If you were looking for something big to shake the Oakland A’s out of their recent slump, maybe this was it.
The A’s locked horns with the Boston Red Sox for nearly four-and-a-half hours Saturday and emerged with a thrilling 7-6 walk-off victory in 12 innings at the Coliseum. It felt at once like Oakland should have won this game several times over, and also that they stole it at the last minute, but either way it was the emotional catharsis that the team and fans alike needed after two weeks of exasperating losses.
For most of the day it was shaping up as another contest full of costly errors and frustrating near-misses. Boston’s first two runs were unearned, and their third was aided by another defensive miscue. On the other side of the ball the A’s left a ton of runners on base, and had one thrown out at home plate in the 10th inning for the second straight game.
When the Sox scored a pair in the 12th, it was fair to brace for another deflating loss like we’ve often seen lately. But Oakland kept fighting and this time they did enough to push over the top to victory. Three straight hits tied the game, and a sac fly knocked home the walk-off run, finally the simple piece of contact they needed at the right moment.
Doubles and trouble
The A’s didn’t collect a hit with runners in scoring position for the first seven innings, but they muscled up enough to get on the board early anyway by driving home some runners from first base. Seth Brown was mired in a 5-for-54 skid, but in the 2nd inning he launched an RBI triple for the first run of the game, just the beginning of a big day for the rookie outfielder.
In the 6th it was an even greener rookie, brand-new DH Frank Schwindel, pulling a double down the LF line to plate the runner from first.
And in the 8th, Brown did it again, this time almost homering but settling for an RBI double off the top of the jagged edge in right-center. But before we talk more about the 8th inning, we need to rewind and catch up on the other side of the ball.
While Oakland was piecing together brief rallies on offense, they were giving it all back on defense. The culprits were Tony Kemp and Sean Murphy, but before we recount their faults let’s foreshadow that they each redeem themselves as heroes by the end of the recap.
Starter Cole Irvin cruised through the first three innings despite some loud outs, and he got the first out of the 4th. But then Kemp booted a grounder to put a free runner on base, and a single made it two runners. Murphy then tried to snap a pickoff throw behind the runner at first but skipped it into right field, allowing the lead runner to score and the trail runner to reach third; he soon scored on a sac fly. Both runs were completely unearned.
In the 5th, Irvin issued a one-out walk and then induced a potential double-play grounder. But Kemp booted the ball again and settled for just the out at first, and then the next batter singled to score the runner from second. If Kemp had started the double play, or even just gotten the lead runner at second instead of the trail runner at first, then this is probably a scoreless inning, but the run counts as earned.
Boston got one more in the 7th, on a solo homer by Enrique Hernandez.
- Irvin: 7 ip, 4 runs (2 earned), 5 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 5 hits, 98 pitches, 91.6 mph EV
Another fantastic outing by the lefty, and by all rights his line should include just one run plus the victory. The Sox got their share of hard contact, but Irvin just kept pounding the zone and trusting the defense behind him, even if that last part didn’t always work out well on this occasion.
Alright, now back to that 8th inning. Yusmeiro Petit pitched a scoreless top half, but Boston led 4-2 entering the bottom. Murphy singled to start a rally, and that’s when Brown thumped his aforementioned near-homer RBI double to cut it to 4-3. A few batters later, Elvis Andrus singled to send Brown home with the tying run.
BRB just living on the edge of our seats pic.twitter.com/KqMeabn0YH— Oakland A's (@Athletics) July 4, 2021
It’s the second game in a row that Andrus drove in the tying run late, but in entirely different fashions. Last night he did it with power, homering in the bottom of the 9th to send it to extras. This time, with a runner already on third, all it took was going with the low-outside-ish pitch and poking a flare to shallow right for a single.
With the score knotted in the 9th, the A’s led off their half with a single but couldn’t build on it. They even tried bunting the runner into scoring position, but it just meant he was stranded on second instead of first. What’s more, they used pinch-hitter Skye Bolt just to lay down the bunt, which will become important later when Bolt is no longer available on the bench.
Oakland’s bullpen did everything they could to hold on, with some help from Murphy behind the dish. Murphy atoned for his earlier throwing error, nailing a basesteler at second to help Lou Trivino through the 9th inning, and then squashing another steal attempt at third base in the 10th to cut down Boston’s automatic bonus runner.
That gave the A’s lineup time to make their stand, and in the bottom of the 10th it looked like they would pull it off. Murphy was the free runner and all they needed to do was push him 180 feet home.
The Sox intentionally walked Brown to lead off, and Jed Lowrie singled to right field. But Murphy, a catcher who isn’t known for his speed, wasn’t able to score on Lowrie’s hit so the bases were loaded with nobody out.
