This game was shaping up to be the same story we've seen all year. Bad defense, unnecessary walks, extra baserunners, and one miscue piling on top of another to eventually bury the team. But something special happened tonight. The A's picked each other up. When one man made a mistake, someone else stepped up to clean it up. And then we witnessed an even bigger surprise tonight: Against all odds, the A's bullpen pitched 4⅔ sparkling innings to seal the victory over first place Houston.
The game started inauspiciously. Drew Pomeranz hit Jose Altuve with a pitch, putting on the pesky baserunner. Altuve stole second base, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt, and scored on a sacrifice fly. 1-0 Astros, and they didn't even need a hit to do it.
The plucky A's bats answered right back against Lance McCullers, the Astros' rookie making his major league debut after skipping AAA entirely. Max Muncy doubled with one out, and was singled in by Eric Sogard to even up the score. The A's loaded the bases with walks to Sam Fuld and Coco Crisp, but unfortunately Marcus Semien couldn't come through and the A's wasted the opportunity.
Overall, the A's couldn't get much going against McCullers despite running up his pitch count to 53 in the first two innings. Meanwhile, Pomeranz and Marcus Semien flirted with disaster. In the third, Pomeranz allowed a leadoff single to Jake Marisnick. After a fielder's choice erased Marisnick at second, Eric Sogard made a really nice play on a grounder up the middle and glove flipped the ball to Semien standing on second. Semien flat out dropped the easy catch. Maybe he was thinking of turning two (which he had no chance of doing), but whatever the case, the catch has to be made. Thus, rather than a man on first with two outs, Pomeranz was stuck with first and second, one out, and the dangerous Altuve on second.
We've all seen the story. This is where Pomeranz unravels thanks to shoddy defense, and the Astros tack on at least two runs, if not more. It gets ugly, fast. The unraveling started in very familiar fashion, with a walk to George Springer to load the bases. However, Pomeranz got the groundball he needed, which Semien fielded cleanly, stepped on second and then threw perilously to first to get the double play thanks to a nice dig by Muncy. Crisis averted. Huh. This was an unfamiliar feeling.
In the fourth inning, Pomeranz again allowed two baserunners, this time of his own doing thanks to a walk and a single. AJ Hinch may have bailed him out by calling for a sacrifice bunt. With runners on second and third and one out, Pomeranz escaped the jam again, negotiating a foul pop up from Jason Castro and a lineout from Marisnick to end the threat. Still a 1-1 game, and the A's were actually getting out of jams. Interesting.
Yet again, in the fifth, with one out Pomeranz allowed two walks and was facing the powerful Evan Gattis. Pomeranz was not looking sharp at all, going down 2-1 to Gattis and the balls weren't even close. I can't blame Drew for all the walks, considering the strike zone was all over the place, but still. He wasn't looking great. His nasty curve came in the first couple innings and then left somewhere.
Behind in the count to Gattis, Bob Melvin and the A's trainer ran out to the mound and immediately pulled Pomeranz. We learned later he was pulled with shoulder soreness. That was a timely injury. Former all-star closer/current scrap heap pickup Edward Mujica came into the game behind in the count with two on and one out. Mujica dug deep. His fastball had some solid movement on it and he got the groundball he was looking for. Semien again was in the middle of a crucial play, and this time he fielded it cleanly and made the heads up throw to get the lead runner at third. Buoyed by the nice defense, Mujica proceeded to strike out rookie Preston Tucker on four pitches to preserve the tie. That was the performance of the game, in my opinion.
The A's bats then looked to add on. Billy Butler led off the sixth with a single off Joe Thatcher (who replaced McCullers) and then Stephen Vogt and Max Muncy walked to load the bases. I prayed, anything but the home and first double play, please. Brett Lawrie answered the prayer with a slap single to drive in Butler to give the A's the 2-1 lead. Of course, the next two at bats saw a comebacker to the pitcher and of course that first and home double play. Of course, A's fans bemoaned the wasted opportunity; but hey, it wasn't completely and utterly wasted since Lawrie got the one run in. At this point in this season, I'll take it.
However, the maligned bullpen of the 5+ ERA still had four more innings to go. One run did not seem like a comfortable lead by any measure, and it didn't help that the A's would waste a leadoff double from Butler in the seventh.
Nevertheless the A's were once again able to turn the page from the familiar tale. Mujica turned in a shutout sixth (propelled by a double play turned by--who else?--Marcus Semien) and passed the ball to Evan Scribner. Scribner had an uneventful 1-2-3 seventh.
The 8th was hairier. Scribner gave up a booming, massive shot off the bat of George Springer. At pretty much any ballpark that is a homer, or at the very very least a triple for a guy as fast as Springer. That was about 420-430 feet. You may remember in my game preview I ragged on Minute Maid Park's quirks just for the sake of quirkiness. It came to bit them in the behind tonight. Super Sam Fuld was playing deep, got a great jump, sprinted to their triples alley, scampered up that infernal Tall's Hill in the outfield, and sno-coned a miraculous catch. You have to see it. And then you have to see Springer's reaction.
[Thanks to Hit4TheCycle for the gif creation]
Daaaamn. Scribner got out of the inning and then passed it on to Tyler Clippard for only his second or third save situation of the season. A's nation, having seen this script before, was nervous as heck. Clippard thankfully did his job. 1-2-3. The A's win.
Moreover, the A's win by 1. They're now 2-13 in one-run games. This game was completely out of character for the 2015 A's, but perhaps these A's are still trying to figure out their character. Tonight, we can hope that this was a step to finding their true identity.