By Matthew T.F. Harrington
OAKLAND, Calif. – Despite a dominant rebound performance from starter Sonny Gray at the O.Co Coliseum Tuesday night, the Oakland Athletics once again found their efforts to string together three consecutive wins come up short.
After dropping game two of a three game series against the 2014 American League West Champion Los Angeles Angels 2-0, the Green and Gold (86-71) still seek their first uninterrupted trio of wins since August 7-9. Wade LeBlanc pitched 5 2/3 of shutout innings for the Halos, while former Athletic Houston Street nailed down his 40th save of the season after retiring the side in order.
The Athletics loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth inning with reliever Joe Smith on the mound and two men retired, but Stephen Vogt’s fly-out derailed the Oakland rally.
“I left a small village of runners in scoring position tonight,” said Vogt. “It’s really frustrating to not get them in.”
It marked only the second time all night the home team advanced a runner past second base. In total, the A’s left eight runners on base.
“That’s baseball in a nutshell,” said Vogt. “It’s frustrating, absolutely. But just because we didn’t have offense today doesn’t mean our offense isn’t good. I think we’re still playing good baseball right now, we just didn’t get any hits when we needed them tonight.”
An Oakland loss, paired with a Kansas City Royals win in Cleveland, knots the two squads up with identical records in the chase for the top Wild Card spot and home-field advantage in the one-game playoff. Despite the result Tuesday, the A’s magic number to clinch a playoff berth drops to three games by way of a Seattle Mariners lost. Just five regular season games remain.
Gray (13-10, 3.21 ERA) recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts, including three by potential AL Most Valuable Player Mike Trout, yielding only two runs in the losing effort.
“He came in the dugout with this look in his eye,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “He was going to get after it. Unfortunately we didn’t give him the support. Three hits and he struck out nine of the first 12 guys. Everything was working today.”
Gray’s ability to rack up strikeouts in a hurry wasn’t lost on his teammates.
“I looked up in the fifth and he had ten punch-outs,” said Vogt. “That was a remarkable thing. He threw the ball well. We had some opportunities to score runs and we just weren’t able to come through.”
The youthful right-hander picked up eight of his first nine outs on K’s and nine of his first 12 by way of the whiff. It was the one non-strikeout that made him the hard luck loser against Los Angeles (97-61).
With runners on first and third and one out in the second inning, Gray caught Hank Conger swinging at strike three. The runner at first, Efren Navarro, took off with the pitch, drawing a throw from catcher Geovany Soto.
“There was a miscommunication on that,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “Aybar was coming down the line. We needed to stop the run there.”
With Erick Aybar crashing down the line from third base after the throw to second, Navarro froze between second and third base. Already dead to rights on the Soto throw, Navarro stalled long enough in a pickle for Aybar to cross the plate.
“He’s fast,” said Gray of the Angels shortstop. “He puts pressure on the defense, as you could see there. He’s a good player, he has good baseball instincts.”
The Angels added another run in the sixth inning after Gordon Beckham ripped a solo home to left field for the only earned run of the day. The long ball stood as the Angels first hit since the second inning as well as the third and final hit the visitors would collect on the evening.
Gray’s LA counterpart, starter Wade LeBlanc, managed to tame the A’s bats despite a repertoire of pitches that don’t break the 90 mph barrier. The Southpaw fired 5 2/3 innings, allowing only five hits to the Oakland hitters. The A’s didn’t manage a base runner to reach second base off LeBlanc until Josh Reddick’s doubled with one out in the fifth inning.
“He did a good job mixing his pitches,” said Vogt. “He didn’t really miss over the plate tonight. Typically, a guy like that, a junk baller, he knows how to pitch. That’s one thing about Wade LeBlanc, he knows how to pitch. He’s a really good pitcher. How you take advantage of those guys is when he makes mistakes over the plate, and he didn’t do that tonight.”
Of the five A’s hits off LeBlanc, four came counter to the lefty-vs-lefty pitcher’s advantage with Reddick (two hits), Sam Fuld and Eric Sogard all reaching base.
LeBlanc (1-1, 4.23) started the season in the minor leagues with the Angels, ultimately making his first Major League appearance at Oakland May 30th. LeBlanc pitched 6 1/3 innings of relief against the Athletics after starter Garret Richards exited with a season-ending knee injury, his longest outing to date this season.
Following his lone stint of game action, LeBlanc was claimed off waivers by the New York Yankees on June 3rd. 12 days later, after only one inning of two run work against the A’s later, the Yankees granted the 30 year old free agency. The Lake Charles, La. native returned to the Angels roster on June 17th. Since then, he has made eight appearances, including two starts before his season-best Tuesday evening outing.
Manager Mike Scioscia tabs a third-straight left-hander to pitch Wednesday afternoon’s series finale. Hector Santiago takes the mound in the rubber match. Melvin counters with a lefty of his own, sending trade deadline acquisition Jon Lester to the hill. The winner of Wednesday’s contest takes the season series with each side claiming nine wins apiece in head-to-head play.