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Game #7: A’s outplay Rays in 6-3 victory

Pitching, hitting, and defense, oh my!

Oakland Athletics v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Don’t overlook the 2022 Oakland A’s.

The rebuilding A’s completed a series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, beating them 6-3 for their third win in four days at Tropicana Field.

*** Click here to revisit today’s Game Thread! ***

How well Oakland fares over the marathon of the next six months remains to be seen, but they’re making some noise in the early going. One week into the season they’re above the .500 mark, despite playing on the road against a pair of expected contenders, and at the very least opponents are going to need to take them seriously.

Today was a perfect example, as the A’s simply outplayed the other club. Their pitchers chewed through efficient innings, including both the starter and the bullpen. Their hitters strung together several run-scoring rallies, with some hard contact and productive situational at-bats. Their defense made more plays, while the Rays committed a key error.

Oakland is trying all kinds of things in their lineup to see what works, and so far a lot of it is going well. They shook up the batting order yet again and some more runs fell out, and on the pitching side a new reliever earned his first career save.

Timely hitting

For four straight innings, the A’s put runners on base and then did something about it, following through with either a clutch hit or a productive out to drive somebody home.

It began in the 2nd inning. A pair of singles set the table, and with two outs on the board, Cristian Pache grounded a sharp single up the middle. That would have been enough for an RBI on its own, but Tampa Bay took a costly stumble on defense to make it worse. One outfielder clanked the pickup, and then another outfielder bobbled it further, and by the time they got the ball in Pache had sprinted all the way around the bases for a Little League homer.

The play went down as a single and an error, but nevertheless it was three runs on the scoreboard. Pache completed the circuit in 15.90 seconds, the A’s fastest home-to-home trip since Adam Rosales in 2017, though naturally Rosales recorded that time after hitting a homer over the wall, per official scorer David Feldman.

Was Pache tired after that race around the bags? “No, I’m still young,” he said, via Matt Kawahara of the S.F. Chronicle.

After that display of pure hustle, Oakland cranked up the power in the 3rd inning. With a runner on first, Sean Murphy annihilated a ball to dead center, barely missing a homer and settling for an RBI double. His 114.0 mph exit velocity on this rocket is the highest of his career, and one of the dozen or so highest in MLB so far this season.

He barreled it so hard that it sailed over Platinum Glove defender Kevin Kiermaier, who usually catches up to everything. Kiermaier had high praise for Murphy after the game, via team insider Martin Gallegos:

“He’s got stupid power. He was locked in, and boy he can backspin the ball very well and hit the ball very hard. I like my chances more times than not, but big ol’ donkeys like him, man, I tip my hat. I wish I had that power.”

This does present a problem, though. Murphy just got the nickname Cakes due to his critically acclaimed backside, but now an opponent just called him a Big Ol’ Donkey. What do we do?

There we go!

OK, back to the game. The A’s scored again in the 4th inning, this time only needing one hit. Walk, single, walk loaded the bases with one out, and some simple contact got the job done. Chad Pinder hit a grounder just soft enough to avoid a double play, Tony Kemp added some nifty baserunning to ensure only one out was recorded, and the runner scored from third.

The 5th inning was a similar situation. Single, walk, single loaded ‘em up with nobody out, and a grounder by Kevin Smith brought one home. The Rays completed the double play on this occasion, but even that wasn’t enough to stop the run from scoring. All Smith had to do was hit it somewhere and he succeeded. Sure, the rally could have been even bigger! But it also could have fizzled into nothing, and cashing in one run helped keep the pressure on.

Oakland went down in order the rest of the day, but those six runs held up for the victory. It wasn’t a slugfest, but they strung together baserunners and repeatedly came through with clutch contact in key situations, in a way the 2021 team often didn’t.

And an extra note for Smith, who finally got his first hit of the year after starting 0-for-16. He singled and walked, scored both times, produced a run with his GIDP, and played nice defense at third base.

