There might just be a new sheriff in town in the wild AL West.
The Oakland A’s beat the defending American League champion Houston Astros on Sunday, by a comfortable 7-2 margin. The victory completed a three-game sweep by the A’s, extending their winning streak to nine games and improving their AL-best record to 12-4. Most importantly, they also widened their division lead to 5.5 games over Houston and dropped the Astros into third place, a half-game behind the Texas Rangers.
It’s still early, but through one-quarter of the season the A’s are in better position than anyone ever has been to topple this Astros juggernaut.
Unfortunately, the triumph came with a cost. In the 7th inning, the Astros hit outfielder Ramon Laureano with a pitch for the second time in the game and the third time in the series, and on his way to first base he got an earful from Houston coach Alex Cintron. Tempers mounted until finally Laureano charged toward Cintron in the dugout, resulting in a benches-clearing brawl and leading to the ejection of Laureano and A’s catcher Austin Allen — but oddly, not Cintron, who appeared to instigate the whole thing, nor any other Astros. Suspensions surely loom.
As for the game itself, Jesús Luzardo earned the win as a starter for the first time in his career, Matt Olson and Matt Chapman hit back-to-back homers and combined for 5 RBI, Robbie Grossman added his second homer of the series against his old team, and Burch Smith put together another brilliant three-inning relief performance to earn his first career save.
Luzardo for the win
With all that happened in this game, it’s almost hard to remember that Jesús Luzardo made the start, the second of his MLB career.
The lefty was strong again, though this time the other team at least managed to score on him. He worked around hits in each of the first two innings, and then went 1-2-3 in the 3rd, but in the 4th the Astros finally struck (as opposed to struck out, which they did far more often). A leadoff single was eliminated in a perfectly executed 5-4-3 double play, but then a double was followed by a Yuli Gurriel homer to put Houston on the board — although the A’s already had a healthy lead by that point.
Not to be ignored is that double play, which directly reduced the damage done by the dinger. Third baseman Matt Chapman showed off his Platinum Glove, making the throw to second quickly enough that 2B Tony Kemp was able to get rid of it before the runner bore down on him. If the play takes any longer, then the batter would have been safe at first and the homer could have scored a third run. It wasn’t a unique gem, as that play gets made plenty often, but it’s not a total gimme either.
Luzardo went 1-2-3 again in the 5th, but wasn’t quite able to make it through the 6th. He got the first two outs, then issued two walks, his only two of the game. Yusmeiro Petit came in to relieve him, walked one more batter to load the bases, and then, like the boss he is, struck out Carlos Correa to end it and strand them all. There’s nothing small about Petit.
Luzardo: 5⅔ ip, 5 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 5 hits, 89 pitches (57 strikes)
One out away from a quality start, but even more importantly he’s got that pitch count up to nearly a full normal start. Statcast tells its usual story — he maxed out at 98.7 mph, and earned 10 swinging strikes (11.2% of pitches). The hits against him were all legit, and there were a few loud outs, so xwOBA might not be quite as impressed as it was in his previous start (.230 in five scoreless innings), but this was against a tougher lineup and he still beat them.
Grossman beats old squad again
Robbie Grossman began his MLB career with parts of three seasons on the Astros, from 2013-15. They might regret that he’s now playing for their biggest divisional competition.
In the opening game of this series on Friday, Grossman hit a homer to tie the game late and send it to extras, where the A’s eventually won. He hurt them again in Sunday’s finale, going deep in the 2nd inning to open the scoring.
The switch-hitter also added a double and a walk, raising his wRC+ up to a mammoth 167, which leads the team. His raw line of .278/.409/.528 is impressive on its own, and you can officially add him back to the list of hot A’s hitters.
The A’s would need more than one run in this game, though, and they soon got a crooked number the very next inning thanks to the Matts.
Like he did so many times for the Astros against the A’s, Tony Kemp led off with a walk to set the table for the top of the order. Marcus Semien joined him on base with another walk, and Matt Olson came up looking to cash in with two outs already on the board.
