The Oakland A's took the first game of the 4 game road set in Houston, with a 3-1 win paced by high quality pitching from lefty starter Rich Hill, who accumulated 10 K's, and 3 perfect innings from John Axford, Ryan Dull and Ryan Madson. The pitchers shut down the potent Astros lineup and the bats came through with just enough to win, with Yonder Alonso leading the way with 2 RBI hits both with 2 outs.
The 2016 season has been a roller coaster ride, with more troughs than peaks. Thursday evening's game was a highlight in what has been a tough year, as Hill, Axford, Dull and Madson combined to yield just three hits and shut down an Astros team that features multiple high quality hitters who have been hot. Additionally, the A's defense, which has been very bad on the year, played well and continued a streak of 13 games without an error, which is certainly a step in the "let's be competent in core fundamentals" direction that is critical to the success of the franchise.
Early on, the game looked like it may not be a pitching dual, as the Astros started the scoring in the bottom of the 1st after Astros young star George Springer led off with a triple to CF just past Coco Crisp, and Marwin Gonzalez plated the run with a ground out to 2B. Hill was able to strike out all star 2B Jose Altuve and got Carlos Correa to fly out to end the inning. Little did we know at the time, that would be the sole run the Astros' offense would be able to manufacture.
The A's quickly answered back in the top of the 2nd inning. Danny Valencia and Khris Davis led off with back-to-back singles and A's all star C Stephen Vogt walked to load the bases. The rally was slowed as Marcus Semien hit into a 6-4-3 double play, however Valencia did score on the play, evening the score. Offensive hero Yonder Alonso stepped up in the clutch with a 2 out double to left center that plated Davis and resulted in the game winning RBI. Jake Smolinski grounded out to end the inning, but the damage on Astros starter Doug Fister was done, and the A's had given Hill and the bullpen all that was needed to win the game.
Hill did not quite have his epic curve going, but it was strong enough to keep the Astros off balance and Hill's low 90s fastball was nasty. Hill breezed through the 2nd through 6th innings with just two more singles and two walks. Hill struck out 10 batters on the day, and earned the win to move to 9-3 and lower his ERA to an impeccable 2.25. Hill's line ended at 6 IP, 1 run (earned) on 3 hits, 2 BB's and 10 K's. Hill now has 90 K's on the year and has been the most dominant A's pitcher by far.
For the Astros, after the turbulent 2nd inning, Fister settled in as well and mowed down the A's. Fister worked a scoreless 3rd through 8th as he dueled with Hill frame for frame, despite having no heat. Like the Tommy Milone's and Jared Weaver's of the MLB, who have also shut down the A's, Fister worked the edges of the zone and changed speeds effectively. The A's hitters clearly need to figure out how to approach soft tossers.
The only mid-inning drama was some questionable umpiring by plate umpire DJ Reyburn resulting in angry Athletics batters, which reached a crescendo after Crisp struck out and tossed his bat in Reyburn's direction, which resulted in an immediate ejection of the A's veteran OF with the good eye. Manager Bob Melvin came out to make a case, but Coco was gone for the game.
While Fister was keeping pace on his end, the A's had to turn to the pen in the 7th inning. Axford entered and AN gave a collective gasp in fear, as Axford has NOT pitched well over the past few weeks. This time, things were different, as Axford showed a pretty nasty cut fastball that he has not thrown much this year, and he worked a perfect 7th, including getting two K's. It was a relieving relief outing to see from Axford.
The totally nails Dull then came on for the 8th and produced another dull outing for opposing fans, as he also worked a 1-2-3 inning and secured an additional K, which was the 13th on the night for the Astros batters who, despite their hitting ability, lead the league in K's and held to that form tonight vs. quality pitching from the A's.
The A's entered the top of the 9th clinging to that 1 run lead secured in the top of the 2nd. Josh Reddick led off with a grounder to a shifted Correa that Reddick was able to beat out with a bad throw from Correa contributing. The official scorer ruled it an E-6, but it looked like a hit due to great hustle by Reddick. The play would prove crucial to securing an insurance run as a Davis ground out moved Reddick to 2nd, Vogt was intentionally walked with two outs, then Semien drew a walk to load the bases. Alonso then nubbed a 40 foot base hit to the right side of the infield to no man's land of a shifted defense to secure an RBI hit and move the A's lead to 3-1.
Closer Madson worked a crisp and clean 1-2-3 9th to close it out and earn his 17th save. He capped an excellent night from the A's bullpen and the A's pitching staff as a whole. It was great to see the pitchers mow down the hot Astros bats and the A's got just enough offense to earn the W and move to 37-49 on the year.
Tomorrow brings an intriguing match up as rookie SP Daniel Mengden faces the Astros club that drafted him and traded him just last year for Scott Kazmir. The Stache will look to prove to his old franchise that they made a mistake. The Astros will counter with Collin McHugh. Game time is 5:05 Pacific. Go A's!