There's no place like home. The A's returned from their nightmare 10-game road trip battered and bruised, but they held their lead in the Wild Card standings and entered the final 6-game homestand of the season with a magic number of 5. Even better, after a week and a half of facing the 1st, 2nd, and 6th best offenses in the AL, they opened a 3-game series against the lowest-scoring team in the league: The Seattle Mariners. Oakland took care of business tonight, defeating a Mariners team which seems to be sleepwalking through the final stretch of 2012. Although Oakland hit a couple of homers, most of their runs in tonight's 8-2 victory came thanks to walks and errors by Seattle, and the Mariners couldn't capitalize against an Oakland staff which seemed a bit shaky.
With the victory, the Athletics' magic number for the 2nd Wild Card dropped to 4. The Angels beat Texas in the opener of their series, which means that the A's also pulled within 3 games of the AL West lead. The Orioles won to keep their hold on the first Wild Card, but Tampa Bay lost, meaning that Oakland's magic number to eliminate the Rays is now just 3. Each team has 5 games left to play.
Tonight's game pitted Oakland's A.J. Griffin against Seattle's Blake Beaven. The big story, however, was Coco Crisp's return to the lineup. His bout with weapons-grade pink eye kept him out of the lineup for nearly 2 weeks; his last two starts came on September 15th and 18th. Now, when a hitter comes back after an extended absence, you always have to consider that he might need a handful of plate appearances to get back his timing and get comfortable at the wait no never mind he just homered in his first at-bat. Coco needed about 6 pitches to get back in the swing of things. Pun intended. 1-0 A's.
Unfortunately, the Mariners answered back almost immediately. With two outs in the 2nd, Trayvon Robinson absolutely launched one over the center field fence to tie the game. To elaborate on that, Robinson smashed a slow curve ball to dead center field at night in Oakland. And he's a Mariner. Can't forget that part. I'm just assuming that this was the high point of their season. I don't really know. It was certainly the high point of the game for them. Not a lot of good things happen to the Mariners.
No one else reached base until the bottom of the 3rd. Cliff Pennington willed a liner over a leaping Dustin Ackley for leadoff single, and then two batters later, Stephen Drew drilled a homer into the right field bleachers to make it 3-1.
After that, the game went dormant again for a couple of innings. 12 of the next 13 batters were retired, and the only batter to reach base (John Jaso, on a 4th inning single) was eliminated on a very impressive double play by Brandon Moss. Seattle first baseman Justin Smoak hit a sharp grounder a couple of feet off the right-field line, and Moss scooped it up cleanly, threw to Drew at 2nd for one, and received the return throw to complete the deuce. The play could be described as "Barton-esque."
Things picked up again in the 5th. With two out, Coco lined a double into the left field corner. Drew followed with a walk, and then Yoenis Cespedes smashed a grounder to the left side. Brendan Ryan was able to knock it down to keep it in the infield and save a run (momentarily), but Cespedes easily beat out his errant throw to extend the inning. At that point, manager Eric Wedge had seen enough of Beaven, and called on Oliver Perez to douse the flames. Perez has been surprisingly effective this year as a reliever; he entered the game with a 1.88 ERA and a 2.40 K:BB ratio. Perhaps he has finally learned how to control his pitches! Catcher John Jaso set up low and away for Oliver's first pitch, but the lefty missed up and in, so much so that Jaso couldn't get his glove up in time. Perhaps he has not learned to control his pitches. The ball clanked off of Jaso's mitt and rolled far enough away to allow Coco to score from 3rd. Sad times at the corner of Seattle Mariners Street and Oliver Perez Blvd. Just in case you aren't keeping track, the A's had 4 hits in the game to this point, and all four had scored. Efficiency!
After five innings, the A's had a 4-1 lead and were cruising right along. While the offense was doing its thing, A.J. Griffin was taking care of business on his end. After working out of a jam in the 1st, he allowed just 2 more hits through the 5th (Robinson's homer and Jaso's single). The 6th inning would not go as smoothly for him, though. Ackley singled to lead off, and then moved to 2nd on a passed ball. Griffin walked Casper Wells, but then retired the next two batters to bring up Jaso. Unfortunately, the 2-2 pitch hit Jaso's hand, loading the bases and knocking Griffin out of the game. Sean Doolittle came in to retire Smoak to end the inning, but with Griffin out, the A's would need 13 outs from the bullpen to finish this one off (including the out that Doolittle had just recorded).