Olson initially got robbed. He hit a popup down the left field into no-man’s land, and it fell to the turf and was called foul. It was a close call but it appeared to clearly kick up chalk, implying that it hit the line and should have been fair (good for at least one run), but the A’s weren’t able to get a look at it in time to commit to a challenge and so the call stood. No matter, though, as a couple pitches later Olson destroyed a ball 418 feet for a three-run homer. LOL Astros.
On the very next pitch after that, Matt Chapman homered as well, even farther at 444 feet. It was Matt-to-Matt homers.
Perhaps in a show of Stache Brothers solidarity, next time up Olson fouled out to the first baseman. Chapman followed and also fouled out to the first baseman. While I appreciate the unity, someone please inform Chappy that he doesn’t necessarily need to copy all of Olson’s at-bats, just the dingers.
Chapman wasn’t done producing. In the 7th he got a chance with a man on first (via the infamous Laureano HBP) (the second one, that is), and he doubled to drive home the pinch-runner.
Combined with an earlier RBI by Mark Canha, the 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup knocked in six of the team’s seven runs. That’s what you want to see from the heart of your star-studded lineup, and if the full offense gets hot along with the currently blazing pitching then this club will be unbeatable.
Unfortunately, this otherwise wonderful game was marred by some hostility between the two clubs in the 7th inning. When Ramon Laureano got hit by a pitch, for the second time the game, the third time in the series, and the second time by that same pitcher this weekend, he began jawing on his way to first base. He did reach the bag, though, until Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron continued escalating the situation and aggressively egged Laureano into breaking.
For more details on the kerfuffle, and reactions from around the sport, check out our full post, or watch the Jomboy video analysis below. In terms of this game, the effect was that Laureano was ejected and pulled for a pinch-runner, who later scored, but by that point the A’s had a sizable lead and the contest turned out to be pretty much over anyway. Houston used up all their fight in the hullabaloo, with none left over for their trips to the plate in the final innings.
Personal take: I wish Laureano hadn’t done it, and had just let the wins on the field do the talking, because now he’ll get suspended and that will hurt the team. But let’s be clear that the primary villain in this story is Cintron, who pushed it from a heated moment up to a full brawl — coaches should be the role models defusing these situations, not the instigators of them. They were both wrong, and Cintron was wronger.
Burch leaves ‘em hanging
Reliever Burch Smith was a minor enough addition over the offseason that the A’s didn’t even send a player back in exchange for him, just cash. He’s already been worth every penny.
Smith entered the game in the 7th after Petit’s escape, and he retired nine of the next 10 batters on 39 pitches to finish off the game without incident. The only exception was a weak groundball that went against a heavy defensive shift for what was technically recorded as an infield single.
Smith: 3 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 0 HR, 1 hit, 39 pitches (29 strikes)
This was Smith’s fifth game, and so far he’s faced 36 batters in an A’s uniform. He’s retired 32 of them, with just a hit and three walks. Along the way he earned a pair of wins after clutch late-inning performances, shutting down the opponent long enough for his teammates to come back and take a lead. On Sunday he picked up his first career save, despite the five-run lead, because he pitched the final three innings of a victory.
Smith has now thrown 10⅓ innings for the A’s, and he’s yet to allow a run, nor even an inherited runner charged to a teammate. He’s got 10 strikeouts to just the one walk, with an impressive swinging strike rate of 15.2% after racking up eight more Sunday — that’s Liam Hendriks territory.
How much longer can Smith stay this hot, and what kind of level will he settle into? We’ll see, but every time he comes out and does this it gets more and more encouraging.
Back on the road
The A’s now take their effective 24.3-game winning streak on the road to Anaheim. They’ll play the Angels, who have been bad so far at 5-11, but ironically they’re pitching quite well and not hitting at all. In the opener Monday, Sean Manaea will take on Julio Teheran, who last faced Oakland in 2017 as a member of the Braves.