Walking the leadoff batter almost always spells trouble.
Such was the case on Saturday, September 29, when Oakland Athletics starter Dan Straily walked Seattle Mariners designated hitter John Jaso to open the top of the second. Although when Justin Smoak hit a hard grounder right at Brandon Moss, the walk appeared to become harmless.
Moss stepped on first for one and threw to shortstop Stephen Drew at second for two. Two outs, nobody on. The walk never occurred. The only problem is that Moss's throw was errant, and Jaso popped up from his slide and headed toward third. Yoenis Cespedes came up with the ball in left field and attempted to throw out Jaso, but he fired the ball over third baseman Josh Donaldson's head and into the A's dugout.
One to nothing, Mariners. One could blame Oakland's defense, and they would be justified in doing so. But Straily's control—or lack thereof—was a persistent hindrance on Saturday, as his four walks—along with a hanging changeup and a juicy fastball to powerful lefties—gave the Mariners four runs.
Oakland did scratch out a run following Seattle's three-run top of the fourth. With Cespedes on first, Moss grounded a single through the hole and into right field. Cespedes was running on the pitch and made it to third easily on the single.
He then made a brilliant decision: knowing there was no throw coming into third, he rounded the bag. He slowed up, causing Seattle right fielder Casper Wells to hesitate. Cespedes then immediately sped up again, and Wells could only make a flat-footed throw to the plate.
Cespedes was safe at the plate, scoring from first on a single—a rare and awesome feat, which proved to be the only way Oakland would score on Seattle starter Justin Vargas.
Straily's inability to locate and lack of command did not lead to a Seattle shellacking, and A's manager Bob Melvin could have let Straily tough it out, reach 100 pitches and save his bullpen for tomorrow. After all, Vargas was mowing the A's down and making them look foolish in the process.
But Melvin knew that the ball was carrying on this bright, warm Oakland afternoon, so he pulled Straily with one out in the fifth after he surrendered his fourth base on balls.
A's relievers Pedro Figeuroa and Pat Neshek had both struggled mightily during Oakland's recently concluded 10-game road trip, but Melvin had confidence in them back at home against a softer Seattle lineup. He also knew that if they faltered, it wouldn't be the worst time to do so.
Maybe it was the Mariners' lineup, or maybe it was being back at home. It also may have been knowing that the game was not in their hands. Or, more to the point, not knowing that it was. Either way, the rookie tandem got the A's out of a jam in the fifth and through the sixth and seventh, retiring eight batters in order.
Of course, Vargas was still dealing in the bottom half of each inning. He finished the seventh inning as strong as he'd been all game, retiring his seventh straight batter. He left with 103 pitches at that point, which had to provide A's hitters with a glimmer of hope, although the reaction to facing Seattle's flame-throwing bullpen after spending all day trying to hit Vargas' junk was not quite a sigh of relief (so to speak).
Oakland got another strong inning from a rookie reliever—this time Evan Scribner—in the eighth. In the bottom of the frame, a Coco Crisp single and Stephen Drew walk gave the A's two on with one out. Right-hander Tom Wilhelmson was brought in to face Cespedes, who chased the first pitch and popped out.
Moss came up next, and he ripped a 2-0 fastball down the right-field line. Crisp trotted home, but a perfect throw and relay got the the not-as-fleet-footed Drew at the plate. Instead of a 4-3 game with Moss on second, it was 4-2 heading into the ninth.
Scribner came back out for Oakland, but he was pulled after surrendering a double to catcher Miguel Olivo. Melvin again put faith in his offense by bringing in Ryan Cook, hoping to keep it a two-run game. Cook nearly failed, allowing pinch-hitter Jesus Montero to hit a rope toward right field. However, Moss made a brilliant diving snag, and the A's ran back to the dugout down 4-2.
Seattle manager Eric Wedge sent Wilhelmson back out, and he struck out Seth Smith to begin the bottom of the ninth. He proceeded to walk Josh Reddick on four pitches, all four of which were clearly difficult for Reddick not to chase, pop up and slam his bat into the ground.
