OAKLAND -- The A's have won eight of their last 10 games, 11 of their last 14, and still lead the Rangers by 1 1/2 games in the West after beating the Astros on Sunday, 7-2. As a September surge, left-hander Brett Anderson said, it does feel a little bit like last season, "but obviously it's a different team, a different group of guys."
And for Anderson, while he's again making a second-half return from injury to contribute down the stretch, it's in a different role. Anderson pitched the final three innings of Sunday's game in relief of Bartolo Colon for his third three-inning save since rejoining the A's in the bullpen.
None have been entirely clean. Anderson allowed singles to the first three hitters he faced in the seventh inning Sunday before getting out of the inning with a strikeout and double play. In those nine innings, he has allowed six runs and 12 hits, thought it hasn't mattered much as the A's have held large leads in all three games.
The outings have mostly gone like Sunday -- Anderson surrendered a quick flurry of hits, then appeared to settle in and pitch better. Catcher Stephen Vogt offered an interesting explanation -- Anderson has been getting "ambushed."
"Right when he comes in, that first inning is tough for him," Vogt said. "He's still adjusting to coming out of the 'pen and that mindset. It's nothing to do with his stuff, he's getting ambushed at times. As a starter, he's not going to get ambushed like that."
In other words, when Anderson starts a game he may be facing hitters who are still trying to get a sense of both his stuff and how they themselves are feeling on that day. It's also, of course, earlier in the game, which means the score is likely closer, there's more time for things to develop and hitters may be more patient as a result.
In his saves, Anderson has come into the game in the seventh inning with the A's ahead by wide margins. And he hypothesized Sunday that that has had an effect on the approach of opposing hitters.
"Being ahead like we have, their hitters are going up there hacking," Anderson said when asked if he agreed with Vogt's "ambushed" theory. "I've just got to do a better job of coming in and not throwing just strikes, but throwing quality strikes."
Anderson did recover in the seventh Sunday, pitched a scoreless eighth and got himself out of trouble in the ninth after two leadoff walks by getting Matt Pagnozzi to fly out, striking out Brandon Barnes and inducing a flyout from Villar. One positive that he, Vogt and manager Bob Melvin have taken out of his outings is that Anderson's pitches appear to have good life on them, and he has been able to limit the damage for the most part.
"His ball's moving a lot, he's got good life and the slider's biting really well," Vogt said. "He looks great. It's a matter of him coming out of the 'pen and getting used to it."
"That's the hard part about being a reliever is as a starter, normally you'd work your way into the game, whereas as a reliever you have to be on it right away," Melvin added.
"Some first-pitch swings, some base hits, and all of a sudden the adrenaline's flowing and you have to get some outs. He definitely did that (today)."
Another positive, Anderson said, is that he hasn't felt much fatigue after the three-inning outings, as he builds his stamina back up after missing most of the season with a fracture in his foot. Meanwhile, he has embraced the idea of coming out of the bullpen, even as it remains a work in progress.
Tomorrow's print story focuses on Colon, who had his best start of the three since his mid-August DL stint and won for the first time since July 26. Colon allowed two hits and a run with his first four pitches, then threw 90 more while giving up three hits and no runs to complete six innings.
"I thought he was really good," Melvin said. "After the first two hitters -- it looked like that got his attention in a hurry. He ramped it up, had really good movement and good location today, only had to throw (94) pitches. So a lot of good came out of Bartolo's outing today."
Colon said of the early run: "I was more concentrated right after that happened." He did not allow another runner past second until the sixth inning, struck out seven and hovered around 91-93 mph with his fastball, closer to the range he had earlier in the season.
"I feel like I have more power than in the last outings," he said.
Vogt said Colon also had slightly better command Sunday than in some of his past four starts, in which he'd allowed 12 earned runs and 29 hits in 16 2/3 innings. But the main thing Sunday was movement -- Colon was running his fastball back over the inside part of the plate to left-handers and didn't give up many well-hit balls.
"That was vintage Bartolo, so to speak," Vogt said.
With the win, Colon became the first pitcher ever to win at least 15 games in a season for four different American League teams -- the A's, Angels, White Sox and Indians. Asked about it afterward, he said he didn't know until the question, but: "I feel pride right now."
All of Colon's support came with two outs in the third, as the A's jumped Astros right-hander Lucas Harrell for seven runs with the biggest blows being Brandon Moss' two-run double and Seth Smith's three-run home run.
It gave Smith a career line of 5-for-7 with six RBIs against Harrell, who wasn't supposed to start Sunday's game but took the ball after Paul Clemens was scratched with a blister. It worked out for Oakland -- Harrell has now pitched 13 1/3 innings against the A's this season and allowed 21 runs.
"We've had some good looks at him," Melvin said. Melvin added that the other option for the Astros was left-hander Erik Bedard, and he was glad to see Harrell start because he had written out his left-handed-heavy lineup and the A's had prepared as such.
For Smith, the one swing netted him more RBIs (three) than in his previous 30 games since the All-Star Break, in which he was batting .135 (10-for-74) with one homer and two RBIs. Smith has been sort of the odd man out in the A's outfield, and with Melvin often using the DH spot to give players semi-days off, Smith hasn't gotten a lot of starts there either recently. Sunday was his 15th start since the beginning of August.
"It felt good to kind of put a game out of reach early," Smith said.
Yoenis Cespedes had two singles Sunday and is now 13-for-32 (.406) in the month of September. Moss went 3-for-4 and is 19-for-56 (.339) with eight homers over his last 20 games. They make the middle of the A's lineup look fairly formidable right now.
Coco Crisp went hitless to fall one shy of Ben Grieve's Oakland record for the most consecutive games with an extra-base hit. Crisp had recorded at least one extra-base hit in his last seven games. Sunday was also just the second time in 17 games that Crisp has failed to reach base at least once.
Astros manager Bo Porter was ejected in the fifth inning Sunday after appearing to say something to home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt when Wendelstedt came out to break up a meeting on the mound. Porter gave Wendelstedt an earful before departing in his third ejection of the season. Two of them came in this series.
Despite the A's losing the first game to Houston, it's hard to judge this homestand as anything but a success. After returning home from Detroit three games behind Texas in the West, the A's went 8-2 against Tampa Bay, the Rangers and the Astros and leave for Minnesota with a 1 1/2-game lead.
"It's a good way to roll onto the road," Vogt said.
Here are the pitching probables as the A's face the Twins for the first time all season -- an oddity, Melvin acknowledged, with expanded rosters only making the Twins seem more unfamiliar and unpredictable:
Tuesday: RHP Liam Hendricks (1-2, 5.28) vs. RHP Jarrod Parker (11-6, 3.57)
Wednesday: RHP Mike Pelfrey (5-11, 4.97) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (2-3, 2.51)
Thursday: RHP Kevin Correia (9-11, 4.30) vs. RHP A.J. Griffin (13-9, 3.91)
Next time the A's are home, they'll have played their last regular-season series against the Rangers as well. We'll see where they stand.