Next up was Kemp, and what happened next was as baffling as it was infuriating. He surprised everybody by trying to lay down a squeeze bunt, but he muffed the bunt and popped it up for a free out. We’ve seen this pulled off before by Ramon Hernandez in the 2003 ALDS against the Red Sox, but it’s incredibly risky with the force at the plate, and especially with one of the slowest runners on the team trying to score from third. Even if Kemp had gotten the bunt down it would have been a questionable decision, and manager Bob Melvin called it a “bit of a mixup.”
Despite that wasted at-bat, the bases were still loaded with only one out, and Andrus now had a chance to win it. He lined the ball to left field for a potential sac fly, but J.D. Martinez threw out Murphy at the plate by a close enough margin that it briefly went to replay review. It was the second straight game that Boston had thrown out a runner at the plate in the 10th.
It was also the second straight game that Bolt wasn’t the runner trying to score and maybe should have been. Last night it was Brown running the 90 feet home and we can’t say for sure that Bolt is meaningfully faster, but Bolt is definitely a couple steps faster than Murphy. He might even have scored on Lowrie’s hit earlier in the inning, and he would 100% have scored on Andrus’ lineout. But instead he’d been used in the 9th as a ... pinch-bunter? Granted, Kemp later showed that getting down a good bunt isn’t a guarantee, but that use of Bolt had seemed wasteful to me at the time and it absolutely came back to hurt the A’s later when he wasn’t available in an obvious pinch-running spot.
Oakland should have already won this game multiple times by this point, but instead it continued. Romo and Jake Diekman locked down the 11th inning, but J.B. Wendelken finally cracked in the 12th and Boston took a 6-4 lead. Argh.
This beer snake is almost as long as this game pic.twitter.com/yhsjkR8X6k— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) July 4, 2021
But wait! The A’s had one more chance in the bottom of the 12th, with a free runner on second.
Murphy led off with a grounder to nobody for an infield single, putting the tying run on base. Brown came up and delivered again, his third RBI hit of the game, this time a sharp single to right. Then Lowrie ripped a double off the wall, enough to plate Murphy to tie it but not Brown to win it. They’d need one more piece of contact to finish it off.
Up stepped Kemp. Ironically this would have been a great time for that squeeze bunt, with no force at the plate, nobody out, and a fast runner on third. But he wasn’t messing around this time, and he swung away and lofted a perfectly acceptable fly for a sacrifice. There was a throw home but it wasn’t close, and Brown slid across safely. Somehow, someway, Oakland had won.
Ride the wave!
This wasn’t just a win, and it wasn’t just an extra-inning walk-off. They chased so many recent demons that it almost felt like last October when they finally won a postseason series.
It began with the familiar overall feeling that just enough was going wrong and not quite enough was going well, right up until the moment that the script flipped and everything went just right enough at the last minute.
On an individual level there was no shortage of stories. Brown was in a horrendous slump but led the way with three RBI hits, and he was the runner thrown out last night in the 10th but got to score the winning run tonight in the 12th. The bullpen has struggled lately, but Romo struck out three of his four batters and was credited with five outs, while the normal setup crew were all great. Irvin was magnificent again.
Andrus reached base four times and now has a 109 wRC+ since late-May. He drove in the clutch tying run for the second straight game, and nearly notched the walk-off in the 10th as well.
Kemp called this “probably the worst game I’ve played in the big leagues” up until he hit the game-winning sac fly. His error in the 4th helped set up the unearned runs, his flub in the 5th contributed to another run, his bunt in the 10th was a bust, and despite a couple walks he also went hitless at the plate. But the only play that will count in the standings is the last one he made to walk it off for a victory.
Despite delivering the walk-off sac fly, Tony Kemp literally beat himself up over his failed bunt attempt in the 10th inning. pic.twitter.com/bDiHf6A2yG— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) July 4, 2021
Even beyond just today, Kemp’s breakout season has hit a brief rough patch lately. He’s gone 2-for-20 at the plate, and he also made a defensive miscue last night in LF that led to a run in an eventual extra-inning loss. That all makes tonight’s redemption even more welcome.
As for Murphy, his arm got the A’s in trouble early but then helped bail them out late when he threw out a pair of base stealers. His bat has also been cursed lately, from a game-ending triple play in New York a couple weeks ago, to his not-quite-deep-enough fly in the 10 last night, to a general 1-for-18 skid, but he collected three hits and a walk and scored three times.
It’s just one win. But it’s exactly the win the A’s needed, in a hundred different ways, and it came against a red-hot opponent who holds the best record in the AL. And it’s exactly the momentum shift we all hoped to see, with all the messiness and adversity and overcoming and poetic symmetry that a simple blowout victory could never have provided. Now the next step is to build on it, and get back riding high on the wave.