OAKLAND — Justin Verlander is still one of the best pitchers in the majors at age 36, and he reminded the Oakland Athletics why on Saturday.
The Houston Astros right-hander threw eight excellent innings, and the A’s managed just four hits against him and five hits overall en route to a 5-1 loss at the Coliseum, extending their losing streak to four games.
“He elevates well with the high velocity, throws breaking balls in off counts, keeps the ball on the corners,” said manager Bob Melvin of Verlander. “We just didn’t have too many good swings off him.”
The last time Oakland beat Verlander was in 2013, seven tries ago. Verlander’s team has won 10 of the last 11 regular season meetings against the A’s dating back to 2011, though in one of those victories he settled for a no-decision. Add in four postseason matchups during that span, and Verlander’s team has won 13 out of 15. Saturday was no different, as Verlander silenced a lineup that’s been on a tear over the last two weeks.
Verlander was in full control throughout Saturday night, dialing his fastball up as high as 98 mph and mixing in plenty of breaking balls. He struck out eight batters in his eight innings (passing Cy Young for 21st on the all-time list with 2,809) while issuing just two walks, and he finished his outing by retiring 10 of the final 12 batters he faced, maintaining his max velocity until the final at-bat.
“It’s pretty humbling,” Verlander said. “Sometimes when you’re playing this game it’s got the unique ability to really kind of put things in perspective for you and as much as you try to just keep your head down and just keep pitching and not pay attention to whatever’s going on, any time Cy Young pops up on your radar and you’re associated with him it’s pretty special.”
The A’s only run on Saturday came on a homer by Stephen Piscotty in the second inning, his seventh of the year. Other than that round-tripper, Oakland never even got a runner to third base, and only twice did the A’s put multiple runners on at a time. After averaging nearly seven runs per game in their last 13 contests leading into this series against the Astros, Oakland has tallied just three runs total in their first two games against Houston.
However, Verlander may have received some help from the umpires in the fifth inning. With two on and two out, Marcus Semien lofted a fly down the right-field line. The ball eluded a diving Josh Reddick but was called foul, and a replay review upheld the decision despite the appearance that the ball kicked up chalk from landing on the line.
“Game-changing play,” said Semien, who grounded out on the next pitch to end the inning, stranding the runners and leaving Matt Chapman on deck. “That ball’s called fair then it’s a tie game with a runner on third and our best hitter up, against the best pitcher in the Major Leagues.”
The crowd disagreed vehemently with the ruling, and Semien did as well, as his complaints to first-base umpire Alan Porter resulted in his ejection. It was the first time the usually calm Semien has been ejected at any level of his baseball career, from the Majors down through high school.
“When I’m on the field and I see a big screen at the Coliseum and I see white paint come up, then I think I should have an RBI double or triple against Justin Verlander. That’s why I was mad,” said Semien.
Melvin was none too pleased with the foul call either, nor with the fashion in which Semien was booted.
“My problem was that he got ejected when he was 20 yards away from [the umpire Porter] with his back turned,” said Melvin.
That wasn’t the only questionable call that the A’s felt didn’t go their way. In the fourth inning with a 1-0 lead, Brett Anderson thought he’d struck out Michael Brantley with a 3-2 slider on the outside corner, but it was called ball four. Two batters later, Reddick homered for the second time in as many days, and what could have been a tie game instead became a lead the Astros never relinquished.
Another tough hop loomed large in the fifth inning. With a runner on second base and two out, Alex Bregman got jammed and hit a popup behind first base. It seemed to be within range of Gold Glover Matt Olson, but it fell safely to the turf just a couple steps away from him, turning the potential third out into an RBI single and a valuable insurance run.
“Might have been some communication problems there, because that’s a ball that [Olson] usually gets pretty easily,” said Melvin. “Might have heard something that got him off it a little bit.”
“That’s how baseball is sometimes,” said Anderson of the controversial calls and missed opportunities. “Frustrating.”
Making the game even more frustrating for Anderson, the left-hander departed midway through the sixth inning with discomfort in his right oblique. However, Melvin suggested the quick hook was precautionary, and that he thinks Anderson was removed in time to prevent further injury.
“I expect it to be sore tomorrow, but I’ve had oblique injuries in the past,” said Anderson, who is hopeful that he’ll be able to make his next start. “I’ve had ones where it feels like somebody’s stabbing me with an ice pick, and this doesn’t feel close to that.”
Yusmeiro Petit put in admirable effort in emergency relief of Anderson, retiring all eight batters he faced, but the damage had already been done. In the ninth inning, the Astros tacked on some more insurance against Joakim Soria, on a two-run homer by Robinson Chirinos.
In one piece of good news from Saturday, Oakland’s lineup got a boost before the game when star slugger Khris Davis was activated from the injured list. He went 0-for 4 in his return, but he at least seemed healthy after getting some rest for a hip/oblique contusion that had been affecting his swing for weeks.
“He had some aggressive swings, which we wanted to see,” said Melvin of Davis.
Saturday’s loss drops the A’s back to .500, at 29-29, and they fall a game back of the Texas Rangers in the hunt for the second American League Wild Card. They’ll get one more chance against the Astros in the series finale on Sunday, with Chris Bassitt set to start for Oakland and AL strikeout leader Gerrit Cole for Houston.