OAKLAND – The A’s enjoy dealing last-inning heartache to opponents with their knack for comebacks.
Being on the receiving end isn’t nearly as fun. They found that out in Tuesday night’s 5-4 loss to the Texas Rangers, a punch to the gut in which victory somehow found a way to elude them.
Late-inning leads were supposed to be automatic conversions for a stingy bullpen that is believed to be among the major leagues’ strongest. But the A’s are discovering that nothing is automatic when it comes to notching the final three outs in a close game.
The Rangers scored twice in the ninth to erase a 4-3 deficit, a feat they pulled off despite a botched squeeze play that was never meant to happen. They were down to their last strike against A’s reliever Luke Gregerson, but Josh Wilson tied the game with a double to left and former Oakland outfielder Michael Choice singled to center to bring home the go-ahead run.
The stunning sequence left the A’s with back-to-back losses for the first time in 2014.
“You think you’re sitting in the driver’s seat,” shortstop Jed Lowrie said. “Then a stolen base, a good at-bat by Wilson. Choice sneaks one up the middle. All of a sudden, now you’re down by one, and you could feel the wind come out of our sails there.”
The A’s entered the night with five blown saves, tied for second-most in the majors. They added another to that total in dropping their second consecutive one-run game to their biggest challenger in the American League West.
There’s more than one problem area for the A’s right now. But there’s no denying that they’re getting further entangled in a ninth-inning mess that no one could see coming back in spring training.
The A’s were supposed to have a lock-down closer in Jim Johnson. He stumbled early, and now the closer-by-committee approach has shown some serious cracks as well.
Gregerson made a terrific play with one out in the ninth, fielding Leonys Martin’s squeeze bunt and throwing home for the out. Martin mistakingly thought the squeeze sign was on, and it was an error that would seemingly cost Texas th game.
But after Martin stole second, Gregerson coughed up a ninth-inning lead for the second time in six days. He had a 2-2 count on Wilson when his slider betrayed him and caught too much of the plate. Wilson smacked it off the left-field wall, and then Choice delivered the go-ahead dagger to his old team.
“I felt like maybe I was a little rushed today,” Gregerson said. “I don’t know why. I’m not usually a guy who moves too quick on the mound. I usually try to take my time and make sure I finish pitches. I think maybe I got a little ahead of myself, and (the slider) backed up on me there.”
The A’s may have lots of ninth-inning options, but which one looks all that appealing at the moment? Jim Johnson lost the closer’s role in the early going and hasn’t proven dominant enough yet to get it back. Gregerson has faltered with a lead of late, and Sean Doolittle – recently inked to a five-year contract – took Monday’s loss and has not been air-tight.
Perhaps if the A’s took better advantage of their chances with runners on base, they could have avoided the ninth-inning drama. But for the second straight night, they left rallies unfinished. The most glaring one Tuesday came when they put the first two runners on board in the sixth. Eric Sogard bunted into a force out, and Coco Crisp followed by hitting into a 5-4-3 double play.
“No doubt, that’s been an issue for us,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We have to be able to add on with some runs, so we’re not getting late in games and giving a team a chance to score a couple runs and beat us.”
Players and managers often say that all losses hurt, that no one defeat stings more than another. The A’s likely found that hard to buy as they left the ballpark Tuesday.
It’s probably a good thing they get right back on the field for Wednesday’s matinee against Texas. All the better to wipe away the bitterness of a loss that never should have been.