OAKLAND – A punchless offense has been the main culprit in the A’s ongoing free fall, but make no mistake, it’s been a group effort.
At times the starting pitching has faltered and the defense has lagged. On Sunday, it was the bullpen that took the blame in a 4-3 loss to the Houston Astros, as Ryan Cook and Fernando Abad combined for five walks (one intentional) that led to a two-run go-ahead Houston rally in the ninth inning that unfolded without a single hit.
So as the A’s packed their bags late Sunday afternoon and headed for their Chicago-bound charter, they were coming to grips with a 2-4 homestand that leaves them an astonishing seven games back of the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West with just 20 to play.
“We’re going to spend some time today gathering ourselves,” first baseman Nate Freiman said, “but tomorrow we’ve got another series. Good teams have short memories, and the best thing we can do now is come out in Chicago and be ready to go.”
On Aug. 10, the A’s were 72-44. Not only did they hold a four-game division lead, they owned an 11-game lead on the third-place wild card team. They’ve since gone 8-18 and have lost eight games in the wild card chase. They entered Sunday night holding a three-game lead over third-place Detroit. Seattle is in the second wild card spot, two games back of Oakland.
[RELATED: Angels win, increase lead to seven]
Taking Sunday’s game would have at least given the A’s a series victory over the Astros and generated a bit of momentum heading into a two-city, seven-game road trip that begins Monday against the White Sox.
Freiman’s two-run homer off Dallas Keuchel in the seventh gave the A’s a 3-2 lead. But their ninth-inning meltdown began with the curious sight of Ryan Cook trotting in from the bullpen to try to nail down a one-run victory.
It turns out that Eric O’Flaherty, the interim closer with Sean Doolittle on the disabled list, was unavailable due to back tightness that he says began bothering him over Thursday’s off-day. O’Flaherty hasn’t made an appearance since Monday, but the issue didn’t come to light until Sunday simply because the A’s hadn’t even been in a save situation since Aug. 27.
Cook, who had allowed seven runs over his previous eight games, lost all command of the strike zone, repeatedly missing high and away to lefties. The right-hander walked three of the four hitters he faced – all of them hitting from the left side – and threw strikes on just five of his 18 pitches.
“I lost my mechanics,” Cook said afterward. “I struggled as much as I could to try and make pitches, and it didn’t happen. It’s as simple as that.”
Abad relieved him with the bases loaded and allowed Jake Marisnick’s game-tying sacrifice fly. Then Melvin had major league hits leader Jose Altuve walked intentionally to load the bases, only to watch Abad issue a five-pitch walk to Dexter Fowler to force in the go-ahead run.
“That’s a guy that’s just killed us,” Melvin said of Altuve. “It didn’t work out, but I just couldn’t let him (beat us).”
Might Abad, who had been charged with just one run over his previous 24 outings, have fared better than Cook had he been sent out to start the ninth with a clean slate? Maybe. But two of the four guys Cook faced were switch hitters – Astros manager Tom Lawless would have had options to avoid a left-on-left situation with Abad.
Cook had 14 saves as the A’s closer in 2012, and Abad has never notched a save in a major league game.
“(Cook’s) the guy with the most experience,” Melvin said.
But the plan went awry, and over the past four weeks, the A’s have developed a habit for doing just enough to lose.
It could get interesting again on Monday if the A’s enter the ninth trying to protect a lead. O’Flaherty said he’s scheduled to throw off the mound Monday to test his back, and Melvin said the lefty likely would be unavailable. Doolittle, out since Aug. 23 with a strained side muscle, also will throw off the mound before Monday’s game and seems close to coming off the DL.
[RELATED: Doolittle will throw off mound Monday]
It wasn’t all that long ago that Las Vegas odds had the A’s as World Series favorites. At this point, they’re just trying to hold their ground and stay in position to host the AL’s one-game wild card play-in. Were the Angels to play .500 ball over their final 20 games, the A’s would have to go 17-3 just to tie them atop the division standings.
“Regardless, it’s just all about winning games for us,” Melvin said. “You never know what kind of run you’re gonna go on. But really it’s too far out for us to look at right now. So we really gotta focus on winning tomorrow’s game.”