Efficient pitching

Staked to an early lead, the A’s pitching staff never let the opponent battle back into the game. They didn’t miss a ton of bats with only four strikeouts, but they also didn’t offer any free help, with no walks issued all day. Between the starter and three relievers, it only took 106 pitches to breeze through all nine innings.

That starter was Cole Irvin, who turned in a quality effort. He was perfect in five of the first six innings, with just a spot of trouble in the 2nd that resulted in one run, and he set down the side in the 6th on just five pitches. The Rays finally got to him in the 7th, as Brandon Lowe crushed a two-run homer, but by that point Oakland already had a comfortable lead.

  • Irvin: 6⅓ ip, 3 runs, 2 Ks, 0 BB, 1 HR, 5 hits, 71 pitches

For most of the day Tampa Bay just couldn’t square anything up against the lefty, though they began connecting for harder contact toward the end of his outing. By then it was too late, as the A’s absorbed the blow from Lowe and then turned to their bullpen to finish it out.

The relievers shut the door with little resistance, recording eight outs while letting just two runners reach base. Domingo Acevedo halted the momentum in the 7th after Lowe’s dinger, then A.J. Puk worked around a single in the 8th, and Dany Jimenez sealed the 9th despite an errant runner reaching first. That was the first career MLB save for Jimenez, in his fifth career MLB appearance, and he was surprised and excited to get the call for the opportunity.

It’s not the flashiest box score ever, especially compared with the Rays pitchers striking out a dozen batters, but it was exactly what Oakland needed today. With the lead in hand they didn’t nibble and hand the opponent extra chances, instead challenging each batter. They didn’t beat themselves, and the other team wasn’t able to beat them either.

Defensive support

The pitchers did have some help, though, as the A’s defense put up a couple highlights. The star of the show today was Billy McKinney, who made a pair of big plays in right field.

In the 2nd inning, Irvin was in a jam, leading off with a double and two singles. One run was already home, and two more were on base with nobody out. The next batter flew out to deep right, and the runners tried to tag up and advance, but McKinney wasn’t about to let that happen.

That double play changed the inning, not quite ending the rally but significantly deflating it. Instead of second and third with one out, it was runner on third with two outs, and four pitches later Irvin escaped without further issue.

Extra hat tip to 2B umpire Hunter Wendelstedt, who was knocked to the ground but still made the out call mid-tumble!

Enhance.

McKinney struck again later. In the 8th inning, with a runner on first and nobody out, he chased down a fly ball in foul territory and made a brilliant sliding catch. For the second time in the game, the Rays had a promising start to an inning but were then set back by a McKinney gem.

In the 9th he moved to 1st base, and there he was charged with an error, though not an egregious one. He ranged too far from the bag for a grounder, and when the second baseman got to it, McKinney couldn’t get back in time to beat the runner. That’s a common mistake for a new first baseman, and something he’ll surely learn from as he gains experience at the position, and anyway the runner was later stranded.

Neither of McKinney’s plays directly prevented a run, like throwing out somebody at the plate, but they stopped Tampa Bay from building any major threats. That’s the kind of defensive support that can quietly make the difference in a 6-3 game.

Game, set, match

The A’s came into Tropicana Field as the underdog, and they leave with a series victory. They won a landslide in the opener and then notched another two solid wins, and even in their one loss they took it to extras and held a lead in the 10th inning. In the three wins they allowed a total of seven runs, and in the four games overall Oakland’s lineup combined to score 31 times.

Best of all, they’re fun. Everybody is contributing, from the incumbent veterans to the new rookies, from the offense to the defense to all corners of the pitching staff, and even the game they lost was a blast to watch. The wins are a nice bonus, and hopefully they’ll keep coming, but we don’t need to get too caught up in early standings to enjoy what we’re seeing. They’re hungry, and just one week into the rebuilding season they’re already starting to grow.