Oakland A’s outfielder Ramon Laureano and the Houston Astros have brewed up quite a feud this summer, but Laureano got the last laugh on Wednesday, or at least the most recent one.
The center fielder lined a hit to the gap in left-center in the bottom of the 9th inning, breaking a tie and giving Oakland a walk-off victory over their nearest competition in the AL West division.
Laureano was originally drafted by the Astros in 2014 and then traded to the A’s in a minor deal before blossoming into a star. Tensions have run tight between the two parties this year, as Houston has hit him with pitches four times, with one of those peggings inspiring a benches-clearing brawl that resulted in a four-game suspension for Laureano and a 20-game penalty for the Astros coach who instigated it. On Wednesday, Laureano got a chance to clap back in a meaningful fashion — the standings.
Oakland fell into an old habit in this game, going silent against the opposing starter and then waiting until the end of the game to mount a comeback. They didn’t score their first runs until the 7th inning, on a game-tying bloop double by Tommy La Stella that showed exactly why it’s nice to have someone who can make contact in an RBI situation rather than strike out — anything can happen when you make contact. The ball glanced off the Astros outfielder’s leg while he tried to make a sliding catch, and bounced away far enough to ensure that both runners would score, including catcher Sean Murphy all the way from first base.
On the other side of the ball, A’s starter Jesús Luzardo tossed seven strong innings, allowing a pair of solo homers but nothing else. Joakim Soria and Liam Hendriks each chipped in a scoreless frame to finish it off, with Hendriks earning a win instead of a save for protecting a tie in the top of the 9th instead of a lead.
Wednesday was a weird day in the Bay Area, as smoke from nearby wildfires lingered above so thickly that it blocked out the sun and gave the whole sky an ominous yellow-orange hue.
Tatooine isn’t quite the right comparison, though, as that fictional planet has two suns and a normal sky. Perhaps something relatively closer to home.
Or, with ash sometimes falling from the sky, I would also accept the Upside Down from Stranger Things. But we’re sticking with the Mars narrative for this recap.
Luzardo’s interplanetary duel
Not only was the game taking place on Mars, but the space-themed Astros were appropriately the opponent. Fortunately, Jesús Luzardo was up to the task of representing Planet Earth, firing seven strong innings to keep Houston in check.
Even though Luzardo spent most of the night trailing on the scoreboard, he at least kept his team within striking distance, which came in handy later when they eventually struck. The lefty allowed a pair of homers, but they were each solo shots since he so seldom put anybody on base.
Luzardo: 7 ip, 2 runs, 7 Ks, 1 BB, 2 HR, 4 hits, 100 pitches (60 strikes)
There were a few loud outs, and the homers could have been more damaging with worse sequencing luck, but overall this was a quality outing and one we all hope to see more of from the budding potential ace.
Despite that strong line, though, the score was 2-0 Astros when Luzardo threw his final pitch. It wasn’t until the bottom of the 7th that the A’s made their move.
As I’ve said many times, the reason I’m excited about the addition of Tommy La Stella is that he almost always makes contact, but without sacrificing the quality of his batted balls. In a lineup full of too many swings and misses, a bit of pepper might be just the right ingredient to help drive in some of the runners they kept leaving in scoring position.
The plan worked to perfection on this night, in its own way. After putting up five goose eggs against Houston rookie Luis Garcia, pitching in just his second career MLB game, Oakland finally got to work against the Astros bullpen. In the 7th, rookies Vimael Machin and Sean Murphy each drew walks to set the scene. Then, with two outs on the board, La Stella came up and did exactly what he always does — hit the ball somewhere.
It wasn’t great contact, just a soft bloop down the line in left, but it found its way into no-man’s land in a way that a strikeout can never do. Left fielder Kyle Tucker went into a slide but that only made things worse, as the ball bounced off his leg and caromed sharply away from him. Both runners scored, and the game was suddenly tied.
Oakland wasn’t able to continue the rally any further, but they’d made their point. Someone else was going to have to score for this game to end.
Revenge of the Laser
When he began his suspension for the brawl with the Astros, Ramon Laureano had an .859 OPS and was one of the hottest hitters on the A’s. Since returning, he’d posted a .203 average and .680 OPS in 17 games entering the evening. He got some revenge on Wednesday, though.
With the score still tied in the bottom of the 9th, Oakland began their final rally the same way they had in the 7th — for free. Murphy walked again, and Tony Kemp was hit by a pitch to push the winning run into scoring position with nobody out. The next two batters hit fielder’s choices, but Laureano came through. He drilled the second pitch he saw into left-center for what would normally have been a double, but in this case he only needed to reach first base to complete the play while the winning run trotted leisurely across the plate.
That’s the A’s fifth walk-off of the season, and it’s the third of Laureano’s career — one every year since 2018.
Set phasers for division crown
The A’s now lead the Astros by 5.5 games in the AL West, with under 20 games left to play. If Oakland can win the series finale on Thursday, they could really put Houston away and more or less lock up the division — not mathematically, but realistically.
The final contest will pit Oakland lefty Sean Manaea against Astros righy Jose Urquidy, beginning at 12:40 p.m.