OAKLAND The A's offense has not been easy to figure this season.
It was the league's highest-scoring in April and third-lowest in July. At times it has struggled to muster a hit with men in scoring position, while Oakland collected seven of them Friday on its way to reclaiming sole possession of first place in the American League West.
Pitching has proven more consistent for the A's, who began Saturday with the second-best ERA in the league and lowered it behind right-hander Dan Straily in a 2-1 win over the Houston Astros. Saturday also continued the recent return of yet another offensive aspect that was key to their playoff run last year.
The A's scored both of their runs Saturday on homers Yoenis Cespedes' leading off the fourth inning against Astros starter Brett Oberholtzer and Jed Lowrie's two-out shot off reliever Josh Zeid in the seventh. They were the 42nd and 43rd home runs in the last 29 games for the A's, who lead all teams in that statistic since Aug. 9.
"We have quite a few guys that can" hit home runs, manager Bob Melvin said. "It just seems like we're hitting our stride a little bit as far as the long ball goes."
Much of the power has come from a few concentrated sources. Leadoff man Coco Crisp has eight homers in his last 16 games, while Brandon Moss had eight in his previous 18 games before flying out in his lone at-bat as a late-game replacement Saturday.
It's something of a late surge from an offense that ranked 10th in the A.L. in homers as of Aug. 3. Last year, the A's were ninth in the league in the first half before leading baseball in homers after the All-Star break.
Third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit his 21st of the year Friday, was asked if home runs as some say about hits can be contagious.
"Somewhat, I think it can be," Donaldson said. "I think another thing is guys have logged a lot of at-bats, so pitch recognition should be as good as it's going to get right now. It's one of those things, whenever mistakes are had, I feel like instead of fouling the ball back, guys are hitting it pretty hard."
Cespedes is one shy of the 23 he hit last season as a rookie in what has otherwise been a down year for him with the bat, though he is 11 for 28 with two homers in September. That has raised his average to .236 one example of the struggles of A's outfielders this season to hit for average.
The unit's combined mark of .229 entering Saturday was the majors' worst.
Still, power has remained constant at the position. A's outfielders began the day tied with Colorado and Seattle with an MLB-leading 65 homers.
"Certainly if he can string some good games together and really get on a roll, we're going to be that much better for it," Melvin said of Cespedes.
"We haven't seen a real hot streak out of him. It'd be a good time for it."
Cespedes' homer was all the A's managed against Oberholtzer, the 24-year-old left-hander, who still left after six innings in line for the loss. Straily retired the first eight batters before a two-out walk to Brandon Barnes in the third, then got out of the inning with help from one of multiple questionable decisions by the Astros on the basepaths.
Jonathan Villar singled, sending Barnes to third, but tried to take second base and was thrown out by Cespedes. In the eighth, with the Astros down a run and two outs, Barnes tried to steal third and was picked off by reliever Sean Doolittle to end the inning. It helped preserve the win for Straily, who allowed just two hits and struck out seven.
"That's about as good as we've seen him," Melvin said of Straily. "Whenever he locates his fastball and throws strikes, it makes his slider that much better. When he's getting ahead, he's a tough customer to deal with."
Notes Melvin gave Crisp the day off before the A's play 16 games in 16 days beginning Tuesday. Crisp has at least one extra-base hit in each of his last seven games, one short of the Oakland record set in 2000 by Ben Grieve.
The A's announced reliever Hideki Okajima cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Sacramento. Okajima was 1-3 with a 4.22 ERA in 37 games with the River Cats this season, along with making five appearances for the A's.
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