The Oakland A’s have let some games slip away lately, but they played like a full contender on Thursday, and not a moment too soon.
The A’s visited the Seattle Mariners and breezed to a 4-1 victory, putting some distance in the standings between them and their closest competitor for the second Wild Card spot.
As has been the case all year, Oakland’s evening began with a brilliant starting pitching performance. Sean Manaea faced the Mariners in June and threw a shutout, and he extended that scoreless streak against Seattle to 15 innings before finally blinking in the 7th tonight.
The lefty was almost literally unhittable. He faced 28 batters and struck out a career-high 13 of them, and during the first six frames the Mariners only reached second base once and never got as far as third base. The only damage against him was a solo homer by catcher Tom Murphy leading off the 7th, cutting the A’s advantage to 2-1 at the time.
- Manaea: 7 ip, 1 run, 13 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HBP, 1 HR, 3 hits, 106 pitches, 90.2 mph EV
Seattle did knock a few balls hard when they managed to make contact, but that was a rare feat and pretty much everything that deserved to fall for a hit did so. Manaea dominated, for the second time in as many tries against this AL West division rival.
How hard did he dominate? His 13 strikeouts are the most in a game by an A’s lefty since Vida Blue in 1976, reports official scorer David Feldman, and Manaea is the first A’s pitcher of either hand to rack up 13 strikeouts while allowing one run or fewer since Todd Stottlemyre in 1995 (per MLB Stats). He topped out at 96.0 mph, his single fastest pitch of the season and the first time since 2016 that he’s reached that mark.
Career-high 13 strikeouts.— Oakland A's (@Athletics) July 23, 2021
7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 13 K pic.twitter.com/rwIt66rxqg
But as we’re all acutely award, it ain’t over until the other team gets a crack at your bullpen. Fortunately tonight Oakland’s relievers were nearly perfect, retiring six of the seven batters they faced with only a groundball single mixed in. The 8th inning went to Sergio Romo, who is officially good again if you hadn’t noticed and might even be the team’s best setup man right now, and the 9th went to Lou Trivino for the save.
After also silencing the Angels earlier this week, the A’s staff has allowed just two runs total over their last three games combined. Even better, their lineup is beginning to offer support again.
If you can’t blast ‘em, manufacture ‘em
One hallmark of the A’s recent slump has been an inefficient lineup that struggles to get on base and can’t cash in once there. If they aren’t blasting dingers, the scoring can go cold. But not only did they score enough tonight, they did so in especially encouraging ways.
The first run was pure small-ball silliness, with three pieces of lucky contact and some hustle to tie it together. With two outs in the 5th inning, Elvis Andrus barely tapped a dinky flare off the end of his bat. It sounded terrible but somehow found turf in RF for a single, and then he promptly stole second to get into scoring position. Mark Canha came up next and hit a grounder up the middle that the fielder couldn’t quite handle (ruled an infield hit but should have been an error), and then Ramon Laureano hit a hard grounder up the middle that hit the pitcher and bounced away to nobody.
Any of the hits by Andrus, Canha, or Laureano could just as easily have ended the inning, but some BABIP and a gift from the opponent added up to a free run. You could write some of it off as luck, or you could remember that there’s no BABIP without Balls In Play, which is another way of saying keep making lots of contact instead of striking out, and good things will happen.
The second run came in the 6th. Mitch Moreland has been hot since returning from the injured list, and he launched a double that one-hopped the wall. Sean Murphy followed with another double to drive him in.
- Moreland, since IL: 4-for-15, HR, 3 doubles, 5 BB, 1.117 OPS, 97.8 mph EV
For Murphy’s part, he’s driving in runs at a higher rate than anybody else on the A’s and it’s not close. He leads the club by a significant margin in terms of the percentage of his baserunners he drives in, and he’s among the MLB leaders in driving home the runner from third with less than two out (though that wasn’t the situation in this at-bat, with Moreland on second).
Seattle got one of those runs back in the 7th, thanks to their own Catcher Murphy (Tom’s homer off Manaea), but Oakland answered by manufacturing some insurance.
In the 8th, the A’s got their first two batters on base, and for the second straight game Andrus laid down a sac bunt. Once again it worked perfectly, as the runners advanced (to put the lead man on third with one out) and the next batter walked to load ‘em up. Laureano came up needing only to make contact, and he did with a bloop single. Laser had 2 RBI tonight, one on a grounder off the pitcher and another on a 68 mph jamshot. Good things happen when you don’t strike out.
With Laureano reaching safely there was still just one out on the board and still a runner on third base, and Matt Olson delivered with another piece of productive contact, this time a rocket to the outfield for a sac fly. The full sequence went weak single, weak single, sac bunt, weak single, sac fly, to bring home two huge runs and turn a nailbiter into barely even a save situation.
Oakland put 18 runners on base in this game, and with that kind of volume, even batting .250 with runners in scoring position means you got four such hits (in 16 tries, not counting Olson’s sac fly which is also a success). Of course you could always do better, but they did plenty, and for every bit of luck they received there was also some serious hustle to create the opportunity in the first place. Those BABIP grounders in the 5th don’t matter if Andrus hadn’t stolen second, and in the 8th they wisely played to the situation by maximizing their chance at one crucial insurance run instead of praying for an unnecessary crooked number — and in doing so, they ended up getting the crooked number anyway.
This is the complete, multi-faceted A’s lineup we’ve been waiting to see, and it’s shown up at least three games in a row now. Hopefully it’s a new trend and not a brief mirage!
Oakland currently holds the second Wild Card spot, and behind them are the Mariners and Yankees each at 4.5 games back, with a week to go until the trade deadline. This is a good time to make a statement and knock one of those hopefuls down a peg, especially if such a setback might convince them not to be buyers at all in the coming days.
But otherwise it’s too early for scoreboard watching, and the primary focus is still on our own team. The rotation is simply amazing, the bullpen has some new life, and the suddenly healthy lineup just showed us all the things we’ve been aching to see from them. Ride the wave!