The Oakland A’s have struggled to string together hits with runners in scoring position this season, so on Wednesday they found another way to drive in runs — just smash it over the wall a bunch of times.
The A’s hit four home runs against the Texas Rangers, earning a come-from-behind 6-4 victory to extend their winning streak to five games.
The Rangers set the tone for the game early when leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo hit the very first pitch of the evening for a homer off Oakland starter Sean Manaea. But that was the only long ball Texas could manage, and the A’s answered with dingers from Matt Olson in the 1st inning, Ramon Laureano in the 5th, Austin Allen in the 7th, and Olson again in the 8th. Allen’s was the first of his MLB career.
Before the power display hit its full stride, the Rangers held a lead for a while. Manaea once again looked great for a few innings before losing his magic in the 4th, and the Rangers went up 4-2. But the green and gold bullpen shut them down from there, retiring 17 of the 18 batters they faced to give the lineup long enough to slug their way back.
Same story for Manaea
Before we get to the dingers, let’s talk pitching. Sean Manaea has made three starts so far this year, and all of them have gone the same. He’s spectacular for three innings, and then in the 4th it all comes crashing down and he gives up a rally.
Wednesday was the first time Manaea gave up so much as a baserunner in those first three frames, after retiring the first nine hitters in each of his first two outings. This time, Choo jumped on his first pitch, sending it the other way for a leadoff homer to take an immediate 1-0 lead. The southpaw went on to sit down nine of his next 11 batters to breeze through the end of the 3rd.
And then, the 4th inning: single, walk, double, single, sac fly, all good for three runs and a fresh lead for the Rangers, not to mention an early hook for Manaea. The walk was the first he’d issued this year, to the 52nd batter he faced.
Manaea: 3⅓ ip, 4 runs, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 1 HR, 6 hits, 74 pitches (45 strikes)
He hit a season-high velocity of 92.6 mph early on, and broke 91 several more times. But once the 4th rolled around, he never reached 90 again, whether because he was running out of gas or because he spent the whole time pitching out of the stretch with runners on base.
There was plenty to like in the first three innings, and he did rack up a healthy nine swinging strikes along the way. But he’ll need to figure out how to work deeper into games and go through lineups effectively at least a second time around if he’s going to help the rotation.
Burch: Tree great innings
The A’s acquired Burch Smith for cash last winter. It was a quiet move and under normal circumstances he may not even have made the Opening Day squad, but when pandemic conditions led to expanded rosters he got a chance in the bigs.
The right-hander has made the most of that opportunity so far, and Wednesday was his best performance yet. He entered in the 4th to clean up Manaea’s rally, and he responded by retiring all 10 batters he faced. It only took 33 pitches, and nobody came particularly close to getting a hit off him. He never even went to a three-ball count, and three of the outs came on the first pitch of the at-bat.
Smith: 3⅓ ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 0 hits, 33 pitches (24 strikes)
It was absolute brilliance, with his 94 mph fastball (96.5 max) pounding the zone and getting hitters to swing through it a half-dozen times. His changeup didn’t help much, but his curve drew a few swings.
Here are those pitches in action, earning his four strikeouts. The first and last ones in the video show him working his fastball up in the zone to earn whiffs, and another heater on the outside edge gets the call for a backwards K. The third pitch in the video was a gift, finishing way inside but earning the call anyway — it was a changeup, so it was one of the green dots in the chart above, and it doesn’t really matter which one because none were close to strikes (but it was at least the closest one).
Smith has thrown 7⅓ innings this year and is yet to allow a run, and he’s also stranded both inherited runners he’d been handed (including one in this game). He’s got a couple clutch highlights already, between surviving the 10th inning on Opening Day, and now going long on Wednesday to help fuel a comeback victory. Factor in six strikeouts, only one walk, and very little hard contact, and you’ve got the makings of an intriguing sleeper.
Is this a nice hot streak from an over-performing replacement player, or the beginning of a breakout by a pitcher finally unlocking his talent? He’s always had solid stuff, and his control was the issue that held him back. Early theory based on small-sample data: He may be pitching more to contact and trying to get hitters to chase and hit it weakly, rather than looking to blow everyone away for strikeouts — though he did also rack up a few of those on Wednesday.
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working so far. He’s quickly becoming a key arm in Oakland’s lockdown pen.
Pen is mightier
Smith’s brilliance was only the beginning of another great night by the bullpen. After he left, T.J. McFarland and Joakim Soria combined to retire seven of the final eight batters, with just one single off McFarland. For Soria, it was his second save already, as he helps keep closer Liam Hendriks fresh — after all, Hendriks pitched three of the last four days, and with pitcher injuries up around the league it’s not a bad idea to be extra careful.
Overall, the pen faced 18 batters and put down 17 of them. It doesn’t get much better than that, and it only took them 67 pitches to toss nearly six scoreless frames — extra clutch on a night when the starter didn’t have it.
Finally, the fun part. Dingers!
Just like Choo and the Rangers, the A’s wasted no time flashing some muscle. Their third batter of the game, Matt Olson, hammered a pitch from starter Kyle Gibson and sent it 406 feet for an early 2-1 lead. It would be his second-longest hit of the night.
That was all the A’s could muster until the 5th inning. With Gibson rolling, having retired seven straight batters after escaping a 3rd-inning jam, Ramon Laureano stepped up and maintained his title as the hottest hitter in Oakland.
But that still wasn’t enough to catch up, as the solo shot only cut the deficit to 4-3. The A’s eventually chased Gibson after six quality innings, and then, as is becoming a trend for them, they exploded against the opposing bullpen. This time it was a new hero, quite literally, as catcher Austin Allen came to bat with a runner on base and delivered his first career MLB homer, putting Oakland on top 5-4.
But the A’s weren’t done. With the lead in hand, they added one more piece of insurance, as Olson brought the game full circle by blasting another tater — this time 409 feet.
Six runs, all on homers, and despite going 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position. Oakland has now hit 14 dingers in 12 games so far.
Extra shoutout to Tony Kemp for his two hits, including one in front of Allen’s homer, which made a huge difference in the game. He’s suddenly batting .294 after a couple nice days against the Rangers.
Bring out the brooms
The A’s now stand at 8-4, best in the AL West. They’ll go for the sweep on Thursday at 12:40 p.m., but it won’t be easy, with All-Star lefty Mike Minor on the hill for the Rangers. Oakland counters with Mike Fiers.