OAKLAND -–The scenario remains the same for the A’s bullpen.
The only difference is the revolving cast of relievers forced to answer questions on any given night about what went wrong.
Another late-inning lead went down the tubes Saturday. Another night when so much that went good was undone so quickly. This time it was a 5-4 loss to the Rays that was shaping up as a 4-3 A’s victory until Pat Venditte and Drew Pomeranz lost their grasp on the top of the ninth.
The come-from-ahead defeat goes down as Oakland’s 29th one-run loss of the season, the most in the majors and the A’s most since the 1986 squad also dropped 29.
Saturday’s loss, which unfolded before a sellout crowd and makes the A’s 0-5 on fireworks nights, marked the 19th blown save by the bullpen, the most in the American League.
“They’re tough, man,” starter Sonny Gray said of the late-inning defeats. “We’re gonna have to figure something out or it’s gonna be a long month here.”
Gray was in line for his 13th victory, and with this season a lost cause from a team standpoint, Saturday’s defeat represented a blow to Gray’s individual chase for the Cy Young award. The bullpen has now blown a save in five of his starts, so that’s five potential victories that have been snatched away from the A’s ace.
Manager Bob Melvin has turned to so many relievers, out of necessity, in an effort to protect leads that the tendency is to throw up your hands after a loss like Saturday’s and say, “What could he do?”
This time, however, there was an option for the ninth that wasn’t explored. Sean Doolittle, an All-Star closer last season, was activated from the 60-day disabled list earlier in the day. Yet he wasn’t called upon in a situation that begged for an experienced ninth-inning man.
Afterward, Melvin said the decision was that Doolittle –- who has made just one appearance this season due to shoulder issues -– wouldn’t be thrust back into the closer’s role just yet.
“He’s not going to close yet,” Melvin said. “We’ll give him at least one outing when he’s not closing.”
Certainly the A’s (53-71) can’t be blamed for playing it cautious with Doolittle. It’s late in the season, the team is in last place, and the primary focus rightly is on the future.
It just would have gone over better had they stashed this one in the win column.
Venditte, the first full-time “switch pitcher” in the major leagues’ modern era, would have made for quite the storyline had he notched his first career save. He struck out the right-handed hitting Evan Longoria to begin the ninth, then Melvin had him pitch left-handed to switch-hitting Daniel Nava, who Venditte retired on a pop-out the night before.
“We’re trying to match up the best we can,” Melvin said. “I wanted a righty on Longoria, and we’d like to keep Nava on the right side.”
But Venditte walked Nava on four pitches, then he switched back to the right side to face the right-handed hitting Logan Forsythe, who doubled on a 2-1 pitch to put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with one out.
“I felt like we had some momentum after that (Longoria strikeout),” catcher Josh Phegley said. “And then he just couldn’t seem to find the strike zone. I know it’s tough for him to switch arms and then find the strike zone and all that. I mean, I’m not going to make an excuse for him. But whatever he does out on the mound, it doesn’t look easy.”
Pomeranz entered and Asdrubal Cabrera hit his first pitch for a two-run double that gave the Rays the lead.
Said Venditte afterward: “Especially with the late-inning losses we’ve been having this year, I wanted to go out there and get it done for the guys. But I did not do my job today.”
So many other relievers have faced reporters after games like this one and said the same thing. Nights such as Saturday have defined this lost season for the A’s.
And despite the A’s best intentions, it won’t be a surprise if the next time they take a narrow lead into the ninth, Doolittle finds himself making that familiar trot to the mound.