OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays were locked in a pitcher’s duel on Thursday, right up until they weren’t.
The score was tied 1-1 entering the ninth inning when the Rays broke the stalemate with three runs in the top of the frame. In the bottom half, the A’s answered back with four of their own for a 5-4 victory, capped by a three-run walk-off homer by third baseman Matt Chapman.
“It was awesome,” said Chapman of his big hit. “I’m still kind of shaking from it. That was so much fun, and just a really big and important win for us.”
The walk-off win was Oakland’s fifth of the season, and their first in over a month. It was also the second of the year by Chapman, after he sent the Cleveland Indians packing with a homer on May 10. His 17 long balls lead the team, and his .867 OPS is tops among the A’s everyday players.
“He’s able to slow the game down,” said bench coach Ryan Christenson, filling in for manager Bob Melvin for the day. “He wants the big at-bats, and he comes through in the big at-bats. It’s just a special player that comes in here and wants to do that and wants to be the guy. He’s a great leader in the clubhouse, and when your leader is coming through like that, it just sets the tone for the rest of the team to follow.”
Late-inning heroics were a common occurrence for the A’s last year, but they’ve been fewer and further between this season. Oakland improves to 5-11 when tied after eight innings, but they were 13-5 in such games last summer. This year they’ve still yet to win a game in which they trail at the end of either the seventh or eighth inning, after doing so at least eight times in 2018.
“It would be very easy for us to give up those runs and just roll over and concede the game, but we were able to keep taking tough at-bats,” said Chapman. “I think that’s a big momentum for us, and it shows that if you want to be a playoff team then you’ve gotta be able to come back like that.”
The story was almost much different after the Rays took the lead in the ninth. Oakland closer Blake Treinen opened the frame by walking the first two batters, and then two singles by Avisail Garcia and Ji-Man Choi drove them in, followed by a squeeze bunt by Willy Adames for another run. The bullpen appeared to be headed for yet another implosion, which would have tied them for the most relief losses in the majors.
However, Rays reliever Diego Castillo wasn’t able to hold the three-run lead. The right-hander matched Treinen’s two walks, with free passes to Robbie Grossman and Jurickson Profar. Macrus Semien then added an RBI single to set up Chapman’s blast, extending the shortstop’s hitting streak to 17 games, during which he’s 27-for-72 for a .375 average.
“A roller coaster of emotions,” said Christenson, who managed many of the A’s current players when they were in the minors. “To go out there and go down three like that was a kick to the gut, to start the ninth inning. But that’s just a sign of what this team’s been showing us the last few years. I’ve seen this group a lot over the last few years, even through the minors, and they never quit, they keep coming at you.”
Before the explosive ninth inning, the game began with a pitcher’s duel between two potential 2019 All-Stars: Frankie Montas for the A’s and Charlie Morton for the Rays. Nobody scored until the fifth inning, when Profar hit a solo homer against Morton, and then Tampa Bay responded in the sixth with a long ball from Tommy Pham to tie it up.
Montas was especially sharp, needing only 93 pitches to navigate through eight innings. He struck out nine batters — one short of matching his season-high — and didn’t issue a single walk. His fastball was powerful as usual, averaging 96 mph and even approaching 99 on several occasions.
“He was in complete control of that game all the way through,” said Christenson.
The quality start was Montas’ fourth in a row, and eighth in his last nine outings. His ERA dropped to 2.70, fifth-best among qualified AL starters. In his last three appearances, he’s racked up 28 strikeouts and just two walks in 20 innings.
“I’m not trying to strike out people, just trying to get my groundballs early,” said Montas. “If I get to two strikes I’ll try to put them away.”
However, Montas’ sterling effort alone wasn’t enough on a night when his teammates were similarly stymied by Morton. The Rays right-hander let six runners reach base, including four hits and two walks, but also struck out six before being removed with one out in the seventh inning. Other than Profar’s homer, Morton didn’t even let a runner reach third base.
“I like the competition,” said Montas of his duel with Morton. “I like to pitch against good pitchers. Morton’s one of the best right now, and I like the challenge. If he’s putting zeroes on the scoreboard then I want to put zeroes too.”
The victory is the A’s fourth in a row, and their 40-36 record matches their season-high at four games over the .500 mark. Oakland also moves within 3 ½ games of Tampa Bay in the standings, where the Rays currently hold the lead for the first AL Wild Card. The two teams meet again on Friday, with Tanner Anderson making his third career major league start for the A’s.