OAKLAND — Sean Manaea had pitched as brilliantly as he had since his April 21 no-hitter. After 7 1/3 innings and six strikeouts, the Oakland Athletics left-hander had allowed just two runs on six hits and no walks.
His offense, though, had left the bases loaded twice. Khris Davis alone stranded five men. In the eighth, after a leadoff double by Whit Merrifield and a groundout by Mike Moustakas to move Merrifield to third, the Kansas City Royals had the heart of their order due up. After 90 pitches, Bob Melvin decided to put in his bullpen ace, Blake Treinen.
“It ended up being as tight a game as you can get,” Melvin said.
Royals DH Salvador Perez sent a Treinen sinker bounding towards short. A drawn-in Marcus Semien dove to his right and quickly got off an off-balance throw to home, erasing Merrifield and all but saving the game. In the bottom of the eighth, Matt Chapman slugged his 10th home run of the year, and Treinen worked around a one-out double in the ninth to give the A’s a 3-2 win.
“That was an incredible play,” Treinen said. “Chapman made a great swing, but that swing doesn’t get us the win if Marcus doesn’t make that play.”
Chapman — leading the Majors in defensive runs saved — is more known for his defense, but it was Semien — 38th in the Major League in runs saved — who saved a crucial one on Sunday.
Semien’s play — where he had to throw the ball as hard as he could to overcome a full-palm grip — comes during a season where he’s struggled defensively, with his worst fielding percentage (.960) since 2015, his first year with the A’s.
“That’s a really good runner at third, going on contact,” Melvin said. “That’s as good a play as I’ve seen him make since he’s been here. To dive like that and have to get up and throw it off-balance, on the money like that, no legs underneath him, game-winner.”
“It ranks up there,” Semien said. “It’s a play you need to make in that situation.”
Oakland (34-32) took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second, with only one ball leaving the infield. After a leadoff walk to Chapman, Mark Canha sent a double booming off the right field wall. A Stephen Piscotty slow chopper to the right side handcuffed third baseman Ramon Torres, who could only backhand it and throw to first, allowing Chapman to score.
A Lucroy slow bouncer up the middle, between the pinched-in middle infield, brought Canha home. The A’s loaded the bases with an infield single from Chad Pinder and a seven-pitch walk to Semien, but Davis went down hacking at three straight pitches to strand three.
Davis — who had hit .281 with four home runs since returning from the disabled list — went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Three of those came with men on base, as Oakland went 1-for-9 on the day with runners in scoring position.
Exacerbating the offensive struggles was a high, cloudless sky, which created some drama on two of the seven fly balls to the outfield, and made for some strange backup plays on at least three others.
In the first, center fielder Dustin Fowler had lost a ball in the sky — Stephen Piscotty came dashing over from right to try and make the play for him, but got a ball to the head for his efforts — but it didn’t result in any runs.
In the third, Merrifield sent a first-pitch pop up to left. Canha couldn’t find it, and Fowler tried his best to come over and track it down, but the ball hit the turf like a lob wedge, and Merrifield steamed into second with a double. A groundout and a wild pitch brought Merrifield around to score, and then Perez hit his 11th homer of the season to tie things up.
“It seems like we gave them a freebie, and Perez hits a homer and now it’s a 2-2 game that we felt like we were in charge of,” Melvin said. “Then, we couldn’t get some guys in, and it felt like one of those days where it felt early like it was going our way, and then it wasn’t. Then, certainly, that [Semien] play was the biggest momentum shift of the game.”
After those two, each fly ball to left and right saw Fowler dash over to back up Piscotty and Canha.
After the bizarre third, Manaea retired 14 of the next 16 men he faced. Since his no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox, Manaea had gone 2-4 with a 5.56 ERA, and a .264 opponents batting average, coming into Sunday’s game.
“That’s the best we’ve seen him throw in a while,” Melvin said. “It’s not always about the velo. It’s about the location and the life he has on all his pitches. You were seeing some 92-93s today. You were seeing some sliders at a higher velocity. Changeups at a higher velocity. That’s as good as we’ve seen him in a while.”