Photo credit: @Athletics
Texas: 0 | 2 | 1
Oakland: 8 | 8 | 0
By Lewis Rubman
OAKLAND — Major League Baseball players are a motivated group. They dedicate years in the minors to learning their craft in small towns and all-night bus riders until, when they reach the top, they report for what we call spring training, although the calendar insists it’s winter. They toil through 162 games, sometimes playing day games after night games, in what can be grueling weather, and travelling through three time zones (or more if they play in an overseas series) to face (or throw) a hard pellet at speeds of more than 95 mph. If their team qualifies, they play in a post season tournament that can last as long as twenty games. These men are driven. They’re also well paid at this level, which is a huge incentive for them to perform well in spite of the hardships and dangers they face. They also take a good deal of legitimate pride in their accomplishments.
When September rolls around a new layer of motivation is added. By Labor Day, the field of contending clubs in each of MLB’s six divisions narrows considerably, and the teams with a reasonable chance of making the playoffs push and shove, claw and gnaw to make the cut for postseason play and, once they’ve achieved that, to gain home field advantage throughout the remainder of play by having the best winning percentage of the lot.
But contenders aren’t the only teams who play with added intensity in the season’s waning days. They also have a chance to avenge five and a half months of being kicked around by spoiling the more successful teams’ bids for the different championships up for grabs in September. On the first of the month, the active rosters are expanded, and Spoiler Schadenfreude joins every non playoff team.
These are some of the reasons why stretch drive baseball can be so compelling even when the opponents are going in opposite directions. Not every game will provide as much drama, anticipated and realized, as the last three games of the 1951 National League season, which culminated with Bobby Thompson’s shot heard ‘round the world, or even the final game of 2012 when the A’s defeated the Rangers to occupy first place for the only time all season, which enabled them to advance to the playoffs.
Late season intensity wasn’t the only reason the teams had to be motivated for tonight’s contest. The stadium give away was a bobble head honoring the A’s starting pitcher, Mike Fiers (14-4, 4.09 ERA), who was coming off two dreadful starts. The statuette saluted him for his May 7 no-hitter against Cincinnati, but his bid to repeat that feat ended with his first pitch of the evening, which Shin-Soo Choo slapped into center field for a single. A double play and fly to left, however, set things straight. Fiers allowed only one more hit—and that was his only other base runner—in the rest of his eight inning stint. So you could say that he rose to the occasion.
His opposite number, Texas southpaw Mike Minor (13-9, 3.33 ERA) also had a bitter taste in his mouth from his most recent outing, in which he gave up seven earned runs in as many innings to the same A’s he was facing tonight. Just as Fiers’ recent bad experiences had been break in his pattern of success, Minor’s year had been a good one until recently. It included a spot on the AL roster for the All-Star Game, and brought a career-high 188 punch outs to the Coliseum mound tonight.
Minor’s troubles began later, but were more serious than the one Fiers had faced. With Laureano and Murphy on base and one down in the bottom of the second, the slumping Chad Pinder slammed a 94 mph four-seamer over the center field fence fore his 13th round tripper of the year, which gave the A’s an early 3-0 lead.
Oakland tacked on another run in the third on a walk to Chapman, who advanced to second on a ground out to first by Olson and scored on Canha’s two ball, two strike double to right. The A’s made it 5-0 in the fourth when Semien’s two-out two-bagger to left plated Sean Murphy, who had walked, advanced to second on Pinder’s single and to third on Neuse’s DP grounder to short. Canha’s lead off dinger to lead off the fifth brought his total to 25 and stretched the A’s advantage to 6-0.
After throwing five innings and 105 pitches (61 strikes) and allowing six runs, all earned, Minor’s exercise in frustration was over. He had surrendered six hits, giving his numbers a certain symmetry. He struck out only two, but this raised his year’s total to an impressive 190. He was replaced by Ariel Jurado, who set the side down in order before being replaced, in turn, by Yohander Méndez.
The A’s resumed their scoring ways once Méndez, like Minor a left handed hurler, entered the fray to pitch the seventh. With one out, Olson walked, as did Canha. Then Laureano doubled to right center, scoring the former and sending the later to third. A walk to Davis loaded the bases. This brought up Seth Brown, who had been brought in to pinch hit for Pinder when the Rangers switched pitchers from the left-handed, ineffective Minor to the right-handed, effective Jurado. Brown and Méndez went to a full count before the A’s rookie whiffed on a changeup, When Fiers got his first out in the eighth, a strike out of Nomar Mazaro, it was the deepest he’d gone in a game since August 9th, when he’d thrown seven innings of shutout ball in US Cellular Field. He finished tonight’s performance having thrown 95 pitches, striking out five Rangers, and allowing two hits and nothing else. He improved his record to 15-4, 3.91 ERA.
Taylor Guerrieri gave away the A’s final run with a wild pitch to Canha with Chapman on third. Canha eventually struck out.
Then Chris Bassitt set the Rangers down 1, 2, 3 in the ninth.
The loss went to Minor, who now is 13-10, 3.52 ERA.
The A’s hefty offensive was a relief after they had managed to score only three runs in their last two games, both of which they still managed to win. That the pitching, or at least Fiers and Bassitt didn’t let up in spite of a comfortable margin also was good news.
With Houston’s victory tonight, the A’s were mathematically eliminated from the AL West pennant race. Cleveland and Tampa Bay’s wins kept them tied with each other, two games behind Oakland in the struggle for first wild card honors.
Sean Manaea (2-0, 0.50 ERA) will go against Brock Burke (0-1, 5.19 ERA) in a battle of left-handers starting at 6:07 p.m. tomorrow evening and followed by a fireworks display celebrating the evolution of pop.