OAKLAND — In his first three starts this year, Oakland Athletics pitcher Frankie Montas allowed just three runs total. In his fourth start, against the Houston Astros on Thursday, he gave up that many runs by the third inning.
It was a rough outing for a pitcher who had astounded in his first few starts, compiling a 1.25 ERA since being brought up from the minors in May.
Since joining the A’s rotation, Montas’ walk rate — which was a hair above 13 percent last season as a reliever — was an impressive 3.6 percent. Thursday, Montas walked four Astros in his 5 1/3 innings and striking out just one as the Astros finished off a second straight sweep in Oakland with a 7-3 win.
Behind Montas’ shaky performance and some lackluster offense from all A’s not named Khris Davis or Matt Olson — both of whom homered — spelled another loss to Houston, which has now won eight of nine games against Oakland. The Astros outscored the A’s, 26-11 in three games this week, and over the nine games they’ve played this season, Houston holds a 70-28 advantage.
“I tried to battle, I tried to do a good job out there, but I got behind a lot of really good hitters,” Montas said. “I was trying to go with the same game plan as I did last time, but, like I said before, these are really good hitters.”
While Montas had demonstrated some good control and command in those first three starts, he’d been getting somewhat lucky, as batters made hard contact but still produced outs. Today, that luck ran out, as Montas gave up seven runs (five earned) on 11 hits.
“It looked like every ball he got in the middle of the plate — similar to everybody in the series with us — they hit,” manager Bob Melvin said. “[Houston is] a good hitting team that’s swinging the bat real well right now.”
Meanwhile, Justin Verlander was again spectacular. Coming into the game with a 1.45 ERA, he threw seven innings on 100 pitches (73 for strikes), giving up three runs on five hits. So, the A’s increased his ERA — all the way to a still measly 1.61, still the lowest ERA in the AL.
“The psychology of a starting pitcher goes a long way,” Melvin said. “Now, granted, they have a great lineup, they do things across the board well, but their starting pitchers get your attention. And when they score runs early in the game, you tend to press a little bit, think you have to do too much right away, they potentially can add on. So it does start with their starting pitchers, no doubt about it.”
With Verlander dealing, the A’s stranded seven runners, and the team’s offense really came (again) off Davis’ bat. In the bottom of the second, he hit a ball that everyone — including Verlander — immediately knew was gone. It was Davis’ third-straight at-bat with a home run, following two Wednesday night against Gerrit Cole and Reymin Guduan. Davis has hit 105 homers since 2016, the most in the major leagues over that span. (Giancarlo Stanton has 101, Nelson Cruz 98 and Edwin Encarnacion 96).
Olson got the second and third runs on the board after he crushed a homer 400 feet to right field, scoring Davis, who had “doubled” — on a routine infield pop-up that the Astros lost in the sun.
But it wasn’t just Houston that the sun affected. Oakland infielder Matt Chapman struggled to find a ball in the sixth — one of a couple defensive miscues he made that led to a pair of runs. He was replaced by Chad Pinder in the seventh inning, which Melvin said was because Chapman has been dealing with a hand contusion that dates back to spring training. Chapman said he’s been trying to push through the injury all season, but it has really started to bother him in the past couple of days.
“Frustrating for a lot of reasons, obviously,” Chapman said. “I don’t like to feel like I cost the team runs with missing that fly ball today — I mean, it hit me in the face, so that didn’t feel good, either. It was kind of embarrassing. … I hate to come out for the team, especially when you’re playing well, so it’s just been kind of an upsetting day, kind of frustrated right now.”