Mike Fiers delivers a pitch for the Oakland Athletics during the 2018 season. (Courtesy / Oakland Athletics)

A’s bullpen lets winnable game slip away

Oakland had chance to pick up a game in Astros, Trivino implodes

The Oakland Athletics had a chance to gain ground on the AL West division-leading Houston Astros on Friday, but instead they bolstered their AL lead in blown saves.

The A’s carried a lead into the seventh inning on the back of a strong pitching performance from starter Mike Fiers, but the Astros got to setup man Lou Trivino for the tying run in the seventh and then the go-ahead tally in the eighth, eventually defeating Oakland 3-2.

“Just a couple balls in the middle of the plate,” said manager Bob Melvin of the two key hits off Trivino. “He’s still throwing hard, he’s still getting good movement, just maybe not precise on the location where he’s throwing it.”

The deciding blows came from unlikely sources. The tying run scored on a double by Tony Kemp, batting eighth in Houston’s lineup and entering the day with a paltry .222 average and .667 OPS. The winning run came on a solo homer off the bat of Derek Fisher, his first of the season after spending most of the year in the minors.

“I’m just not feeling good in my delivery, just a little off right now,” said Trivino, who reported feeling healthy and strong but just off on his timing. “Fastball doesn’t have too much life to it, so I’m giving them good pitches to hit and they’re hitting ‘em. So it’s frustrating.”

The blown save was the 11th by the A’s this year, and their first in more than two weeks, although the bullpen picked up a pair of losses against the Los Angeles Angels earlier this week while pitching in tie games. It’s the third straight game in which the loss was credited to an Oakland reliever, and the second straight in which it was hung on Trivino. That’s all a major departure from 2018, when the pen seemed reliably dominant all season, with Trivino as one of the leading forces in that success.

“You’re gonna have stretches when you’re struggling, so it’s just about limiting those stretches to hopefully just a couple games and not long stretches,” said Trivino, who allowed five runs in his last appearance against the Angels on Wednesday.

Melvin didn’t sound overly worried about the struggles of his star reliever, though.

“We’ve seen him when he’s pitched really good,” said Melvin. “Everybody goes through periods. When you throw 98 miles an hour, you got a 92 mile an hour cutter, and you have a track record like he had last year, he’s just going through a little bit of a tough period right now.”

The game began as a pitcher’s duel between two hot arms, in Mike Fiers and Brad Peacock. Fiers had posted a 2.84 ERA in his previous six starts, and had the benefit of facing an Astros lineup plagued by injuries, with All-Stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer all out of action. Meanwhile, Peacock had allowed just one run in his previous four starts, spanning 23 innings, and he didn’t need to face currently injured slugger Khris Davis.

“That’s still a good team, no matter who’s in there,” said Fiers of the Astros. “I’ve seen a lot of those guys play, being in their organization [from 2015-17], Fisher and Kemp and these guys can play. It’s not about that. We need to, as pitchers, be aggressive no matter what team we’re facing or who’s in the lineup.”

Oakland struck first against Peacock, in the third inning, with a two-run blast by Matt Chapman that traveled an impressive 431 feet. It was Chapman’s team-leading 15th long ball of the season, and his AL-leading eighth go-ahead homer. However, that was all the scoring the A’s could manage, despite putting runners on base in all but three innings.

Those runs nearly held up, as Fiers tore through the first six innings without letting Houston get on the board nor even reach third base. However, he ran out of zeroes in the seventh, allowing a solo homer to Josh Reddick and then walking a batter with two outs. That’s when Trivino came in and allowed Kemp’s game-tying double to drive in the inherited runner.

“Real economical early on too,” said Melvin of Fiers, who needed just 78 pitches for the first six frames. “Mixed all his pitches, pitched up and down, curveballs a little bit, kept them off balance. And then after the Reddick homer, becomes a little bit more dicey, but we didn’t do a lot offensively, so the entire game you’re pitching with a little pressure on you.”

The performance was Fiers’ fifth quality start in his last seven outings. It was also a vast improvement over the last time he faced the Astros, in early April at Minute Maid Park, when he allowed six runs and was pulled in the second inning.

Despite falling back to 8 ½ games out of the division, the A’s held their tie for the second American League Wild Card, alongside the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers. They’ll carry their 29-28 record into another matchup against the Astros on Saturday, with Brett Anderson starting against Houston superstar Justin Verlander. Khris Davis will be eligible to come off the injured list for the game, though Melvin didn’t commit one way or other regarding whether he will do so.

In the meantime, Chapman offered some wise words after a tough loss.

“We’ve shown that we’ve been able to shorten gaps in a short amount of time. I think it’s just about not getting too high or low, not putting too much pressure on ourselves to close the gap or anything like that. Just take it day to day, and try and win each day, and if we keep trying to win ballgames and we keep winning and winning series and looking up at the end of the year I think we’ll like where we’re gonna be.”

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