OAKLAND — After a grueling start to the season, playing 16 games in 16 days, the Oakland Athletics got a break this weekend in Arlington, when their Saturday game against the Texas Rangers was rained out.
Marco Estrada — signed this offseason to fill out a rotation set to get a heap of help at the midway point — was set to pitch that game in hot, humid homer-friendly Texas. Instead, the fly-ball righty had his start moved back to Tuesday, Oakland’s return home to the spacious, chilly Coliseum after a 10-day road trip. It didn’t go well.
“I brought my worst game to a very good lineup, and obviously that’s not going to cut it,” Estrada said.
In a 9-1 loss to the first-place Houston Astros, Estrada surrendered seven runs, while the A’s lineup — which had hit at least two home runs in seven straight games — fell silent, managing just four hits. Two of those came against Astros starter Collin McHugh, who, after going six innings and striking out five, now has eight straight wins against Oakland, dating back to 2015.
McHugh almost didn’t make it out of the second inning. Oakland got a man on with an 0-2 Khris Davis single, and then Kendrys Morales sent a bullet back up the middle, right toward McHugh’s face. He limboed out of the way in a move evoking The Matrix, and the ball dutifully headed to shortstop Carlos Correa for a 6-3 double play. McHugh then allowed a single to left by Stephen Piscotty, but ended the inning by getting Jurickson Profar to bite on a 79-mph slider for strike three. That’s all he allowed. He lowered his ERA to 1.96 with his outing.
“You look at our numbers across the board against him, and around the league, he’s just really good, and he keeps you off balance,” said manager Bob Melvin. “He throws very few fastballs in counts where you expect a fastball. He really can throw his slider for a strike or chase any time he wants to. Drops a curveball in, throws a cutter, he’s tough to think along with. When he’s locating and getting ahead, it’s tough to string anything together.”
Estrada, a fly-ball pitcher who has allowed 23 or more home runs in each of his last five seasons, was signed this offseason to bolster a strting group that was going to see midseason reinforcements from the A’s stocked minor league system, not to mention the return of ace Sean Manaea (shoulder). In four previous outings, he’d allowed five homers, but with his start moved back, he would be pitching in the cold night air of the Bay, rather than at a ballpark conducive to home runs. It didn’t work.
Estrada fell behind 3-0 quickly, thanks to leaving a pair of 87-mph fastballs out over the plate in the first two innings. In the first, George Springer hit his second leadoff homer of the year with a 440-foot line shot off the State Farm clock above the left field stairs, a payoff pitch that came off the bat at over 111 mph.
In the second, former A’s star Josh Reddick slammed his first homer of the year, a two-run job to right on a 2-2 offering, strutting out of the box and savoring the drive to the fans that used to sing his praises in the right field bleachers.
In the fourth, Estrada walked the bases loaded and walked in a run, ending his night. After striking out Jose Altuve, reliever Liam Hendriks surrendered a towering grand slam to Alex Bregman on a hanging slider to put the Astros up by eight. Before that swing, Bregman was 4-for-6 in his career against Hendriks.
Estrada threw 69 pitches (39 for strikes) in just 3 1/3 innings, and was charged with esven runs, allowing five hits and walking three.
“Can’t go out there missing spots like I was today,” Estrada said. “That’s just not going to work against anybody.”
Estrada has now gone fewer than six innings and allowed three or more runs in each of his last three outings. Melvin said Estrada needed to get off to better starts, and get a clean inning or two under his belt, rather than operating with men on base from the start.
“They just kind of had him on the run most of the night,” Melvin said. “They didn’t chase. He walked some guys, got into some deep counts and threw a lot of pitches. Ends up walking a guy with the bases loaded, again, no chase. He just wasn’t throwing them anything today off the plate that they were chasing.”
Meanwhile, the A’s, who had 10 or more hits in seven straight games, had just four hits against Houston, and only two before the ninth. Oakland loaded the bases with a walk to Marcus Semien, and singles from late-inning replacements Chad Pinder and Mark Canha. The A’s got a run on a Kendrys Morales sacrifice fly, but nothing more, as reliever Chris Devinski came in and fanned Stephen Piscotty before getting a foul out to left by Jurickson Profar.
The A’s did have several defensive highlights. In the first inning, after a long run and a sliding grab in foul ground from Robbie Grossman in left, Matt Champan turned in one of his trademark grabs. Set in on the grass near shortstop, he sprinted to the coaching box back of third base to snag a soft pop up from Michael Brantley for the second out of the first. Later, center fielder Ramon Laureano made a sliding grab for the third out of the eighth. Semien, shifted up the middle, sprinted back to his right in the top of the ninth to rob Reddick of a line-drive base hit.