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OAKLAND – The A’s absorbed a loss Wednesday that had to leave them with some mixed emotions as they head out for a three-city road trip.
There were so many positives to draw from over a six-game winning streak they took into Wednesday’s home stand finale. Then the Chicago White Sox handed them a 4-2 setback that brought back to the forefront a persistent trouble spot: The bullpen’s struggles to maintain late-inning leads.
When Luke Gregerson served up a three-run go-ahead homer to Sox slugger Jose Abreu in the eighth inning, it marked Oakland’s eighth blown save of the season, tying Houston for most in the American League entering Wednesday night.
“We were in a position to potentially win the game today,” manager Bob Melvin said. “You never know until the 27th out's made. … It just ends up being a pitch to a guy who hit a three-run homer.”
To file this one in the “devastating loss” category is to miss the mark. One defeat doesn’t undo all that the A’s accomplished in winning six in a row. But the question, as the A’s pack their bags and head to Cleveland for a weekend series, is what defining traits carry over from a 6-4 homestand and follow them on the road?
Melvin has to be encouraged by his re-energized starting rotation. Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz have both turned in two impressive starts in a row, showing that the back end of the rotation isn’t so much of a concern as it was just a week or so ago. Milone gave up just one run over six innings Wednesday, and over the last seven games, Oakland’s rotation sports a 1.17 ERA as a unit.
Milone issued no walks Wednesday and recovered nicely after giving up Gordon Beckham’s homer on the first pitch of the game. The lefty said establishing his fastball inside is a key for him.
“I was really able to locate it upstairs when I needed to,” Milone said. “I just kind of kept them off balance. I’m trying to not be so predictable. By now, teams know me. They know I’m gonna throw my changeup a lot. I’m just trying to use my fastball as much as possible.”
Though the A’s were held to three hits Wednesday, getting their only runs on homers from John Jaso and Josh Donaldson, there have been encouraging signs with the bat. Brandon Moss is showing how effective he can be against left-handed pitching. Jaso is hitting .444 (16 for 36) over his last 11 games and has provided a surprising lift in the leadoff spot with Coco Crisp out.
Yoenis Cespedes has provided good run production of late, and Donaldson connected for his team-high ninth homer Wednesday.
That the A’s were able to string together six wins in a row without Crisp’s services speaks volumes about this team’s weapons.
Yet, the bullpen’s problem holding on to leads hovers like a dark cloud.
Gregerson’s five blown saves are the most in the A.L. And while that stat seems a bit misleading when he loses a lead in the eighth as opposed to a true save situation, the point remains: Gregerson came over from San Diego with the track record of being a lights-out late-inning guy, and he’s been anything but automatic.
He got ahead of Abreu with a first-pitch sinker for a strike in the eighth, then went back to the sinker and caught too much of the plate.
“I was just trying to pound him in, pound him in,” Gregerson said. “I thought I threw two pretty good pitches. The first one he swung over the top of. The second one, down and in, I think it just caught the corner and he just opened up quick and was right on top of it.”
Gregerson had shown good form before Wednesday, allowing just one earned run over his previous eight outings. But that’s the maddening part about this bullpen. Just when one reliever starts putting things together, an episode like Wednesday’s unfolds, and you wonder who Melvin might feel comfortable going to the next time a similar situation arises.
There’s been much more good than bad so far for the A’s, who are 25-16 and lead the A.L. West by three games over the Los Angeles Angels. Milone said the key is ridding themselves of Wednesday’s bitter taste.
“Certain parts of the team are gonna struggle at times,” he said. “It’s part of the game. We gotta go out the and work hard, forget about this one because it’s over. Go to Cleveland and start over again.”