The A's came in emotionally battered and bruised from the past two days, but they didn't show it. Indeed, in the first inning, after Gray set down the side in order with two K's, the A's initially caught a break. Chris Young bounced one to short, where Jonathan Villar took his time getting the ball to first. While replays showed that Young was obviously out, to me, that was the baseball gods giving the A's a freebie early. Without the benefit of a bunt - gasp! - it would be Jed Lowrie who would double to right-center, scoring Young easily and giving the A's an early lead. After a Josh Donaldson walk and Yoenis Cespedes K, Nate Freiman would smack at a high outside pitch and send it just inside the right-field line. That scored both Donaldson and Lowrie, and made it 3-0 A's. This would be part of a four-hit game for Freiman, who probably wouldn't be in the major leagues right now were it not for being a rule 5 pickup from the Astros. His fortune, however, is also the A's fortune, as he's been a great little pickup for starting against lefties.
It would turn out that Gray didn't really need all that from Freiman, though. After a good debut against the Blue Jays, he turned in an even better start today. Over 8 innings and 118 pitches, Gray walked only 1, struck out nine Astros, and allowed only four hits. Despite not being on TV, the way Vince and Ken were calling it, his stuff sounded electric. Hitting 94 MPH deep into his outing, he snapped off several beautiful curves to unsuspecting Astros. He recorded at least one K in every inning except the fourth, where he got all three outs on flyouts to center field, and only throwing 9 pitches in the process. So far, the decision to demote Tommy Milone in favor of Gray looks like the right one. It remains to be seen, however, how he fares when he faces a true contending team.
The A's would tack on two more runs in the third to cap their scoring for the afternoon. After a Cespedes single, Freiman would slap an Erik Bedard pitch out to dead left field, just out of the reach of Robbie Grossman, to make it 5-0 A's. It's fun to watch Freiman play, partially because he's always so fired up, but partially for this reason, as Alex Hall commented on while at the game:
Great game so far. The highlight has been watching Nate Freiman do anything at all. So awkward.
That's the best way to describe Nate Freiman's swing: awkward. He swats at the ball like it's a fly, actually, which it kind of is compared to his 6'8" frame.
Nevertheless, the A's will take a game like this. They were in control the whole time, with the mild exception of reliever Dan Otero allowing runners to second and third in the ninth before striking out Matt Dominguez to end it.
One thing I'd like to note: The A's used a lineup today with Lowrie at DH, Eric Sogard at SS, and Alberto Callaspo managing 2B. Given the struggles of Seth Smith and Chris Young right now, this arrangement is something I'd like to see more of when Coco Crisp returns to the lineup to man center. Sogard is a better defender at SS than Lowrie, and Callaspo is serviceable at 2B. My guess is that the defensive downgrade at 2B from Sogard to Callaspo is offset by the upgrade of having Lowrie bat over Smith or Young at DH, combined with the upgrade defensively from Lowrie to Sogard. The "regular" alignment can be used if Cespedes or Crisp need to DH to keep each of them fresh.
In sum, the A's played a pretty crisp game just when they needed one. With Texas off today, the A's gained a half-game on them before Cleveland comes to town. This is shaping up to be a heck of a stretch run again, and I'm glad the A's are definitely right in the thick of it.