By Ben Ross
Special to the S.F. Examiner
After winning their first division title since 2013, the A’s thought they had finally surpassed the Astros as the top dog in the AL West. But Houston wasn’t quite ready to give up the crown.
The Astros belted four home runs Thursday afternoon en route to an 11-6 win in Game 4 to eliminate the A’s and advance to their fourth straight American League Championship Series.
“It just hurts,” outfielder Mark Canha said. “It hurts a lot. We worked so hard and we competed and it was kind of a crazy year.”
Added manager Bob Melvin: “We went into this series thinking we were going to win. We played well against them in the regular season so we should have had a lot of confidence going in. … We battled to the end as you would expect, but just not enough.”
To Melvin’s point, the A’s won seven of the 10 regular season meetings and finished with a 36-24 record, seven games better than second-place Houston. But the experienced Astros caught fire at the plate, outscoring Oakland 33-22 for the series.
Homers were aplenty on both sides, with balls flying out of a warm Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles like seagulls soaring at the beach. Each squad hit a Division Series-record 12 round-trippers during the four games.
“We struggled to home them down, really the entire game at times,” Melvin said. “Just a good offensive team that hit their stride at the right time.”
Despite scoring first in all four contests, the A’s could only muster one win in the series, a 9-7 victory in Game 3. Oakland was let down by its starting pitching, which combined to allow 16 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings. The bullpen wasn’t, much better, giving up 13 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings.
“It’s a bad feeling, but hopefully it doesn’t happen next year,” outfielder Ramón Laureano said. “We’ve just got to keep our heads up, keep working, keep dreaming about moving forward and winning a World Series.”
Game 1 looked especially promising, as Oakland jumped out to a 3-0 lead after three innings with ace pitcher Chris Bassitt on the mound. But Houston answered with three runs of their own in the fourth, chasing Bassitt early. The A’s would add runs in the fourth and fifth to go back ahead 5-3, but again the Astros responded, scoring seven unanswered runs to win 10-5.
Oakland again got off to a strong start in Game 2, grabbing the lead on a solo home run by Khris Davis, his second long ball of the series and third of the playoffs. But left-hander Sean Manaea couldn’t get out of the fourth inning, allowing four earned runs on the afternoon, and the Astros coasted to a 5-2 victory.
In Game 3, it was the A’s who overcame a deficit, storming back from a 7-4 Astros advantage with three runs in the seventh inning and two more in the eighth to win 9-7. Liam Hendriks tossed three scoreless innings to earn the win for Oakland.
The A’s appeared to have the momentum in Game 4 when Laureano belted a three-run home run in the second inning, his first of two homers on the afternoon. But Frankie Montas couldn’t maintain the lead, surrendering five runs in the fourth inning, and the Astros coasted to the series-clinching victory.
“Our goal was to win the World Series, so I think that you lose in the ALDS, it’s not exactly where you want to be,” shortstop Marcus Semien said. “We know that we had the pieces to go further and our goal was always the World Series.”
Houston will face either the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS, which will be played at Petco Park in San Diego. As for the A’s, the offseason has once again arrived prematurely — Oakland’s last trip to the ALCS came in 2006 and the World Series drought has reached 31 years.
Said Canha: “It’s a failure. We wanted to win the World Series. Anything short of that is falling short of our goal. But every failure, as a competitor, is an opportunity. And those opportunities are valuable to learn. And that’s kind of the message I was trying to tell everyone in the clubhouse is just learn, learn from this. Don’t just go down in the dumps. You have to take these failures and learn from them.”