By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics entered their weekend series against the Houston Astros with a chance to move into first place in the AL West, and they took their first step in that direction with a walk-off victory in the opener.
The A’s trailed for most of the evening, but after tying things up in the ninth, they got a homer from Matt Olson in the 10th to complete yet another comeback win in a year that has been full of them. After this 4-3 triumph in mid-August, Oakland now stands just one game back in a division that nobody thought would be up for grabs this season.
Just two outs away from defeat in the ninth, pinch hitter Chad Pinder drew a walk against Houston closer Hector Rondon and was lifted for pinch-runner Ramon Laureano. Nick Martini followed with a liner to the wall in right, and Laureano raced all the way home from first. He was initially called out on a bang-bang play thanks to a beautiful relay throw from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who had ranged far from his position to help out with his strong arm, but after a three-minute replay review, the call was overturned and the run was put on the board. Olson then led off the 10th by pulling a homer on a 3-2 slider from southpaw reliever Tony Sipp.
“I blacked out,” Olson said. “I remember chucking my helmet, and just yelling and jumping around with all the guys.”
The A’s improved to a major league-best 26-10 in one-run games, and 11-5 in extra innings. Oakland is also the best in the majors in wins when trailing after seven innings, with 11 such victories. The win was the A’s eighth walk-off victory of the season, and the second for Olson after a winning single in April.
“We play our best baseball late in games,” said manager Bob Melvin. “Even if we’re down, we feel like we have a chance.”
In the A’s previous game on Wednesday against Seattle, Olson nearly walked off against Mariners lefty Zach Duke, but the ball hit the top of the wall.
In the eighth inning on Friday, down 3-2, Olson had a chance to do damage after a Jed Lowrie double and a walk to Khris Davis, but struck out on a slider by Roberto Osuna.
Olson’s 10th-inning shot was his first career walk-off homer and only the fourth time he’s gone deep in his last 34 games. It was also only the fourth shot he’s hit off a left-handed pitcher this season out of his 23 total.
“I’ve been pretty adamant about the fact that I don’t care, righty or lefty, so it’s nice to show that,” Olson said.
Before Olson’s heroics, the scene was set by Laureano’s mad dash. Just moments after entering the game, he got the chance to show off his top-notch speed — afterward, Melvin referred to him as “probably our best runner.”
On his way from first to home, Laureano had to navigate around third baseman Alex Bregman, who was briefly in his path, and then catcher Martin Maldonado, who had the plate pretty well blocked off. As soon as the umpire made the call Laureano motioned to his dugout to take a second look at it, and the replay crew eventually changed it. Not everyone agreed, though, as Astros outfielder Josh Reddick later expressed his opinion on Twitter: “Replay is meant to get the call right. Tonight, that didn’t happen.”
A’s starter Edwin Jackson was sharp through the first three innings but ran into trouble after that, allowing solo homers to Bregman in the fourth and Maldonado in the fifth. The damage in those frames could have been worse, but Jackson managed to strand a pair of runners both times after the long balls. The right-hander entered the game having not allowed an earned run in his last three starts, but his streak was snapped after a total of 22-plus innings. Houston tacked on another run against reliever Lou Trivino in the sixth, and it almost held up for the rest of the evening.
Jackson has leaned heavily on a cut fastball this year, which he added to his repertoire in 2016 and now counts as his primary offering. However, he noted after the game that his cutter wasn’t at its best in this start, and indeed both of the home runs he allowed came against that pitch. Still, his outing was good enough to keep his team in the game and put them in a position to eventually win.
On the other side of the ball, Oakland snapped its own 22-inning scoreless streak. The A’s had last scored early on Tuesday against the Mariners, before being shut out for 12 innings on Wednesday and then the first four on Friday. They finally broke through in the fifth, though, with help from some sloppy play by the Astros.
The A’s managed to push across two runs in that frame despite hitting only two balls out of the infield. After a leadoff double by Stephen Piscotty, Bregman double-clutched a grounder to allow Marcus Semien to reach base and then Correa botched a potential double play ball off the bat of Mark Canha.
With the bases loaded and no out, Jonathan Lucroy hit another grounder, and this time Houston did turn two. However, it was still enough to drive in the team’s first run in three days. Matt Chapman later followed with an RBI single to tie things up, but the deadlock was short-lived as Reddick quickly singled one in against Trivino.
Oakland entered the ninth inning having gone 2-for-30 with runners in scoring position dating back to Monday, but they managed to find the big hits they needed to plate the tying and winning runs without improving that tally.
“They’re just confident they’re always going to come back and have a chance if it’s late,” Melvin said. “Success breeds confidence and we’ve had plenty of both late in games.”
Olson himself had failed to come through twice in big spots on Friday before delivering the final blow. Despite their early struggles, though, he reported that the team didn’t let frustration get to them.
“It goes along with us having that ability to come back. We don’t get too upset at situations and just roll with the punches,” he said.
The slugger gave some credit to the relatively large crowd, which grew from an average of 15,000 in this week’s series against Seattle to over 23,000 on Friday. “You get in those big situations and the crowd gets loud and they start to feel more pressure, and we get amped up. It’s big to have everybody behind us.”
In addition to gaining ground on Houston, Oakland also widened its gap over the Mariners in the race for the second Wild Card. Seattle was blown out by the Dodgers, pushing Oakland’s lead to 3 1/2 games.
“That’s the team that we have. This team is capable of doing special things like that on a daily basis, and tonight showed that,” said Jackson.