By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics lost eight of the first nine games they played against the Houston Astros this season, but they’ve flipped the script since then.
The A’s took three of four meetings on the road in July, and on Sunday they’ll look to complete a three-game sweep at home. The winner of this series finale will take sole possession of first place in the AL West.
Don’t expect those high stakes to affect how the A’s go about their business, though, as they know there’s still a long way to go with 39 games remaining in the season.
“There’s no pause because of where we are, but there’s a good feeling because of it,” said Oakland manager Bob Melvin. “I know our guys feel good about it. There’s a lot of games left to play, but to this point we feel good.”
Sunday’s game will feature a marquee pitching matchup between Sean Manaea and Justin Verlander. The lefty Manaea won his last start against the Mariners, but has only beaten the Astros once in three tries this season. Verlander is a former Cy Young and MVP winner who is a long-time nemesis for the A’s, and he’s pitched well both times he’s faced them this year in a pair of Astros victories.
Oakland is on day three of a stretch that will see them play 20 straight days without a break. However, September will begin during that time, which will mean the ability to add some reinforcements from the minor leagues as rosters expand from 25 to as many as 40. For a team that already maximizes every spot on the roster by shuffling players up and down to Triple-A, that should be a big help.
“We talk about the contributions of 25, but it goes much deeper for us,” said Melvin. “Whether it’s the Ryan Dulls and (Danny) Coulombes and (Daniel) Mengdens and (Frankie) Montases and Chris Bassitts, all those guys have been important to us over the course of the season as well as (Dustin Fowler and Franklin Barreto).
“We’re getting contributions from a lot of guys, so there’s a good chance we see most of those guys if not all of them in September, and we tend to give everybody an opportunity. Also in September with some of these guys, it allows us to give some guys some days off who’ve been out there every day, especially during this 20-game stretch.”
On top of those names, the A’s may also be able to look forward to a return from injured outfielder Matt Joyce. The 34-year-old has been out with a back problem, but Melvin reported that he’ll begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday.
That will be the first game action for Joyce since early July, when he went on the disabled list for the second time this season. On Friday Melvin noted that the team has been taking Joyce’s recovery slowly after he already experienced several setbacks along the way, and that they hope to get him back in September. He’s struggled at the plate when healthy this season, but he provided a valuable bat in 2017.
In the meantime, Oakland has gotten excellent production from rookie Nick Martini in left field. The 28-year-old is hitting .303 with a .427 on-base percentage in 29 games, mostly out of the leadoff spot, and as a left-handed bat with on-base skills, he’s done a great job of filling Joyce’s role. However, just because Joyce is on the mend doesn’t necessarily mean Martini has to worry about watching over his shoulder.
“We use everybody, so I don’t know that we rely on one or two guys or want the pressure of (Martini) to think that if he doesn’t do well for a game or two then someone’s going to take his spot. I don’t think these guys think this way. They know that everybody is used here and everybody embraces that. So he doesn’t put any added pressure on himself.”
Another lefty outfield option is Fowler, who is batting .459 in 14 games since moving down to Triple-A.
“That’s what we wanted him to do, was go down there and get comfortable,” said Melvin. The manager still refers to the 23-year-old rookie as “our center fielder of the future,” adding that “he’s gonna be a significant player for us.”