for — among other reasons — one that's simple, common, and perfectly understandable: it took the rookie Sonny Gray, making just his sixth big-league start, two innings to settle in. The first two innings he pitched weren't particularly disastrous, either; he allowed one run in the first and two in the second, leaving the A's offense to deal with a 3-0 deficit with eight at-bats remaining.
Former Athletic Chris Carter came up with the game's first RBI, a two-out single to left field that scored Trevor Crowe. It could have been worse for Peacock — Jose Altuve had reached on a one-out single, but Gray picked him off of first base, utilizing a great move and a great tag by Barton. But nonetheless, Houston led 1-0 after just half an inning.
It got worse for Gray in the top of the 2nd. Back-to-back one-out singles from L.J. Hoes and the newly-acquired Matt Pagnozzi gave Altuve the opportunity to redeem himself with two outs, and he did just that with a line drive to left field that would have only scored one run had Yoenis Cespedes not bobbled the ball, allowing Pagnozzi to score from first and giving Houston a 3-0 lead after just one and a half innings.
The middle innings of tonight's game were largely uneventful. A Coco Crisp double in the third was probably the A's pre-eighth inning offensive highlight, while Gray settled in and ended up putting together a quality start, allowing seven hits over eight innings while walking one and striking out seven when it was all said and done.
Conversely, Peacock had absolutely everything working for him tonight. His fastball command was excellent, and his curve fooled practically everyone in Oakland's lineup at least once. He essentially put together the type of performance that A's fans had envisioned when he was still a part of the organization, and he deserves just about all of the credit for tonight's Astros victory.
Despite the A's loss, the game wasn't without its highlights. Gray finished off the seventh by inducing a soft tapper to the left side from Jonathan Villar that resulted in one of the better defensive plays of the evening. Gray pounced on the ball near the foul line, barehanded it, and unloaded a 95-mph strike across the diamond, where defensive guru Daric Barton made an unbelievable stretch to nab Villar by a step and end the inning. In his short time with the A's, Gray has already established himself as Oakland's best defensive pitcher. Miraculously, I don't cringe when I see Gray try to make a play in the field — I actually feel confident that he'll make the play, and that he won't injure himself.
Brandon Moss worked a leadoff walk in the bottom of the 7th, causing some stirring in the Houston bullpen. But Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith struck out back-to-back on two-strike breaking balls that, shockingly, they didn't appear to have seen coming. Smith's strikeout was his third of the night on the exact same pitch: a Peacock curve. Barton put together a slightly better plate appearance and made some of the best contact Oakland made all night against Peacock, but ended up flying out to left-center field, about ten feet shy of the warning track.
After Gray worked a 1-2-3 top of the 8th, Eric Sogard led off the bottom half with a line drive to the right field corner that LJ Hoes could've played back in off the wall, holding him to a double. But Hoes slipped en route to the ball, allowing it to trickle towards center field after striking the wall in the right field corner, and allowing Sogard to advance to third base. The error proved inconsequential when Stephen Vogt hit a 2-1 pitch deep to right-center field that ended up hitting the wall about four feet below and to the left of the 388-foot sign, just short of a home run. Sogard scored and Vogt had himself a double. Just as importantly, Peacock's night was done.
Astros skipper Bo Porter turned to southpaw reliever Kevin Chapman to face Coco Crisp with a runner in scoring position, turning Crisp around to bat right-handed. After battling back from an 0-2 count, Coco couldn't hold up on the 2-2 pitch, Interestingly, Porter left Chapman in to face Josh Donaldson, despite Donaldson's much better numbers against left-handed pitching. It didn't help him this time around, though, as he swung at the first pitch he saw, hitting a grounder up the middle that moved Vogt to third base but achieved nothing else.
That brought up Jed Lowrie, who, out of nowhere, dropped a squeeze bunt down the third base line. The ball traveled far enough that Chapman had no play at first, but strangely, Vogt had to slam on the brakes charging down the line from third base, as he would've run into the third out had he attempted to score on the play.
After a sequence that involved a pitching change and two pinch-hitters, Alberto Callaspo came up to face Jorge De Leon. Callaspo hit a soft tapper back to the pitcher's mound that De Leon fielded and tossed to Pagnozzi at home plate, whose tag came just a second too late, allowing Vogt's left foot to touch home plate and cut the Astros' lead to 3-2. It was an extremely close play, and Bo Porter was ejected almost instantly arguing the call, even though replay shows that home plate umpire Mark Ripperger got the call right, close as it was. Yoenis Cespedes ended the inning with a lazy chopper to third that made for an easy play for Brett Wallace, but the damage had been done.
After Ryan Cook's scoreless top of the 9th, the A's had one last chance to either tie the game up or win it entirely, but suffice it to say that it went poorly. Seth Smith grounded out to Chris Carter after swinging at a pitch that would've brought the count to 3-1, Daric Barton flied out to center field, and Eric Sogard popped out to Jonathan Villar at shortstop after Ripperger gave Astros reliever Josh Fields a strike on a 3-1 pitch that appeared to miss low.
There are a lot of areas of blame for tonight's loss, but I'll say this: absolutely none of the responsibility falls on Sonny Gray. If you include the first two innings, his outing was good. If you look at his performance in innings 3 through 8, he was absolutely spectacular, as we've seen him be at several points throughout the year. I've never subscribed to the belief that there are some nights when your team isn't going to get you a lot of support, so it's the starting pitcher's job to do whatever it takes to get his team the win. That's ridiculous. You can't ask much more of Gray, as he continues to perform exceptionally well this season and looks to be a huge part of this organization's future.
One area of blame that I have no qualms about highlighting, however, is the performance of Seth Smith and Yoenis Cespedes. Combined, they went 1-8 with five strikeouts, all of which came on curveballs from Brad Peacock. There are very, very, very few times when I feel comfortable judging the actions of Major League Baseball players, given their absurd talent and how woefully far from them skill-wise I am. But this is one of them. In each of the five at-bats, the entire stadium knew what was coming, yet Smith and Cespedes couldn't make the adjustment.
On that note, the possibility is beginning to emerge that Seth Smith won't make the A's playoff roster come October (assuming the A's are in the playoffs in some form or another). He's a perfectly average and replaceable outfield defender, while his offense has been inexcusably bad in the second half. Seriously, the guy is batting .147, and it's starting to look like the combination of Brandon Moss in right field along with Daric Barton and Nate Freiman sharing time at first base will be more attactive than that same combination sans Barton and with Moss at first.
Another area of legitimate concern is Cespedes' defense in left field, which has been shaky all year. Not only has he not displayed the flashiness and range that we saw in 2012, but he's been prone to bonehead errors that often result in extra bases, if not runs. And the worst part is that these errors are often borne of an apparent casual air that he takes getting to batted balls in the outfield. Needless to say, plays like the one he made tonight — which one could argue cost the A's the game — won't cut it in the playoffs.
The Athletics are going to have to regroup, and quickly, because they have three more games to play this weekend against this same Astros team. Hopefully crowds at the Coliseum will be better than the paltry gathering of 11,569 that showed up tonight. First pitch tomorrow is at 7:05pm, and the pitching matchup is Dallas Keuchel (5-8, 4.77 ERA) vs. AJ Griffin (12-9, 3.84). Alan Torres — yes, we have a writer named Alan Torres — will have your gamethread.