Doolittle came back out for the 7th, and allowed a leadoff homer to Michael Saunders to cut the lead to 4-2. This game was getting a little bit too close. It was time for the A's to respond, and respond they did.
In the 7th, Oakland rallied like it was 2009: Walk, infield single, walk, walk, popout, error, single. That's four runs on two hits, only one of which left the infield. The inning began with Charlie Furbush walking Cliff Pennington and then bouncing a pitch in front of Jaso to let Penny advance to 2nd. Coco hit a grounder which Brendan Ryan couldn't handle, and Drew walked to load the bases. That was it for Furbush; 3 batters, and all 3 reached base. Stephen Pryor came in. I've never heard of Pryor, but his numbers aren't terrible. He's struck out 10.4 batters per 9 innings, but has also walked 4.6 batters per 9. Basically, he's one of those guys who throws hard (average fastball: 96.4 mph) but has no idea where it's going. He got ahead of Cespedes 1-2, but couldn't finish him off. Cespedes refused to chase Pryor's slider or his high fastballs, and drew the bases-loaded walk to drive in Penny. Brandon Moss followed with a harmless pop-out, and Josh Reddick came to the plate.
This is the one part of the game that I am really struggling to understand. Down 3 runs, with one out in the inning and a force at 2nd, the Mariners played the infield in. I understand this strategy when it's late in a close game, and you absolutely need to cut down that run at the plate. Say, it's a tie game in the bottom of the 9th, there's a speedy batter at the plate, and you aren't confident that you can turn a double play. This was not such a situation. This was a situation where you need to try and get the easy out(s) and keep the score somewhat close. Sure enough, Reddick hit a routine grounder to the right side. If the infield was playing at normal depth, this would have been a tailor-made, inning-ending double play. Instead, Ackley fielded the grounder and threw home. Well, he threw in the general direction of home. He bounced the throw about 5-10 feet to Jaso's right, pulling the catcher off the plate and allowing Coco to score easily. This was the game-ending error, in my eyes. The Mariners could have been out of the inning with just a 3-run deficit, but instead they allowed another run and extended the rally. I really don't understand what Wedge and/or Ackley were thinking here. To rub salt in the proverbial wound, Josh Donaldson bounced a single slowly up the middle to plate two more runs and pretty much put the game out of reach, 8-2. The infield was still playing in for Donaldson. The Mariners had learned nothing from their previous mistake. (Note: Although Donaldson's grounder wasn't hit very hard, it probably would have found the hole no matter how deep the infield was positioned. Still, it's the principle of the matter.)
Jerry Blevins came in for the 8th, which is a move that I can't say I agree with. The A's have four reliable relievers right now, and they need to be conserved as much as possible for the rest of the season. With a 6-run lead against a weak-hitting club, I'd rather coax some innings out of the back-end of the bullpen (Scribner, Ross, Chavez), and save Blevins for a more crucial situation. Nevertheless, the 8th inning went by quietly, and Jim Miller came in to close it out in the 9th. He walked the first two batters, but then retired the next three to seal the victory.
All in all, this was a pretty ho-hum victory for the green and gold. Griffin was solid but not excellent; he allowed two walks, a hit batsman, and a lot of 3-ball counts in his 5.2 innings. When he's on his game, he has much better control than that. Luckily, the Mariners didn't put up much of a fight against him. I don't think that he pitched as well as his final line suggests (and his line still wasn't that impressive). On the other side of things, Oakland's lineup drew 5 walks, but they only scored 8 runs because the Mariners let them. The homers were awesome, and the A's did well to jump out to an early lead, but the 5 insurance runs thereafter were all gift-wrapped by Seattle. It won't be this easy against Texas next week, nor against Baltimore next Friday or anyone in the playoffs. That said, it is comforting to know that the A's are now a good enough team that they can win 8-2 on a day in which they didn't play all that well. That is impressive in its own way.
That's a wrap, folks. The A's need to take care of business against the last bad team that they'll play this year, and they got started on the right foot. Anything less than a sweep in this series would be disappointing. I know that ripping on the Mariners is easy and played out, but they are just embarrassingly bad right now. So keep the pedal to the metal, boys. The Wild Card is within sight, right there on the horizon.
The series continues tomorrow at 1:05pm. Dan Straily will start against Jason Vargas. Good lord, Vargas again? I am so sick of that guy. This will be his 6th start against Oakland this year, and he's got a 2.36 ERA in 34.1 innings with a K:BB of 3.11. Baseballgirl will be your Game Thread hostess.