OAKLAND – What was shaping up as another comeback victory for the A’s instead turned into a bullpen fiasco Sunday.
The Houston Astros erased a one-run deficit in the top of the ninth and hung a deflating 4-3 loss on the A’s, mounting their go-ahead two-run rally on five walks and zero hits.
With that, the A’s dropped this three-game series to the 63-80 Astros and fell seven games back of the Los Angeles Angels.
With regular closer Sean Doolittle on the disabled list, A’s manager Bob Melvin called on Ryan Cook rather than assumed interim closer Eric O’Flaherty to start the ninth. Cook promptly walked three of his first four hitters to load the bases with one out. Lefty Fernando Abad replaced Cook and gave up Jake Marisnick’s game-tying sacrifice fly.
With runners on the corners and two outs, Melvin ordered hot-hitting Jose Altuve to be intentionally walked to load the bases. That strategy backfired when Abad walked Dexter Fowler on five pitches to force in the go-ahead run.
The A’s had a chance to win the rubber game of this series and at least take a little bit of momentum into a seven-game road trip that starts Monday. Instead they lost for the 10th time in 14 games, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory because they couldn’t throw the ball over the plate.
Oakland had taken a 3-2 lead in the seventh on Nate Freiman’s two-run homer off Dallas Keuchel.
Starting pitching report
He may not always be getting rewarded with victories, but Jason Hammel turned in his third impressive start in a row, going 6 2/3 innings and giving up two runs on five hits. It was smooth sailing for Hammel through six shutout innings, and the A’s finally gave him a 1-0 lead in the sixth. He promptly gave up that lead when Houston got to him for two runs in the top of seventh. Chris Carter led off with a double, a blast to right-center that came within inches of yet another homer against his old team. After Jason Castro walked, Marwin Gonzalez sacrificed the runners over. Then Jon Singleton tied the game with a groundout to second and former Athletic Gregorio Petit singled in the go-ahead run to make it a 2-1 game.
Hammel wouldn’t make it out of the seventh, but it was a stellar effort from Oakland’s No. 5 starter. Since a shaky start to his A’s career, Hammel has found a groove. He worked well one again with Geovany Soto behind the plate. He rang up seven strikeouts, spotting his fastball on the corners and at the knees with consistency, and dropped in his curve and slider effectively.
Over the past three starts, Hammel has surrendered just four runs and 11 hits in 21 2/3 innings.
Whether O’Flaherty was even available wasn’t immediately known. The lefty hasn’t pitched since Monday. But Cook was an interesting choice to try to nail down the save in that he entered Sunday having given up seven runs over his previous eight outings. He does have previous closer experience, however.
But Cook’s command was way off, as 13 of his 18 pitches went for balls, many of them way out of the strike zone. Abad, who has never notched a major league save, entered a tough situation with the bases loaded and couldn’t get it done.
At the plate
The A’s have had well-documented troubles against left-handed starters in the season’s second half. They broke through with some offense against ground-ball machine Dallas Keuchel, who has been a problem for them this season. Derek Norris’ RBI groundout broke a scoreless tie in the sixth, then Freiman lined a two-run homer over the left field wall in the seventh to put the A’s ahead 3-2.
In the field
Astros third baseman Marwin Gonzalez aided the A’s first scoring rally in the sixth when he misplayed Andy Parrino’s grounder to lead off the inning. Parrino would eventually score on Norris’ groundout to break a scoreless tie.
The announced turnout was 25,533.
The A’s open up a two-city road trip with four games against the Chicago White Sox. Monday – Sonny Gray (13-8, 3.25) vs. Hector Noesi (8-8, 4.28), 5:10 p.m. Tuesday – Jon Lester (13-10, 2.54) vs. John Danks (9-10, 5.12), 5:10 p.m. Wednesday – Jeff Samardzija (4-5, 3.70) vs. TBA. Thursday – Scott Kazmir (14-7, 3.42) vs. Chris Sale (11-3, 2.09), 11:10 a.m. All but Thursday’s game will air on Comcast SportsNet California.