By Matthew Harrington
OAKLAND, Calif. — The narrative surrounding the Oakland Athletics over the past three season states that the green and gold achieve with a line-up devoid of super stars but rife with supporting cast members. Josh Donaldson tossed that notion out the window with one swing of the bat Wednesday night, crushing a three-run walk-off home run off closer Joe Nathan to give the A’s (32-21) a 3-1 decision over the American League Central leading Detroit Tigers at O.Co Coliseum.
“For the fans that was a fun game to watch,” said A’s starter Scott Kazmir. “Throughout the game it seemed like (Detroit Tigers Starter) Anibal Sanchez and I were battling it out. We ended up getting a couple base runners in the ninth and you just kind of had that feeling when Josh came up. He swung at the first pitch and didn’t miss it. That was awesome.”
Kazmir pitched a complete game but watched the bottom of the ninth on the hook for a loss after allowing a solo blast to Torii Hunter with two outs in the fourth for the only Detroit run. Donaldson picked his starter up, launching his 13th four-bagger to extend his streak of reaching base to 43 games when penciled on the line-up card at third base.
The pitchers’ duel expected Tuesday night in the much ballyhooed showdown between ace Sonny Gray and 2013 AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer never materialized, instead morphing into a battle of the bullpens in a 6-5 home team loss. The true display of pitching prowess came Wednesday night, with Kazmir (6-2, 2.36 ERA) and Detroit’s Sanchez allowing a combined eight hits.
“You always want to give your starting pitcher support,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “Sanchez was unbelievable tonight. He pitched backwards. Fastballs in breaking ball counts, a lot of change-ups in counts where you’d expect fastballs. It took us a while to score some runs at the end but we kept grinding.”
Sanchez dazzled the Oakland hitters, scattering three hits over 8 1/3 innings, striking out nine while only walking one. He appeared en route to his ninth career complete game, but a one out double in the ninth by Coco Crisp knocked him out of the game after 111 pitches. First-year Detroit manager Brad Ausmus tabbed Nathan to close out the contest and nail down his 13th save of the season.
“I don’t think anybody thought we were going to come up short,” said Melvin. “Once Coco got on I think we had a really good feeling we were going to win the game. That’s what this team has been great at here in the last couple years. Until that last out is recorded, we always feel optimistic that we have a win.”
John Jaso continued the rally, flipping a 2-2 Nathan delivery over the third baseman Nick Castellanos’ outstretched glove for a single, setting up base runners on first-and-third with one away for Donaldson, the fourth place finisher in the 2013 AL MVP voting.
“In that situation, they’re looking for a double play,” said Donaldson. “I was just trying to hit something in the air and get one run.”
Donaldson wasted little time against Nathan(2-1, 4.58), crushing the first-pitch offering from the four-time All-star deep to left field to hand the righty his fourth blown save of the year. The A’s third basemen stood at home plate watching as his blast sailed dangerously close to the foul pole.
“I was just trying to watch it to see if it stayed fair,” said Donaldson. “If it went foul, I didn’t want to waste my energy running.”
The ball indeed landed fair for Donaldson’s second career walk-off home run, the first also coming against Detroit last April. While the homer, Donaldson’s 13th of the campaign, marked a huge highlight in the young slugger’s career he remained humbled about its significance.
“It’s just one of those things,” said Donaldson sheepishly. “I just go out there and play to win.”
The homer, which no doubt will play repeatedly on sports highlight shows until the next news cycle tomorrow, boosts Donaldson’s candidacy for a 2014 All-Star game starting spot. He currently sits in first place amongst third basemen in the fan vote, and could be the A’s first position player to appear in a Mid-Summer Classic in 11 seasons.
Donaldson entered play Wednesday second in the AL in runs scored (42), tied for second in go-ahead RBIs (38) and fifth in home runs (12). He’s also ranks in the top ten in slugging percentage, walks, RBIs and extra base hits. Those numbers are reminiscent of former A’s basher Jason Giambi, green and gold member elected by the fans to the All-star squad back in 2000.
No stranger to the All-star game, Torii Hunter made his presence felt earlier in the game. The right fielder crushed Kazmir’s only mistake, a full count pitch to deep right center field for his second home run in as many nights. The 38-year-old Hunter now owns eight long balls on the season along with 29 runs batted in for the Motor City Kitties. Kazmir finished the night with eight strikeouts and no walks for his first complete game since 2006.
“We’ve seen him pitch pretty similar to this a few times,” said Melvin. “He’s been consistent for us. It probably rates up there with some of his games. But when you’re pitching against a guy that’s throwing the ball that well, you’re not scoring very many runs. You have to be perfect. He was close to that.
Melvin would like to receive another near perfect performance when he sends Jesse Chavez to the mound to stymy the AL’s best offensive team in the matinee finale of the four-game set Thursday afternoon. Detroit (29-20) sends Rick Porcello, owner of seven wins in 2014, to the hill seeking a series split after losing the first and third games in Oakland.