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OAKLAND – He’s the marquee man in a lineup that’s been begging for players to rise to the occasion.
Josh Donaldson has not been immune to the A’s prolonged offensive struggles, but he came through in dramatic fashion Sunday afternoon.
He stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 10th thinking Phillies reliever Alfredo Gonzalez might be prone to a mistake. It came in the form of a letter-high 1-0 fastball, and Donaldson crushed it deep over the wall in left-center for a walk-off two-run shot that gave the A’s an 8-6 victory.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Donaldson, A's walk off with 8-6 win over Phillies]
It may be cliché to say that September is the time when star players step up for their teams. But Donaldson spent his childhood in Alabama sketching out those cliché scenarios in his imagination.
“That's what you prepare for,” he said. “Whether it's basketball, and trying to hit a game-winning shot … football, making the catch … baseball, getting the game-winning hit. Ever since I was a kid that's just the moment I've always wanted to be in.”
Donaldson’s team-best 28th homer of the season also marked his third walk-off home run of 2014, and it ties him with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (1971), Dave Kingman (1986) and Matt Stairs (1999) for the A’s single-season mark.
He’s the Athletic you’d first picture coming through in such a signature moment. But when it comes to the A’s offensive ineptitude over the past month-plus, Donaldson has been right there with his teammates. He came in hitting just .200 (15-for-75) in September. Over his past 10 contests, Donaldson was hitting a frosty .175 (7-for-40) with two RBI.
But he went 3-for-5 with three runs Sunday. In the 10th, Nate Freiman singled with one out, and speed demon Billy Burns was inserted as a pinch runner.
“He threw the first pitch and I noticed he was trying to be a lot quicker,” Donaldson said of Gonzalez, a right-handed reliever. “He's got to respect Billy's speed out there, and any time a pitcher has to make that adjustment and speed their delivery up, I feel like they're probably going to be a little more apt to make a mistake. And that's what happened.”
The A’s, averaging just 2.96 runs over their past 23 contests, stranded 12 runners on base Sunday. They’re hitless in their past 13 at-bats with the bases loaded, and their approach with runners in scoring position is still maddening.
But just seven games remain in the regular season, and it doesn’t matter how pretty the wins come, as long they come. The A’s maintained their half-game lead over the Kansas City Royals for the American League’s top wild card spot.
The urgency of Sunday’s game was reflected in Melvin’s use of closer Sean Doolittle. Normally he’s one inning and out. Melvin extended him for two innings, and Doolittle (2-4) retired all six batters he faced and notched four strikeouts.
Then in the bottom of the 10th, the A’s had the right man up at the right time.
“He is a tough customer in big at-bats, there’s no doubt about it,” Melvin said. “He embraces it, he wants to be the guy that’s up there in those situations.”
How to put Donaldson’s season into the proper context? Because of the A’s late-season collapse, it’s tough to say he’s making the same impact as last season, when he finished fourth in A.L. MVP voting. His average is down drastically, .255 compared to .301. But both his homers (28) and RBI (97) are better than last year’s totals of 24 and 93, respectively.
He’s committed the second-most errors (22) of any major league third baseman, yet as the season has gone one, his defense has resembled the Gold Glove-quality form he showed last year.
On Sunday, he showed that intangible trait that big-time players possess – the desire to have the game in their hands in pressure situations.
“Baseball’s a hard game,” Donaldson said. “In order to square a pitch up, it takes a lot. When you're able to do it, it definitely feels good. It makes you even more excited because you know you just helped your team win a baseball game.”