OAKLAND — Before Tuesday’s series opener against the Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin was asked why Chris Herrmann, just activated from a season-long stint on the injured list, was starting at catcher over Josh Phegley.
In the bottom of the fourth, with the bases loaded and nobody out, Herrmann launched a grand slam just right of the “Holy Toledo” sign in dead center.
The home run completed a three-run comeback and gave the A’s a three-run lead in what would end up an 8-6 win, moving Oakland into a tie for second place in the American League Wild Card Standings, and moving them to a season-high eight games over .500.
“To come out here and hit a grand slam on my first day with the team is just such a great feeling,” said Herrmann, a former Twin who became the first player in A’s history (since 1901) to hit a grand slam in his first game with the club.
Right-handed pitcher Daniel Mengden (3-1, 4.67 ERA) recorded the win for the A’s despite allowing five earned runs and two homers in 5 2/3 innings.
After a 1-2-3 first inning in which Mengden — starting for the second time since returning from Triple-A Las Vegas — looked like the hurler who had limited opponents to a .207 average and posted a 2.42 ERA in four previous starts, the Twins, owners of the second-most runs per game in baseball, came alive with two outs in the second.
Rookie second baseman Luis Arraez stung a 2-2 center-cut fastball up the middle for a single, setting up the red-hot Miguel Sano —4-for-8 with three homers and seven RBIs in his last three games — to groove a belt-high heater over the left field scoreboard, giving Minnesota an early 2-0 lead.
The Twins would tack on another run in the top of the third when Nelson Cruz grounded into a double play allowing leadoff hitter Max Kepler to score from third.
Though Mengden’s pitching line was by no means spectacular, he made enough pitches to preserve the Oakland lead and come away with a victory. Melvin commended his starter for a solid outing and said that he really only made a couple of mistakes.
“You get a few balls in the middle of the plate to this team and they’re going to make you pay for it,” Melvin said. “I think that was the only difference. It looked like every mistake he made they took advantage of.”
Mengden himself acknowledged that he could have performed better but that, all in all, he had a pretty good performance against one of the top offenses in the majors.
“Pretty solid power lineup. A few pitches got away from me that they did some damage on,” Mengden said. “But it was just one of those games where I knew it was going to be a hitters match, so I just tried to make good pitches.”
With bona fide Cy Young candidate Jake Odorizzi on the mound for the visitors, the A’s searched for an early offensive spark to prevent Minnesota — the Junior Circuit leaders in run differential at +113 — from running away.
Oakland’s answer came from its least-experienced player, second baseman Franklin Barreto, who made his first start of the season Tuesday night after being called up Sunday to replace the injured Stephen Piscotty.
Barreto was the first A’s batter to record a hit off Odorizzi — an opposite field laser that slammed into the right-center wall for his first big league knock on the season. Three batters later, with two outs and Barreto at third, Matt Olson cut the Minnesota lead to 3-2 with a shot to right that was in the Budweiser boxes almost as soon as it left his bat — his 17th home run of the season.
In the field, Barreto would make a number of fine defensive plays, including snagging a hot shot grounder off the bat of Kepler that ricocheted off the glove of Mengden, proving his insertion into the lineup to be yet another wise move by Melvin on the night.
A number of good breaks helped the A’s load the bases in the fourth before Herrmann delivered the big fly that broke the Twins.
Mark Canha opened the inning by legging out a grounder to third that Sano could not field cleanly. Ramon Laureano followed by taking a strike from Odorizzi before the pitcher lost track of the strike zone and issued four straight balls. Finally, Robbie Grossman — another former Twin — dropped a pop fly just out of the reach of center fielder Byron Buxton to load the bases.
Herrmann did the rest, making the most of a high-middle four-seamer to clear the bases with his first circuit shot of the year before Odorizzi subsequently left the game with a right middle finger blister. The catcher would finish the night 1-for-3 with a home run, a walk and two strikeouts in his first start of the season after missing the first 85 contests to rehab a March surgery on his right shoulder.
The move to put Herrmann in the lineup was not only essential for the outcome of Tuesday’s game, Melvin said, but will do wonders for his confidence moving into the second half of the season.
“When you hit a home run period, let alone a grand slam, it makes you feel like you belong pretty quickly with the team, so, nice to get him off to a good start,” Melvin said.
The A’s added another run in the bottom of the fifth when Grossman singled to center to drive in Laureano, who had scorched a double down the third base line to get on.
The Twins would inch closer, scoring a run apiece in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings to cut Oakland’s lead to 7-6. Two of the runs came on solo home runs from Jason Castro — the first off Mengden and the second off right-hander Yusmeiro Petit — for the Minnesota catcher’s fifth career multi-homer game.
The game appeared to be slipping out of Oakland’s grasp until Canha came to bat with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and clobbered a no-doubter into the left field seats, prompting left fielder Marwin Gonzalez to stare straight ahead as the ball sailed over his head.
From there, it was up to right-handers Joakim Soria and Liam Hendriks to close the deal in the eighth and ninth, respectively. Soria punched out two in his frame while Hendriks also sat down two batters on strikes to convert his third of five save opportunities on the season.
The win was Oakland’s fourth in a row and the A’s have now won six of their last seven and 11 of their last 14.
Right-hander Mike Fiers (8-3, 4.01 ERA) will start the second game of the series tomorrow against right-handed pitcher Kyle Gibson (8-4, 4.21 ERA).