Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers was penciled into everybody's calendar for a long time. It was a night game against a storied club under new front office leadership that had wrapped up an exciting and crazy winter trade spree. There was going to be a bobblehead to honor Mark McGwire's 1987 Rookie of the Year campaign.
As August 18 drew closer, both rotations appeared to line up for the perfect matchup between AL Cy Young candidate Sonny Gray and the defending NL Cy Young winner and Most Valuable Player Clayton Kershaw.
And then Sonny Gray got back spasms.
And then the A's lost seven games in a row.
And then Felix Doubront was announced as the starter.
This had all the hallmarks of a very bad time for the A's.
Nonetheless, I packed my ticket and headed to the ballpark on BART, arriving at 5 o'clock, just as the gates opened, to find an amazing number of people wearing Pantone 294 in the A's season ticket holder line. After about 30 minutes moving up the line, I was inside, bobblehead in hand.
One early surprise was seeing Coco Crisp's grandfather, Milton "Nick" Newton, drive his mobility scooter out to the front of the pitcher's mound to throw out one of the ceremonial first pitches to his grandson. The next great surprise was an opportunity for the gathered faithful to welcome Mark McGwire's return to the Coliseum, where he had not set foot since playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001:
It was Clayton Kershaw, and the A's were coming off a seven-game losing streak. I was bracing for a no-hitter.
So of course, Billy Burns smacks Kershaw's first pitch into left center for a base hit. Kershaw still made Valencia look silly in the first inning, and there weren't any signs of Kershaw's bizarre emotional meltdown soon after.
The second inning saw Josh Reddick bunt against Clayton Kershaw in the second inning. The crowd (or at least the half (maybe less) the made up the A's partisans), too used to seeing promising leadoff rallies die at the hands of double plays and pop outs, appreciated this attempt to secure one run against one of the best pitchers in the word. They were over the moon when Marcus Semien grounded out to second base to score one run.
It could have been one more, perhaps, barring Clayton Kershaw's behind-the-back grab that just made me laugh:
This was just good baseball.
Kershaw's third inning was so strange from the stands, because you would not expect an ace pitcher to visibly show his frustration over getting squeezed in the strike zone. Strike zones are weird because umpires are not robots (robot strike zone now, please), and you would think a veteran like Kershaw could adjust to whatever was going on.
Instead, we were treated to Kershaw spiking a ball and firing it into his own dugout in the third inning:
And in the fourth inning, it appears Kershaw makes an ungentlemanly attempt to quick pitch Mark Canha before he was alert to the impending pitch. It's Canha not being alert that adds an element of danger to the play and therefore requires an umpire's intervention for player safety. The batter certainly has a responsibility to be alert, but that should come from an umpire's warning to be alert in the box, not from a surprise fastball.
I guess what makes Kershaw the ace here is that he didn't actually pitch worse with those distractions. He still finished seven innings of one-run ball.
The Oakland partisans were resigned to Felix Doubront starting tonight's game. By the end of six innings, they were giving him a standing ovation.
Number five starters, you see, usually have starts that result in "meh", occasionally have starts that make you say "blech," and rarely have starts that make you scream "woo." Doubront's Tuesday night was a "woo" start.
Doubront earned eight strikeouts, and most impressive was how many times hitters were flailing at stuff in the dirt. Four of those eight were recorded after not being caught. Less impressive were the two sets of leadoff walks to A.J. Ellis and Joc Pederson, but he climbed out of the hole he dug both times. The only run he allowed was able to score because of a passed ball, so Doubront finished the night with no earned runs.
I don't think Sonny could have done much better, except maybe not issue six walks.
Pat Venditte made his return, and of course the ballpark buzz changed as the switch-pitcher began his warmup tosses. "There's the guy that pitches with both hands!" "What happens when a switch-hitter comes up?" Et cetera, et cetera.
Venditte worked out of trouble in the seventh inning, but successfully recorded the first two outs of the eighth inning. though the second one was on a deep drive to left caught by Sam Fuld. That prompted Fernando Rodriguez's entrance.
The first infield single was one where Marcus Semien showed good range, but Yasiel Puig was a half step too fast for Marcus Semien's unsure arm. The second infield single was one where Eric Sogard showed good range, but couldn't quite corral the baseball.
A fight or two was breaking out in the lower bowl on the first base side. Rumor has it that none of the belligerents were A's fans, but rather the fight pushed the Giants-Dodgers rivalry into this third party ground, or perhaps it was Dodger-on-Dodger violence. It was most distracting than The Wave. Even the Dodgers bullpen stood up to try to view the altercations, though they were pretty far away from the action.
I began to chant to myself, as if reciting a mantra, "Just one out. You just need one out."
The third hit was A.J. Ellis' home run. That drive over the 362 foot sign drove a number of the Green & Gold faithful out of the stadium.
I'm going to take a moment to go on a little bit of a rant here. I feel sorry for folks that leave the game immediately after the A's give up some late runs to fall behind. I just don't get it. What have they got to lose from staying? Those folks never get to experience the high of the late come from behind victory, choosing to leave embittered from blowing a lead or tie game, and embittered after finding out later that the team had made an improbable comeback.
And if they lose anyway? Well gosh you'll have to sit in traffic for a little bit longer, listening to Chris Townsend rant about ownership or fighting spirit or whatever. There are worse fates.
The A's went to the bottom of the eighth down by three, and those who stuck around were generally aware that the Dodgers bullpen was having problems of its own. Don Mattingly sent in his better relievers to protect a three run lead. His better relievers instead made one ponder, "Is this what it's like to face the Oakland bullpen?"
After Pedro Baez and J.P. Howell, Jim Johnson was greeted to a resounding chorus of boos. I'm not sure if those boos came from A's fans showing their appreciation for his efforts with the A's in 2014 or if they came from Dodgers frans showing their appreciation for his efforts with the Dodgers in 2015. I can't see why it wasn't both.
Now let's pause to think about Mark Canha's performance. The Rule 5 draftee has struggled against left-handers, but he went 2-for-3 against one of the best left-handers in the game. Then he had two more hits to wrap up his first career four-hit game. The first, a two-run double against Pedro Baez, drove the remaining crowd into a frenzy. The second, a leadoff double into the left field corner against Yimi Garcia in the 10th inning, did the same.
Canha touched the plate three times last night: One to score Oakland's first run, once to tie the game (on a clutch hit by Marcus Semien, no less), and once to send everybody home. I love it when rookies succeed, and tonight, Mark Canha was a resounding success.
Perhaps Billy Butler couldn't be freed until we as A's fans let him go of any and all expectations of being a good designated hitter. Around me, folks were openly pleading with Butler to do anything but ground into a double play, and he walked in the second inning instead. Hit the ball to the right side in the eighth inning please Billy, and he complied.
Butler came to bat in the 10th inning with Mark Canha standing at third base, and nobody out. "Hit the ball to the right side," I prayed, "Move the runner over."
Butler did hit the ball to the right side and over the infield to win this one.
So for today, please, set aside whatever hopes you have for the front office to deal with Billy Butler next year. Don't worry your head about amateur draft position. Appreciate what happened last night.
Mark Canha got two hits and scored a run off maybe the best left-handed pitcher in the world. Billy Butler hit the game winning hit. These are joyous, improbable events that keep us watching from 17 games below .500 with 41 games to go.
This was...what's the word...fun!