Josh Donaldson came up next, and he swung through a hard first-pitch fastball. Wilhelmson tried to come back over with a changeup, but he hung it. Donaldson swung for the fences again but didn't miss this time, launching the ball high into the air and letting the favorable conditions of the atmosphere carry it well over the center-field fence.
Four to four, tie game.
The game went to extras, and Grant Balfour pitched a quick 10th inning. Dominant lefty specialist Oliver Perez came in for Seattle, but Crisp lined his fourth hit of the game into left field. Crisp was unable to steal due to Perez's tricky move, so a Drew bunt seemed obvious. It never came, and Drew flied out to right field.
The Mariners then brought in righty Stephen Pryor to face Cespedes. Pryor could not get the ball over the plate, walking Cespedes on four pitches. When Moss came up, Melvin looked like a genius.
Had Melvin bunted with Drew, Perez would have stayed in the game, walked Cespedes and been able to face Moss and Reddick. Instead, the A's had two runners on anyway and a righty in the game to face Moss. After throwing four straight balls, Pryor knew he had to get ahead of Moss. He threw a challenge fastball on the first pitch.
Moss accepted the challenge.
Seven to four, A's win.
Back in early July, I wrote an article discussing the A's 11-inning win over the Mariners. It was that July 6 victory that saw the A's return to the .500 mark for the first time since May 22, and the themes of the game were eerily similar.
The A's tying the game off Tom Wilhelmson. The A's playing resilient baseball, overcoming mistakes and winning in extra innings. The game ending on a walk-off three-run homer. Melvin out-strategizing Wedge.
That July 6 victory brought Oakland's record to 42-42, while yesterday's win saw the team win its 90th game and reduce its playoff magic number to three. That being said, both games serve as a perfect microcosm for this entire Oakland A's team and season, and when they are looked at in tandem, the results are nothing short of powerful.
The July 6 walk-off homer was hit by Chris Carter. Carter was pinch-hitting for Moss, a move that forced Wedge to pull Oliver Perez and bring in righty Steve Delabar.
Carter's homer was his third of the season. Moss' was his 21st. Neither player so much as played on the big league roster before June 6. Prior to that date, the A's were 24-32, with a first-base tandem of Kila Ka'aihue and Daric Barton belting a combined five home runs.
Since Moss' debut, the A's have gone an MLB-best 66-36. He was joined by Chris Carter on June 29, and the two have combined for 37 home runs as the A's new first-base duo.
Melvin's managerial brilliance was a major theme of the July 6 win. Not just his X's-and-O's dominance of Wedge, his ability to make everyone feel like they have a role on the team. His gutsy decision to pinch-hit with Chris Carter—who had only had 11 at-bats all season—and in turn instill a confidence and sense of belonging in the young slugger who would go far beyond his game-winning smash.
Another major theme of that July 6 win was redemption. Chris Carter had been plagued by struggles during his first two major league stints, and it was with that home run that he finally cemented himself into Oakland's future.
Moss created a story of redemption himself yesterday—allowing Seattle to score on his second-inning throwing error before taking a run away in the ninth. And because an average day in the field didn't feel good enough, he added five RBI and a walk-off blast for good measure.
Of course, Moss didn't need to make an error or hit a walk-off home run to write an intriguing script.
The 28-year-old had been fighting for his major league career since his debut in 2007, and seemed to be just about done this past winter.
During yesterday's post-game interview, Moss was asked by Glen Kuiper if he could have ever imagined batting clean-up for a team closing in on a postseason berth back in March. Moss replied, "I'm not gonna lie...at the beginning of this year I was just kinda playing for an opportunity overseas."
If anyone looks at this A's team on paper and thinks that they don't belong in this pennant chase, they're right. The team's four veteran starters are all injured or suspended. They have 14 rookies, and their most proven offensive player is Coco Crisp. Their best hitter can't speak English, their lone All-Star was a rookie setup man and their ace made his MLB debut in May.
Sean Doolittle was playing single-A first base two years ago, Stephen Drew wasn't good enough to start for the Diamondbacks and Josh Donaldson has no business starting at third base or batting fifth in the major leagues.
If anyone looks at this A's team on paper and thinks that they don't belong in this pennant chase, they're right. But if anyone looks at this A's team on paper, they're wrong.