By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics’ top story entering Friday’s game was the experimental strategy of their pitching staff, but by the end the night it was their lineup that stole the show. Oakland pounded out 10 hits, including two home runs from Ramon Laureano, en route to a comfortable 8-4 victory over the last-place Texas Rangers.
Batting in the leadoff position for the second straight game, the rookie center fielder wasted no time getting the A’s on the board. Laureano homered just four pitches into the top of the first inning, drew a walk during a four-run rally in the second, and then went deep again in the sixth while the A’s piled on some insurance.
“He’s taken it to another level,” manager Bob Melvin said of Laureano in the leadoff spot. “He’s swinging the bat really well. He hits one out to left, hits one out to right. He’s on a roll right now. When guys are swinging well, we try to get them up there (in the lineup) as far as we can.”
The 24-year-old was playing in just the 29th game of his MLB career, but this was already his second multi-homer effort. The other one also came against Texas back on Aug. 20. No one in all of A’s history has notched two multi-homer games so quickly in their career, with runners-up Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire needing 42 and 43, respectively. Laureano now has five long balls in his first 93 plate appearances.
“Get a good pitch to hit — and I got it — and not miss it,” said Laureano of his approach at the plate leading up to the two homers. “It’s that simple.”
Power is just the latest skill displayed by the dynamic Laureano, who has also shown blazing speed, played highlight-reel defense and flashed a cannon arm, all while batting .309 and drawing plenty of walks.
“He has all the tools,” said Melvin. “I think we probably need to wait a little while before we classify him as a five-tool player, but the physical presence, and he’s able to throw, he’s got some power obviously, he runs really well. Yeah, maybe on his way to calling him one of those guys.”
After Laureano’s initial blast, the A’s jumped out to a commanding lead in the second inning with help from some wildness by Rangers starter Yovani Gallardo. The right-hander pegged Stephen Piscotty, and Marcus Semien launched the very next pitch for a two-run homer. Gallardo promptly loaded the bases on a single and two walks, and then Matt Chapman knocked in a pair with a single up the middle. By the end of the inning, Oakland had plated four runs on only three hits.
The A’s later added some insurance in the sixth inning. Shortly after Laureano’s second homer, a string of five straight batters reached base, including RBI hits by Matt Olson and Piscotty.
On the other side of the ball, Oakland’s pitching did more than enough to support the big day by the offense. Liam Hendriks served as the opener and did his job with a scoreless first inning, then gave way to Chris Bassitt in the long-man role. Bassitt made it through three innings but let Texas get on the board on a two-run homer by Joey Gallo, his 35th of the season.
“It’s something we’ve employed three times now, it’s worked twice, so it’s in our bag,” said Melvin of the opener strategy, with a reliever serving as the first-inning opener ahead of the traditional starter.
For Bassitt, it was his first experience in the A’s new pitching arrangement. Before Friday, his last 25 appearances in MLB had been starts dating back to 2015.
“It’s different,” said Bassitt of coming out of the bullpen as a long man. “There’s no warmup. Everything that I’ve done for four or five years, I don’t do now. Can’t throw on the field. But it’s not something that I can’t do, it’s just something that I’ve gotta get used to.”
Five more relievers teamed up to keep the Rangers at bay for the final five innings. Texas threatened against Fernando Rodney in the seventh and Jeurys Familia in the eighth, scoring a run off of each, but the Rangers weren’t able to further capitalize on either rally to truly get back into the game.
Yusmeiro Petit was particularly effective out of the bullpen, needing just 17 pitches to breeze through the fifth and sixth innings and retiring all six batters he faced. Melvin made sure to point out the right-hander’s effort after the game.
“Petit really did a great job too, with the two quick innings to get us toward the back end,” Melvin said.
With the victory, the A’s gained a game on the Seattle Mariners and now lead them by 6 1/2 for the second Wild Card. They also kept pace at 3 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros for the AL West division lead and the New York Yankees for the first Wild Card, after both leaders won on Friday. Despite a relatively soft schedule the rest of the way, though, the A’s know there’s no margin for error if they want to sneak up on either of those heavyweights.
“To catch Houston, to catch New York, we’ve basically gotta win every game, no matter the opponent,” said Bassitt. “We just can’t have a slip up. It don’t matter the opponent.”