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Game #120: A’s Successfully Defend Narrow Lead, Win 3-2

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

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

The magical combination of a patchwork starting rotation, a stellar bullpen, and a perfect mixture of veteran presence and breakout young players rolls on. After tonight’s victory, the A’s are 3.5 games up on the Mariners for the second wild card spot, and just a single game back of the Astros in the AL West.

As has been a theme for much of the season, the A’s fell behind early. Mitch Haniger doubled on the second pitch of the game, and came around to score to give Seattle a 1-0 advantage in the first. But the A’s didn’t wait around long; Marcus Semien hit a lead off home run in the bottom of the frame to level the game again. Two batters later, Jed Lowrie hit a rocket liner back up the box, which struck James Paxton’s left forearm. X-rays were negative on the Mariners’ ace, but he didn’t face another batter.

Instead, veteran right hander and old A’s nemesis Felix Hernandez made his first career relief appearance. Coming into tonight, Hernandez was 26-11 against the A’s, having pitched to a 2.70 ERA over nearly 330 innings. Although he’s not the pitcher he once was, you’d be forgiven for expecting him to pull on the crown again against the A’s.

In truth, he wasn’t at all bad, especially when viewed against the barometer of the past few seasons. Felix threw 5.2 relief innings, allowing five hits and two walks. He struck out two, but gave up the drive of the game in the third.

It has indeed been a special season for Jed, and this two-run blast marked number 100 of his career. It also marked all the offense the A’s would need on Tuesday night. In front of more than 17,000 fans, Mike Fiers turned in another quality effort, completing six innings, and allowing two runs. Fiers yielded just six hits against Seattle’s dangerous offense, and zero walks.

For the remainder of the season, I’d bet the A’s win 90% of the games when their starting pitcher goes six innings. The bullpen’s dominance is twofold. First, the relievers rarely squander leads, and second, the bullpen’s depth allows Bob Melvin to pull a struggling starter early - earlier than virtually any other manager is able.

Ryan Buchter and Yusmeiro Petit split the seventh and didn’t allow a base runner. Fernando Rodney commanded the eighth. And Blake Treinen earned his 32nd save of the season by pitching a scoreless, if not flawless, ninth. Treinen made it a bit interesting, allowing two, two-out singles. But in the end, Mike Zunino bounced out to the man at the center of everything tonight, Jed Lowrie.

It’s incredible to think about how miserable the A’s were in the field last season when you watch them now. In the late innings, the A’s made several outstanding plays to keep the lead. There was the usual Matt Chapman show.

And Ramon Laureano made a fantastic running grab in center to end the seventh. But the defensive play of the game was courtesy of Jonathan Lucroy. If the M’s were going to come back tonight, the eighth inning was likely the time. Dee Gordon led off, followed by Haniger, Cano, Segura, and Cruz. And as he does, Dee Gordon flipped a single into right field to lead off the inning.

Gordon was going, it was just a question of when. He didn’t wait long. On the first pitch Mitch Haniger saw, a 93 mph strike, Gordon took off. Whatever his defensive strengths, throughout his career, Lucroy has been regarded as just an average to slightly above average catcher in terms of controlling the running game.

But on this play, Lucroy was exceptional. I can’t remember seeing a faster catch-and-throw transition.

I watched the replay a few times to try to get some sense of just how amazing the throw was. In the incredibly unofficial metric of the amateur, living room pop-time (hey, at least I used a stopwatch!), I had him somewhere between a 1.68-1.75. Even better, the throw was right on the bag. The Mariners challenged it, and despite a nervy two minute review, the call stood.

Both the A’s and Astros are in action again tomorrow - a matinee for the A’s to close out this series against Seattle, and a night game for the ‘Stros against Colorado. It’s hard to believe, but this time tomorrow, the A’s could be tied for first place in the AL West. But regardless of what the Astros do, if the A’s win tomorrow and complete the sweep, they’ll extend their AL Wild Card advantage over Seattle to 4.5 games. Brett Anderson vs. Mike Leake - let’s keep the train rolling.