Slow start? What slow start?
The Oakland A’s won their sixth straight game on Thursday, raising their AL West division-leading record to nine wins in their first 13 contests.
The latest triumph came against the Texas Rangers by the score of 6-4, completing a three-game sweep at the Coliseum. The A’s bats stayed productive, putting 11 runners on base and going 3-for-5 with runners in scoring position, and they also got a home run from Matt Olson — his third in the last two games since showing up with a new mustache.
Even more important than the runs being scored was who was creating them. Hitters other than Ramon Laureano and Mark Canha are now helping out, though that pair of hot hands still contributed on Thursday as well. Olson has come alive, and Khris Davis and Sean Murphy each drove in runs too, while Matt Chapman reached base twice.
Oakland’s pitching wasn’t quite as sharp as it has been this season, but the staff did just enough to get the job done. Mike Fiers had a quality start going through six innings, but a knock and a blast to lead off the 7th made it a tight game again. The bullpen put runners on base in each of the 7th through 9th frames, including a bases-loaded jam in the 8th against Yusmeiro Petit, but they were able to prevent any Rangers from crossing the plate. Liam Hendriks sealed his fourth save in five tries.
Lineup coming alive
Over their previous three games, the A’s had scored 22 total runs while smashing seven homers and going a solid 8-for-27 with runners in scoring position. They stayed hot on Thursday, against one of the best pitchers in the league.
Oakland had great success against Mike Minor last year, even though the All-Star lefty finished eighth in Cy Young voting. They faced him three times in 2019 and beat him in each game, collecting 17 runs in 16 innings, making them the only team in the majors who gave him consistent trouble. Combine a currently streaking lineup with a pitcher whose number they seem to have, and you get nice results.
The A’s got to work right away. In the 2nd inning, Matt Olson got ahold of a slider and drilled it out to right for a solo homer. He’d been 0-for-9 lifetime against Minor entering the day.
The dinger was his fourth of the year, but his third in his last five plate appearances dating back to Wednesday. When Olson gets hot, he goes supernova, much like his teammate Khris Davis. Believe what you want, but science suggests this is pure mustache power, as the resurgence corresponds perfectly with the appearance of his new whiskers — and as we all know, correlation equals causation in all cases.
Olson’s teammates salute his success:
Despite the early firework, the A’s didn’t settle for just homers like they had on Wednesday. In the 4th inning, still holding their 1-0 lead, they strung together exactly the kind of extended rally we’ve been hoping to see from them. It wasn’t quite as long or fruitful as the eight-run snowman they dropped on Seattle on Monday, but it was every bit as impressive with a couple well-earned clutch hits.
Ramon Laureano sparked things as usual, with a leadoff single, and Matt Chapman walked to set the scene. Mark Canha singled to drive in the lead runner, but then a sharp lineout by Olson mercifully found a glove for the first out instead of another RBI. Chad Pinder walked to load ‘em up, and Khris Davis came through by lining a strong single to plate two more runs. Stephen Piscotty wrapped things up with a sac fly to cash in the final RISP, and just like that Oakland had hung a four-spot on ace-caliber pitcher without so much as an extra-base hit.
There are two particular things to appreciate about this rally, and we’ll explore both in more depth in another post. The first is seeing the whole team take part — they couldn’t find these long rallies before because only a couple guys were landing any hits at all, but now enough A’s are getting locked in that they have the chance to even do this kind of thing. Laureano and Canha still helped as usual, but they don’t get four runs out of it without the whole gang chipping in.
Secondly, they did it off the opposing starter. Most of their success this year has come from wearing out the starter via pitch count and then feasting on the bullpen behind him, but on Thursday they got to work right away and just did their damage against the starter — and, again, a really good lefty one.
Oakland looked like they might cruise from there, up 5-0, but Texas fought back to make it 5-4. Fortunately, the A’s were able to rise to the challenge and scratch out another run for insurance — and once again thanks to a different name in the lineup. Davis singled to lead off the 7th, moved to second, and was lifted for a pinch-runner (Franklin Barreto sighting!). Rookie catcher Sean Murphy then rapped a single through the left side to plate Barreto and give Oakland’s bullpen some extra breathing room.
