By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics couldn’t quite pull off a sweep of the defending champion Houston Astros this weekend in the Coliseum, but they still made a statement.
Despite dropping Sunday’s finale 9-4, the A’s won the series against one of baseball’s elite teams and even experienced a brief taste of first place for 24 hours.
After scoring just five runs in the first two games, the Astros’ bats came alive against Sean Manaea and the Oakland pitching staff to the tune of five homers. Manaea breezed through the first two innings and the first two outs of the third, but then Houston stunned him with four straight hits, culminating in a three-run shot by Yuli Gurriel.
”The first couple innings I thought it was as good of stuff as we’ve seen — 92s, sharp breaking ball and changeup,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin of Manaea’s work. “Then (Alex) Bregman punches that ball through the hole and next thing you know it’s four runs. So it happened pretty quickly, and surprisingly for me the way he was pitching.”
The blast by Gurriel was a matter of missed location, said catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
“We were trying to go down and away and he threw it down and in and just coughed it up,” Lucroy said.
Oakland quickly tied it up but the Astros answered back to retake the lead. They added another run in the fourth when Evan Gattis homered, and then again in the fifth when Martin Maldonado tripled and scored. That fifth-inning rally could have been even worse if not for a clutch relief appearance by Lou Trivino, who needed just eight pitches to escape a two-on, no-out jam he’d inherited from Manaea.
“Physically I felt fine, stuff I thought was there, I just left pitches out over the middle, and pitch sequences too,” said Manaea of his tough outing. It was the second time in the lefty’s last three starts that he’s failed to finish five frames while also allowing more runs than innings pitched.
Even after Manaea’s departure the game was still within reach, but Houston kept adding on against the A’s bullpen. Reliever Emilio Pagan served up three solo homers, to Maldonado, Bregman, and Marwin Gonzalez, giving the Astros some insurance against an Oakland lineup that had shocked them with a ninth-inning comeback two days prior.
To Pagan’s credit, though, he was able to soak up the final three innings to give the other relievers a much-needed rest as they look forward to games the next 17 straight days. Other than the long balls, he retired the other nine batters he faced, including four strikeouts.
“On the bright side, I was able to finish the game and save guys for tomorrow going into the next series which sets us up moving forward,” said Pagan. “Sucks that I gave up three homers, but at the same time I feel like I kinda did my job in a way because I was able to save guys going into tomorrow.”
The game got off to a promising start as Oakland did some damage against Houston starter Justin Verlander, though it didn’t prove to be enough. The right-hander has long been a nemesis for the A’s, having helped knock them out of the playoffs in 2006, 2012 and 2013 with the Tigers, and this season the former Cy Young and MVP is once again among the best starters in the American League.
Oakland jumped all over the 35-year-old in this one, as Matt Chapman and Khris Davis both homered in the first inning to open the day’s scoring. Davis later added another long ball in the third, and the A’s knocked Verlander out in the sixth with a promising rally. However, that bases-loaded threat ultimately went nowhere and Oakland didn’t score again after Davis’ second dinger. The Astros have won all three of Verlander’s starts against the A’s this year.
For Davis, it was his sixth multi-homer game of 2018, and he now has four long balls in 11 career plate appearances against Verlander. His total of 36 this season ranks third in MLB, behind just J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox (38) and Jose Ramirez of the Indians (37).
“There’s a little disappointment,” said outfielder Stephen Piscotty. “We wanted to take sole possession of first today, but you don’t get to the postseason today or tomorrow. It’s a month and a half more to go.”
Even though they lost their share of first place in the AL West, the A’s still find themselves in a great position after winning four-of-six games against their top divisional foes over the last week. Oakland stands just one game back of the Astros, and 3 1/2 games ahead of the third-place Mariners, who were blown out by the Dodgers on Sunday for the second time in three days.
Despite the loss, the mood in the clubhouse was one of optimism and resilience. These A’s know they belong in the thick of this playoff race, and one defeat at the hands of a great opponent isn’t going to get them down amid their incredible 40-14 run since mid-June.
“We’re not gonna win every game the rest of the year, it’s just not gonna happen,” said Lucroy, echoing a sentiment also expressed by many of his teammates. “It would be nice, but it’s very unlikely, especially when you’re playing other teams in your division that are really good. These (Astros), and the Mariners, they’re paid to play over there too and they’re good players. We’ve just gotta stay the course, keep winning series, and that’s the best we can do right now, just try to win every series. For me, I think that’s a very good goal for us to have.”
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