The Oakland Athletics' series against the Houston Astros this week got progressively better as it went along. The first game was a nailbiter. The second game was a blowout that turned into a nailbiter. And the third game was a blowout that stayed blown out. The A's captured the finale by the score of 13-1 behind eight strong innings from Jeff "Shark" Samardzija and a grand slam by Brandon Moss off of reliever Anthony Bass. Oakland took two of three games in the series to maintain its two-game lead in the AL West, a lead which could extend to three games depending on what the Angels do in their evening game.
Thursday was already a great day before the game even started. Jim Johnson and his 6.92 ERA were designated for assignment the morning after nearly blowing a 9-2 lead over one of the worst teams in baseball, clearing the 30th best player in the organization off of the 25-man roster. There were two big questions entering the contest. Would the lineup be able to score enough without arguably its best player, Yoenis Cespedes, who was nursing a sore thumb? And would Shark be able to work deep into the game to give the tired bullpen some rest? The answers to both questions proved to be "yes."
The A's got the scoring started in the third inning. Josh Reddick and Eric Sogard reached base to lead off, but Coco and John Jaso were unable to bring them home. Josh Donaldson, moved up to the third spot in the order with Cespedes out of the lineup, came through with an opposite-field hit to drive in Reddick. Then, the LOL Astros took over. Sogard and Donnie pulled off a double steal to move to second and third, and Houston starter Scott Feldman promptly uncorked a wild pitch to plate Sogard. Derek Norris eventually capped the rally with an opposite-field hit of his own, and it was quickly 3-0.
The Astros briefly looked like they might compete in this game. In the fourth, Chris "Trogdor" Carter bounced a home run off the left-field foul pole, settling an age-old debate -- in battle, a dragon will defeat a shark. However, Oakland got the run back right away in the bottom of the frame, thanks largely to Reddick's second double of the day.
In the sixth, Oakland put the game away for good. Feldman was pulled with two on and one out, and he was relieved by Anthony Bass. It turns out that, just as a shark will lose to a dragon in a fight, a bass will also get devoured by a shark. Bass hit Donnie with a pitch to load the bases, and Moss followed with a towering drive to right. It looked like it had a chance off the bat, but right fielder Robbie Grossman tracked it as if he was going to catch a fairly routine sac fly. Then he drifted a bit farther back. And back. And then he was at the wall, reaching up like he had a chance. Then he looked up as the ball bounced off the front of the bleachers for Moss' third slam of the year. One of these three things happened here: either Grossman was trying to deke the runners by making it look like he'd catch it, or he got a horrible read on it, or the ball just carried more than expected. One way or the other, it was now 8-1.
From there, the rest of the game was a formality. With Johnson out of the picture, the Astros had little hope of a game-changing rally, and indeed they did not find one.
The A's added a ninth run in the sixth inning after Moss' blast. Then, in the ninth, despite their best efforts to go down quietly, they accidentally padded the lead further. The first three batters reached base and made sure to play station-to-station baseball so as not to upset professional whiner Bo Porter. But unfortunately, Stephen Vogt is so hot that he couldn't even get out if he tried to. It's like when a basketball player needs to miss a free throw for strategic purposes, but still makes it on accident because his muscle memory is so good. Nobody really needed Vogt to increase the score. But there he was, slapping a liner into the gap in left-center to clear the bases. He's now hitting .357/.387/.519 with 21 RBI in 40 games. Nate Freiman came in to pinch-run and was eventually moved around as well to give Oakland its 13th run of the afternoon.
While the A's were destroying entire planets with their bats, Samardzija was busy being the stopper. (Yes, the A's are so good that you can still be a stopper the day after a win because a one-game winning streak is disappointing.) The bullpen had thrown a lot of innings in the previous four contests, and they were taxed. Sean Doolittle, Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook, and Dan Otero had each gone the last two days, and they had each pitched in one of the final two Orioles games. So, Samardzija wasn't a stopper in terms of snapping a losing streak, but rather in halting the reliance on the pen for one day. He threw eight innings and allowed only five hits, with the homer by Carter serving as the only stain on his record. His control was back after his shaky outing against Baltimore, as well; he struck out six and didn't walk a batter, generally hit his spots, and threw 70 of his 101 pitches for strikes. That's an ace-like outing, even against Houston. And, lest you chalk this one up to "Astros gonna Astro," note that this 12-run victory was the biggest margin of defeat that has been laid on them all year. This wasn't just beating a bad team. This was utterly crushing a bad team more than it has been crushed in four months. It was also unfamiliar territory for Shark, who is unaccustomed to getting run support from his team (since his team used to be the Cubs).
And in case you were unsure, Shark has absolutely been an ace for the A's so far. He's made four starts, twice going seven innings and twice going eight. In those 30 frames, he's racked up 20 strikeouts and issued only two walks. There have been dingers -- more dingers (four) than walks, actually -- but the only loss Oakland has incurred with him on the mound was to Felix Hernandez. And even that one was close.
This one was about as cut-and-dried as a game could be. The A's scored a ton of runs -- a baker's dozen, to be precise -- and their opponent went down quietly. The only drama was the question of how big the margin of victory would be, and how many Johnson jokes we could make until they started getting sad (we're not there yet, so keep going).
While Samardzija was clearly the player of the game, and Moss the clear runner-up, there were a few other noteworthy performances:
-- Reddick, once again armed with his Careless Whisper walk-up music, is now 4-for-10 with three doubles and a walk in three games back from his knee injury; if you count the four games he played in June in between DL stints, he's 9-for-21 with four extra-base hits, three walks, and only four strikeouts.
-- Sogard reached base two more times, both on walks.
-- Norris went 3-for-4 with a walk.
-- Jed Lowrie collected three more hits to raise his average to .243 -- he's now hitting .379/.383/.517 in his last 15 games (61 PA's).
-- And of course, newly promoted Evan Scribner showed us all how a mop-up outing is supposed to go by breezing through a 16-pitch ninth inning and surrendering only a single.
The Astros aren't as bad as they were the last couple years, but they are still bad and are susceptible to a bombing like this if you catch them on the right day. Don't get too excited about crushing them, but also don't completely ignore it -- after all, the win still counts the same and the Angels get just as many chances to beat up on Houston as Oakland does. Besides, it's not like the competition is about to get tougher -- the A's now travel to Texas for a six-game trip against the Rangers (worst record in MLB) and these same Astros (third-worst). We saw what the Angels did with the soft part of their schedule, so the A's need to continue taking care of business in games like this that they are supposed to win. In that sense, and really any sense you can think of, Thursday was an enormous success.
In retrospect, we did forget to warn the Astros about one thing:
Whoops. Our bad, guys.