OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics are tough to beat when they’re clicking on all cylinders, and they showed why on Saturday in a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Mike Fiers pitched his seventh consecutive quality start, Matt Chapman twice drove in runs to give Oakland the lead, the A’s defense made some big plays, and the bullpen overcame a blown save to eventually seal the victory.
“That’s playoff baseball,” said Fiers. “If we want to get there, and win this division, we’re gonna have to win these close ones.”
Fiers led the way with six strong innings. He allowed four hits, three walks and three hit batsmen, but navigated around that danger to let through just one run. After posting an 8.28 ERA in his first six starts of the season, he’s put together a 2.73 mark in his last 11 outings.
The right-hander’s biggest challenge came in the third inning. Rays catcher Mike Zunino led off with a double down the third-base line, on a ball that many of the A’s thought should have been called foul. A pair of walks loaded the bases with nobody out and the heart of the lineup due up. Ji-Man Choi followed with a deep drive to right field, but it died on the warning track and he settled for a sacrifice fly. The next two batters flied out to end the threat with no further damage.
“I blacked out, just started throwing whatever, trying to make some pitches and get out of that inning,” Fiers said jokingly of his third-inning Houdini act. “I don’t know how I got out.”
Fiers received some help from center fielder Ramon Laureano in quashing the rally, or at least from Laureano’s reputation. After Choi’s sac fly, Austin Meadows lofted a fly to medium-deep center, and the runner at third base held up instead of testing Laureano’s famous throwing arm. That runner was later stranded at third.
“That’s a big run at that point in time (tied 1-1),” said manager Bob Melvin. “And then [Fiers] pitches out of it, which was huge, and now all of a sudden there’s a momentum swing.”
Laureano later showed why the caution had been warranted, nabbing a different runner in the fourth inning. Joey Wendle lined a one-out single to center and tried to stretch it into a double, but Laureano threw him out at second base. It was his seventh outfield assist of the year, tying him for third in the Majors. His 16 outfield assists since 2018 are tied for the most in the bigs even though he didn’t debut until last August.
“They keep running on him, I love it,” Fiers said. “He’s waiting for it. You could see him out there, he fields the ball and takes an extra split-second to see if he goes, and then he took the bait and threw him out. [Second baseman Jurickson] Profar made a great play scooping the ball and putting the tag on him, but it’s crazy. Ramon’s just baiting those guys to run and then throws them out.”
On the other side of the ball, third baseman Matt Chapman played hero multiple times with his bat. After Choi tied the game in the third, Chapman came right back in the bottom half and homered to retake the lead for Oakland. It was his team-leading 18th long ball of the season, and his 10th go-ahead jack, most in the American League.
Chapman responded to Choi once again in the seventh inning. Choi tied the game 2-2 with a solo homer in the top half, but in the bottom half the A’s put their first two runners on base. Chapman followed with an RBI double to center to retake the lead for the second time on the day.
“That just shows you the type of player he is,” said Melvin. “He does everything really well, and he steps up in the bigger situations. And the better players end up stepping up in those situations.”
The final go-ahead hit by Chapman came off Rays reliever Diego Castillo, the same pitcher who served up a walk-off homer to Chapman in Thursday’s series opener. Castillo was saddled with the loss for the second time in three days.
“He’s got great stuff, and regardless if he’s maybe not commanding the ball as well as he wants to, he’s still tough to get. He’s got a fastball that he can throw 100 [mph], and it’s running and sinking, and then that slider’s really good,” Chapman said. “Just trying not to do too much again. Just trying to battle.”
Despite recording their AL-leading 15th blown save of the season when reliever Ryan Buchter allowed Choi’s homer to tie the score in the seventh inning, the A’s bullpen ended up coming through when it mattered most. Yusmeiro Petit struck out all four batters he faced to carry Oakland through the eighth, and then Liam Hendriks needed just 10 pitches to retire the side in the ninth, including two more strikeouts.
Hendriks’ save was just the second of his major league career. He got the call for the ninth inning on Saturday due to an injury to normal closer Blake Treinen, who will be placed on the injured list on Sunday. Treinen called it a mild shoulder strain.
Melvin praised Hendriks, who has come a long way since being designated for assignment last June. The right-hander’s 1.49 ERA is the best on the team by far, with sparkling peripheral stats to back it up.
“He’s doing a lot of things better,” Melvin said. “He’s throwing harder. His long toss, he’s got a new routine as far as his throwing goes. He’s got a better breaking ball, he can throw it for a strike, it used to just be kind of a chase pitch. He’s quicker to the plate now with guys on base, he’s throwing a curveball, so it’s basically three pitches with the slider and the curveball. So it’s a lot of things, and it’s a drastic difference from what you’ve seen in the past to now.”
The victory returns the A’s to their season-high of four games over the .500 mark, at 41-37, and back within 3 ½ games of Tampa Bay in the hunt for the first AL Wild Card. The two teams play their series finale on Sunday, with Brett Anderson on the mound for Oakland.