By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — One of the safest predictions in baseball entering the 2018 season was that the Houston Astros — reigning American League and World Series champions — would win the AL West. That’s no longer a foregone conclusion.
The Oakland Athletics, 12 games back of Houston on June 18, officially caught up with the defending champs on Saturday, beating them 7-1 to move into a tie for first place in the division.
“I really don’t think we’re chasing anything, we’re just playing,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We know where we are in the standings, and we’re one game better than we were yesterday. It’s hungry every day, it’s more confident every day, based on the run we’ve had.”
Whereas Friday night’s walk-off victory was highlighted by a couple of key heroes, this one was a full-team effort thanks to three extended rallies and a sterling performance by the pitching staff: Trevor Cahill put together arguably his best start of the season for Oakland, while the A’s lineup knocked around former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.
Cahill was masterful for seven shutout innings despite the fact that his changeup “wasn’t as good as it’s been,” he admitted. The right-hander allowed only one hit against one of the best lineups in the big leagues, and even that was an infield single. He also issued a walk toward the end of his outing, but saw the runner eliminated in a double play, meaning he faced just one batter over the minimum while striking out seven.
His start registered an 81 game score, which is his highest of the season and the second-best of his entire career after an 82 back in 2010. It also ranks third on the team this year, after Sean Manaea’s no-hitter (95) and Daniel Mengden’s shutout (88).
“I was able to attack the zone a lot more, and get some earlier outs,” said Cahill. “I fell behind a little bit in the middle innings, but was able to throw some pitches to get back in the count and let the defense work. Then the offense came through and made it a lot easier.”
Melvin gushed about the starter’s performance. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Trevor pitch better than he did today, even the old version,” he said. “This version at times is better than the old version. He’s got a changeup, he’s got a cutter, he’s got more weapons to go to.”
The 30-year-old Cahill continued his season-long trend of dominating at home, despite struggling on the road. His home ERA went down to 0.86 in eight starts with nearly five strikeouts per walk, while his road ERA sits at 6.62 through seven appearances with just two Ks for every free pass. He previously faced the Astros twice this season, both times in Houston, and allowed a combined six earned runs in 9 2/3 innings. His effort in the Coliseum on Saturday went much better.
“I think it’s just being at home, just comfortable,” Cahill said of his success in Oakland. “I’ve made a lot of starts here in my career, so just everything from the bullpen to warming up before the game, and going out first to set the tone. You have the ball, you’re throwing the first pitch when you’re at home, so you’re just trying to set the tone early and work from there.”
On the other side of the ball, Oakland wasted no time getting to Keuchel, as they jumped all over him in the first inning. Marcus Semien led off with a single, Jed Lowrie followed suit, and then Khris Davis lined a double to the wall in left field to drive home both runners.
Keuchel settled down for a while after that opening frame, but the A’s struck again in the sixth. This time Davis started the rally, as he, Matt Olson and Stephen Piscotty blasted three straight doubles, each driving in the runner ahead of them. Two outs later, backup catcher Josh Phegley added another two-bagger to plate Piscotty. That last hit proved to be the end of the line for the lefty Keuchel, who failed to make it out of the sixth and retired the side in order just twice on the day. It’s the second time Oakland has beaten him this year in three tries.
The A’s tacked on a couple more runs in the eighth at the expense of the Astros bullpen. Olson kicked off the action with a double, and Phegley drove in a pair with yet another double. Overall on the day, the team went 5-for-15 with runners in scoring position, ending a 2-for-32 skid in such situations. Their eight doubles tied an Oakland single-game record, last achieved in 2013 against the Twins.
“It’s just kind of passing the baton on,” Melvin said. “It’s not one guy or two guys here dominating. It’s the complete lineup that is our strength.”
Phegley, who doesn’t always get to play every day, was pleased that he was able to contribute when given the opportunity.
“My role as a backup, I don’t want it to just be Lucroy’s day off and I just fill in,” Phegley said. “I want us to feel like I give us a good chance to win as well.”
Oakland has won 11 of the last 12 times that Phegley has started behind the plate.
The A’s and Astros now sport identical 74-49 records, meaning it’ll be a 39-game sprint to see who can finish on top of the standings at the end of September. Both clubs sit four games ahead of the third-place Mariners, who host the Dodgers on Saturday night.
Just because Oakland has reached a late-season milestone, though, don’t expect anything to change in their mindset or attitude. Phegley summed up the atmosphere around the team: “I feel like the energy that we have in the dugout and the clubhouse, it’s felt like we’ve been in first place for two months. That’s how I feel. Every day we show up ready to play, we have fun, we enjoy it. We’re just pulling for each other and having fun playing the game of baseball, so tomorrow will be no different.”