OAKLAND — Being the hottest team in baseball — winners of 42 of their previous 56 coming into Wednesday — the Oakland Athletics do, upon occasion, have a misstep.
They won two of three from the Houston Astros over the weekend, and took the first two of a three-game set against the bottom-dwelling Texas Rangers. They couldn’t finish off sweeps of either, which means they once again sit one game back of the Astros for first-place in the American League West.
On Wednesday, Edwin Jackson — who had gone 3-0 in his last four starts with a 0.74 ERA — came back to earth, allowing two home runs and walking three in 4 1/3 innings of a 4-2 loss. Despite Jackson’s stumble, and an incomplete ninth-inning comeback rally, the A’s have still won 13 of their last 15 series, and have only lost one of their last 19 (a sweep in Colorado).
“They continue to have the same attitude every day,” said manager Bob Melvin. “I’ve said many times, you try to ride the wave of confidence and individualize the day, the inning, the at-bat. That’s what they’re good at focusing on — the right now.”
After sitting 12 games back of the division lead on June 18, Oakland is still very much in the playoff hunt. With an Astros win over the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday, they now sit one game out of first place, with the fourth-most wins in baseball.
“If we win two out of three for the rest of the year we’re winning the World Series,” said catcher Jonathan Lucroy. “That’s the math behind it. You win two out of three the rest of the year you win the World Series. I try to keep that perspective with these guys here.”
Since July 30, the veteran quartet of Jackson, Trevor Cahill, Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson have made 15 starts for the A’s, and in 93 innings, they had a collective 1.26 ERA — averaging just over six innings per start — headed into Wednesday. Jackson’s loss was just the third for an A’s starting pitcher since July 29. Since that date, the only starter to lose a game has been Sean Manaea, who’s gone 2-2 over that span.
“A lot of guys want to do too much or try too hard or overdo things, but I think our job here, especially the older guys, is to keep guys locked in and dialed in,” Lucroy said. “It’s a special group in here, very talented, but we’re all human here.”
The 34-year old Jackson, with his 13th team in 16 seasons, has been an anchor for a rotation that became suddenly veteran-heavy after youngsters Jharrel Cotton, Kendall Graveman and expected contributor A.J. Puk all underwent Tommy John surgery this season.
Since being called up to the A’s on June 25, Jackson had posted his lowest walk rate of (2.9 per nine innings) since 2012, and his lowest home runs per nine innings (1.1) since 2013. Yet, in Wednesday’s loss, he went to five three-ball counts, walked two and gave up two home runs in the first four innings.
“I think it was just something that, as far as mechanical adjustment, allowing myself to get on top of the ball,” Jackson said. “Today I was under the ball a lot, which caused the ball to be flat, caused it to be up in the zone. Pitching up in the zone doesn’t really fly in this league. It’s hard enough to get hitters out when you make pitches, but if you give them pitches to hit, especially with a team like that … they can put good wood on the ball and they was able to do so today.”
Jackson, who threw 80 pitches — 52 for strikes — surrendered a first-pitch leadoff home run to Shin-Soo Choo in the first, before allowing a pair of walks to lead off the third. Choo — the first of those two free passes — came around to score on an Adrian Beltre line-drive single up the middle. Then, Jackson gave up a leadoff solo shot to Joey Gallo in the fourth.
Elvis Andrus led off the fifth with a single, took second on a wild pitch and came around to score on another Beltre RBI single, which chased Jackson.
“It was an off day today,” Jackson said. “Clearly, I wasn’t able to execute pitches with two strikes. At the end of the day it was too many pitches.”
Reliever Yusmeiro Petit came on and gave up a double to Jurickson Profar, but after an intentional walk to Gallo, struck out the next two men to end the threat.
The A’s brought home a run in the seventh on Stephen Piscotty’s career-high 35th double of the season and another on a pinch-hit double by Jed Lowrie in the eighth, but rookie Ramon Laureano struck out to strand two.
After a Matt Chapman walk to lead off the ninth, reliever Jose LeClerk struck out the powerful Khris Davis on a 1-2 slider. After LeClerc issued a two-out walk to Matt Olson, and then grazed Chad Pinder’s left forearm with a slider up and in to load the bases, he struck out Nick Martini to end the game.
“It’s no surprise we battle,” Jackson said. “This team doesn’t give in. I think if you ask around the league the word is out that we’re never going to give in, we’re never going cave in. We’re going to grind it out until the end.”
The A’s now head on the road for four games in Minnesota, followed by three in Houston. Though Oakland went 6-3 on the homestand — and has gone 13-4 at home since July 30 — the A’s are at their best on the road. Oakland is 37-25 away from home this season — the third-best road record in the majors.
“For me more of the concern was coming into the long stretch of games at home,” Melvin said. “We play well on the road. We hit homers and most of the ballparks on the road are a little bit more conducive to homers when you look at the numbers and the split. I don’t think anybody’s worried about going out on the road.”
Compared to a .235 home batting average, the A’s are hitting .266 away from the Coliseum, with a .470 slugging percentage (compared to .399 at home). They’ve also hit 104 home runs on the road this season, compared to 67 in Oakland.
“We’re one of the best teams in the league on the road,” Lucroy said. “We have a built in home field advantage here because it’s a graveyard and teams don’t like playing here — it’s true. When we go on the road our power really shows up. I know teams don’t like it when we come into town. We’re looking forward to getting out and getting started in Minnesota and getting off on the right foot.”