OAKLAND – The A’s find themselves alone in first place for the first time in a month.
On Friday, they showed what’s enabled them to make the climb atop the American League West – an offense that’s discovered a variety of different ways to score runs and keep pressure up on opponents.
They also displayed what makes their stay in first so tenuous -- increasing shakiness from a closer that used to be automatic in the ninth inning.
[INSTANT REPLAY: A's take sole possession of first place]
The A’s got back on track with a 7-5 victory over the Houston Astros, but only after Grant Balfour gave up a run and put the tying runs in scoring position before striking out Matt Dominguez to finally end things.
Afterward, A’s manager Bob Melvin acknowledged the ninth-inning situation has become worrisome.
“It was a little shaky again,” Melvin said of Balfour’s night. “ He’s not happy about it. Certainly if we don’t make an error there, it’s probably a little different. You know, you gotta look at the body of work too. We’ll continue to go accordingly. This isn’t the best stretch right now, and we’ll monitor that.”
The optimists among the fan base will look at Friday’s victory and justifiably find plenty to be happy about. The A’s bounced back from a lackluster defeat in Thursday’s series opener and pounded out 13 hits.
They sparred with the Astros over the first four innings, grabbed the lead for good in the bottom of the fourth and then kept their foot on the pedal, adding a couple more runs. Remember the team that seemingly forgot how to hit when a runner got to third?
The A’s are finding oh-so-many ways to cross home plate now. Chris Young pushed a bunt single past the pitcher’s mound to score Yoenis Cespedes in the second.
Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie hit back-to-back doubles to bring home another run in the third. Then Donaldson – who went 3 for 5 with three runs – stole third base in the fourth off Houston reliever Philip Humber. That put him in position to score the go-ahead run on Yoenis Cespedes’ groundout.
“Obviously, I’m not a burner,” Donaldson said. “When he went high (with his leg kick), it gave me the opportunity to try to take off right there. I did it the second pitch. I talked to (third base coach Mike Gallego) beforehand.”
To cap off the scoring, Donaldson followed Coco Crisp’s triple in the sixth with a two-run homer to left-center to make it a 7-4 game.
“I think at times we’ve been spoiled just by how good our pitching is, and it’s almost like you feel like you don’t have to (add on runs),” Melvin said. “Sometimes when the pitching isn’t as good, you have to re-think that a little bit and try to tack on runs. We’ve recently gotten very good about that.”
The A’s have shown they know how to get a lead. Now, can they get more efficient at keeping one in the ninth?
Balfour is 37 for 39 in save opportunities this season. But he’s given up runs in four of his past six outings. That stretch includes a blown three-run lead in Detroit. He had the tying runs on second and third against Texas on Monday before closing out a 4-2 win.
Then things almost slipped away Friday night. Eric Sogard’s error didn’t help, but Balfour allowed two hits and threw a fastball to the backstop to allow a runner to move into scoring position.
Ryan Cook has turned in six straight scoreless outings, so he is one option should the A’s look beyond Balfour to close out games. Sean Doolittle, Dan Otero, and Brett Anderson might also be outside-the-box options.
As Melvin said, he and his staff will “monitor” the situation.
A’s fans should simply buckle up and hang on for the ride.