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Bullpen implosion and fan-interference-that-wasn’t sink Athletics

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Oakland Athletics’ Mark Canha follows through on a swing against the Giants at AT&T Park on Friday, July 13, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

OAKLAND — Despite the fact that the Oakland Athletics’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot was just seven with 12 games to go, and the fact that the A’s had the fourth-best record in all of baseball, only 15,031 paying customers showed up at the Oakland Coliseum on Tuesday.

It may have been better for Oakland if that number was 15,030.

A fan-interference-that-wasn’t (at least officially) contributed to a six-run sixth, as the visiting Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim got to what had been a largely-impenetrable A’s bullpen for a 9-7 comeback win. With the loss, Oakland dropped to 2 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees for the right to host the winner-take-all Wild Card game.

With one out and the bases loaded in the top of the sixth, a fan reached over the wall down the right field line and got his glove on a fly ball that looked to be an imminently catchable ball for A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty. The A’s challenged, but no fan interference call was made. Two pitches later, Andrelton Simmons sent a two-run single to center, touching off the big inning.

“I don’t know how you don’t call it,” manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s going to catch it. I’m not sure what they saw that we didn’t see. Stephen said he’d have caught it. Maybe the placement of the runners, maybe they don’t know where they’re going with that, I don’t know. It’s an out.”

Starting what had been their best opener combo in a monthlong, six-start experiment, Oakland (90-61) had a 4-1 lead through five innings with Liam Hendriks and Daniel Mengeden on the mound.

“He gave us what we needed him to,” Melvin said of Mengden. “He left with the lead.”

The A’s needed three relievers to get through the sixth (and used eight overall), including two of their best. Shawn Kelley — who had a 14-game scoreless streak since being acquired by the A’s on Aug. 5 — walked Jose Fernandez, and with one out, allowed a hot shot to the left side. Matt Chapman — by many measures the best third baseman in the major leagues — made his way up the line to glove the 90-mph shot, but couldn’t hold onto it. Initially ruled an error, the play was changed to a hit.

A cue shot off of reliever Ryan Buchter by Shohei Ohtani loaded the bases, and in stepped ace rookie set-up man Lou Trivino. Trivino’s first pitch to Simmons was a foul ball down the right field line, where an A’s fan reached into the field of play and tried to make a catch, directly over right fielder Piscotty’s own outstretched glove.

The fan didn’t make the catch, but neither did Piscotty. After a 1:41 replay review, the call of no fan interference stood.

“It’s a tough play going into the wall, but I felt like I was there in enough time,” Piscotty said. “Definitely changes how that inning goes, but nothing we can do about it now. I never understand when they’re going to overturn stuff. I had a feeling they wouldn’t.”

Simmons promptly banged a 1-2 offering into center for a two-run single, as the fan who interfered (but officially didn’t) was escorted out of the stadium.

“Obviously, we don’t want folks to interfere, but 95 percent of people are going to do that,” Piscotty said. “I don’t fault the fan or anything. I know that person was getting booed pretty heavily, but everyone else in the stadium probably would do the same thing.”

After Trivino hit Taylor Ward, Kaleb Cowart — who had three RBIs in his first 75 at-bats — hit his first home run of the season — Los Angeles’s first grand slam in 2018 — to give the Angels a 7-4 lead.

“If I catch that ball, whoever scores, guy goes to third, tagging, we’ve got Lou on the mound, he’s been so dominant, he strikes everybody out it seems,” Piscotty said. “Maybe we escape. It didn’t turn out that way, but that was a possibility.”

Since Sept. 4, the A’s had a 3.06 bullpen ERA, in part thanks to the opener strategy, necessitated by the 10 starters who have spent time on the disabled list this season. Up until Tuesday, bolstered by its use against the Wild Card-leading Yankees, the opener seemed a viable option for a one-game playoff. Tuesday proved, however, that even with a stocked bullpen — the A’s could theoretically carry just one starter for the Wild Card game, as they could re-set their roster for a division series — it’s a volatile strategy.

Oakland’s relievers (not including Mengden) gave up eight runs in four innings, and have given up 15 earned runs over the last 14 1/3 frames they’ve pitched, excluding the bulk men in opener situations.

In the top of the eighth, with reliever Cory Gearrin on the mound, backup catcher Josh Phegley threw out Shohei Ohtani trying to advance to third on a bunt by Ward. Matt Chapman’s throw to get Ward at first was wild, allowing Andrelton Simmons — aboard with a single — to score. Gearrin then uncorked a wild pitch, and allowed an RBI triple to Cowert.

In the bottom of the fourth, the A’s plated four after nearly squandering a no-out, bases-loaded situation. After Matt Olson and Marcus Semien went down on strikes, Mark Canha cleared the bases with an 0-2, two-out double, and Jonathan Lucroy drove him in with a single to center.

The A’s loaded the bases again with one in the eighth against Justin Anderson. After reliever Ty Buttrey caught Nick Martini looking, pinch hitter Dustin Fowler — who had just three plate appearances since Sept. 1 — flared a single to right to bring home two, and cut the lead in half. That’s as close as Oakland would get to the Angels (75-76), and they’ve now lost three games in a row for the first time since July 27-29.

Notebook:

The official game time was three hours and 42 minutes. The two teams combined to use 15 pitchers. They combined for just 16 hits and 11 walks.

Two of those walks came to Lowrie, who set a career high with his 74th walk of the season in the eighth inning.

With Tampa Bay winning (they’ve won 22 of their last 27) the A’s still have a magic number of seven to clinch a playoff spot. They also have a tragic number of seven (now with 11 games left) to be eliminated from the AL West race — a combination of A’s losses and Houston Astros wins. Houston beat the Seattle Mariners 7-0 on Tuesday.

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