Six runs, five of them against the star starter, on six hits and five walks, including one homer and a few clutch knocks w/ RISP, plus a sac fly and some generally strong situational hitting. Play like that every day and they may never lose again — including in the postseason.
Fiers burns a bit too long
Mike Fiers had his second straight quality start in the bag. He breezed through the first four scoreless innings, facing just two batters over the minimum. He let one through in the 5th on a few hits, and served up a solo homer in the 6th, but he’d still put his team in a position to win with a 5-2 lead.
Unfortunately, Fiers came back out for the 7th. A solid single led off the frame, and the next batter unloaded for a two-run homer. A strong effort by Fiers suddenly only looked mediocre in the box score, and more importantly the lead had been cut to one.
Fiers: 6 ip, 4 runs, 2 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR, 7 hits, 80 pitches (49 strikes)
It’s easy to criticize the decision to keep in Fiers for the 7th after some struggles the previous two innings, or at least to let him face the lefty who homered even though there was a southpaw reliever up in the bullpen already. But hey, sometimes this move works and you squeeze some extra outs, and he’d been so efficient that his pitch count was still tiny. The A’s had the cushion to absorb one mistake, and they did just that.
And who was that lefty who homered in the 7th? It was infielder Anderson Tejeda, making his MLB debut — and setting some Rangers club history along the way.
When Fiers allowed his first run in the 5th, that was Tejeda singling home his teammate from third base for his first career hit in the majors. Then in the 7th he added his first dinger.
Tejeda also stole a base against elite throwing catcher Sean Murphy, and that landed him in the all-time franchise books.
Per team PR, Anderson Tejeda just became the first Ranger to record a hit, RBI *and* stolen base in his MLB debut. Last big-leaguer to do it was Jake Cave for the Twins— Levi Weaver (@ThreeTwoEephus) August 6, 2020
Sure, he’s on the other team. But this is pretty cool nonetheless and worth a moment to appreciate. Nice game, rook.
Bullpen makes it interesting
As noted at the end of the lineup section of this recap, the A’s hitters gave their pen some breathing room with that insurance run in the 7th. The relievers didn’t technically end up needing it, but the viewing audience certainly appreciated the courtesy.
After Fiers’ departure, lefty Everyday T.J. McFarland came in for the 7th. He allowed a one-out double to Shin-Soo Choo to put a runner in scoring position, but then induced a couple of his trademark grounders to strand him. All three of his outs came on the ground.
The 8th brought the trusty Yusmeiro Petit, who’s finally begun to allow an occasional baserunner the last few days. The Rangers collected three straight singles against him to load the bases, with just one out on the board, but Petit stayed cool and got a popout and strikeout to end it.
In the 9th, closer Liam Hendriks received the call after getting a day off Wednesday (Joakim Soria worked that save). The relentless Choo notched a leadoff single to keep Texas’ hopes alive, but the next batter struck out. Willie Calhoun then came up with a chance to be a hero and he smoked a sharp liner, but it went directly at shortstop Marcus Semien, who was shifted to the right of the 2B bag for just such an event. Choo had run on contact, and Semien easily flipped the ball to first to double him off and end the game.
It wasn’t the kind of dominance we saw Wednesday, when the bullpen retired 17 of the final 18 hitters to finish the game. Today they put runners on in each inning, and into scoring position twice, and at one point the go-ahead run was on base. But they came through and held the opponent out of the column that matters, and protected the lead once again.
That’s the A’s first sweep of the season, or at least the first in their favor after dropping a two-game set to the Rockies. They’ve won three of the four series they’ve played so far, including both the four-gamers. Win every series and you’ll win your division, pretty much guaranteed.
Remember to put your cans out on the curb tonight, because the garbage men are coming to town Friday. The Houston Astros visit for the first time since their cheating scandal came to light, and it will happen with no fans in the stands to heckle them, and no Fiers on the mound to oppose them — he won’t pitch in the three-game series after going Thursday.
But nevertheless, it’s still a big showdown against Oakland’s top competition in the division. The Astros pitching staff has been decimated by injuries, including their defending Cy Young starter, their star closer, and multiple All-Star setup men, but their powerful lineup is still intact. Some of Houston’s hitters have been slow so far, but so were the A’s right up until they weren’t.
The first game is Friday at 6:10 p.m., with Chris Bassitt going up against former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.