OAKLAND -- The standings suggested it, as did the charged atmosphere at the Coliseum on Friday night. But just for good measure, after nailing down the A’s 5-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels, closer Sean Doolittle confirmed it:
"That was a huge game for us," Doolittle said.
The A’s this month had seen their long-held lead in the A.L. West evaporate, and entered Friday having lost eight of their last 10 games to trail Los Angeles by two in the division. Had the A’s lost Friday to an Angels team that had won eight of 10, it would’ve ensured the Angels no worse than a one-game lead at the conclusion of this series.
Instead, the A’s go into tonight’s game one game out of first place and with a possibility of wresting the division lead away from Los Angeles by the end of the weekend. While the standings still don’t matter as much in mid-August, more significant Friday was the way the A’s won. They got a strong start from Sonny Gray, received contributions from throughout their lineup and played solid defense to hold off the Angels despite a tedious ninth inning, in which Los Angeles put the tying run on second base.
"We haven’t played a game like that, it doesn’t seem like, that crisp for a while," said A’s manager Bob Melvin. "Certainly the fans were out in full force like we expected, and we always get an energy push from them. As the game went along, certainly when we took a lead, it felt like we were finally in charge of a game, where we hadn’t been in a while."
It has been longer still since the A’s were more than two games out of first place -- never this season and not since last August -- and a crowd of 33,810 at the Coliseum seemed to recognize the importance of keeping it that way. Melvin and some players had predicted a "playoff-like atmosphere" for this series, and the fans delivered.
At one point, right fielder Sam Fuld said, he told teammates he’d "never seen the place like this. It was loud, electric, and just a fun environment." Doolittle also used the term "electric" and said that when he entered in the ninth with one out and a runner on first, "there was a lot of adrenaline flowing" -- maybe, in fact, a little too much.
The A’s led 5-2 at the time, but the Angels trimmed that to 5-3 with back-to-back singles by Erick Aybar and David Freese, and Doolittle then loaded the bases with two outs with a walk to Collin Cowgill. That brought up pinch hitter Chris Iannetta with the potential tying run 180 feet from home, but on his 26th pitch of the inning, Doolittle threw a 95 mph fastball past Iannetta to nail down the win.
"That right there is an example of why they’ve been so successful lately," Doolittle said of the Angels. "They laid off some tough pitches. I thought I executed my game plan to each guy, but they laid off some tough pitches … and didn’t try to do too much with it, did a good job of staying short.
"They’re not all going to be pretty, but that was a really important win to be able to nail down."
With it, the A’s have a chance to pull back even with the Angels on Saturday night with Jon Lester on the mound.
"We don’t want to get too caught up -- these are all just one game, and I think we did a good job tonight of just worrying about winning today," Fuld said. "But given our struggles of late, it’s great to get that first win of the series under our belt."
* Gray played a major role and is the subject of tomorrow’s print story after pitching into the ninth inning for just the second time this year and snapping a four-start losing streak. He allowed solo homers to Mike Trout in the first and Josh Hamilton in the fourth, but nothing after that until he walked Hamilton with one out in the ninth and saw Hamilton come around to score on Freese’s single off Doolittle.
Gray entered 0-4 with a 4.94 ERA in August, but said he hadn’t felt much different than he did Friday, when he needed just 93 pitches to get through the first eight innings. Gray said "everything felt good’ with his delivery, and that "for the most part, I was putting (pitches) where I wanted to."
Both Trout and Hamilton homered on curveballs. Trout golfed a pitch below his knees to left-center in the first, and Gray said he "thought I made a good pitch … I really can’t tell you how that ball got out, but it did."
Said Fuld: "It’s arguable even if the home runs were bad pitches, it was just two really good hitters. Certainly the one to Trout was down enough that it should’ve stayed in the ballpark. But he’s Mike Trout, so that’s going to happen."
Hamilton’s homer followed a close 0-2 backdoor curveball that might have nipped the outside corner but was called a ball. Asked if he thought he had Hamilton struck out, Gray shrugged. "It was a ball," he said. "He called it a ball, so it’s a ball."
Otherwise, Gray allowed four singles and came within two outs of his second career complete game. Doolittle credited him with "staying poised" and said the outing was "one of his best ballgames of the year, for sure."
"It was important not only for me, but for the team," Gray said. "We needed to come away with a win tonight, and it was important just to get it, no matter how."
* It seems almost cliché to say it now, but Coco Crisp again was critical in sparking the A’s offensively. After Trout’s homer in the first, Crisp led off the bottom of the inning by hitting Hector Santiago’s fourth pitch for a home run to nearly the same location, erasing the early 1-0 deficit.
"That was huge," Melvin said. "That’s like, ‘All right, we’re fine.’"
"I think we were all fired up for this series, and you give up a home run in the first, it can take the wind out of your sails a little bit," Fuld agreed. "But once Coco hit that home run there was a little better energy in the dugout."
Crisp also started a game-tying rally in the fifth with a one-out double, scoring when the Angels couldn’t turn a double play on Josh Donaldson’s sharp grounder up the middle. The speed of Craig Gentry, reinstated from the DL on Friday, also played a part in that run, as Gentry went into second base hard and disrupted the footing of second baseman Erick Aybar, whose relay to first was low and skipped past Albert Pujols.
"It all kind of starts with him," Melvin said of Crisp. "You can’t put too much pressure on him, that he has to play well for us to win. That’s not the case. But when we play our best, he’s playing well."
The first-inning homer was Crisp’s 13th leading off a game for the A’s, tying him for third on the franchise list. According to the A’s post-game notes, he still has a ways to go to catch leader Rickey Henderson, who hit 43.
* The A’s also got contributions from the bottom of the order. They pulled ahead in the sixth when No. 7 hitter Alberto Callaspo singled, Fuld hit a triple to score Callaspo, and Andy Parrino drove in Fuld with a sacrifice fly. Stephen Vogt, who’d pinch-hit for Nate Freiman in the sixth inning, added a solo homer from the sixth spot in the eighth.
Callaspo is not the fleetest of foot, but he beat out an infield single in the sixth and then scored from first on Fuld’s triple into the right-center field gap. Fuld, who said he didn’t know at first if Callaspo would try to score on the play, also made an aggressive read on Parrino’s fly to left, which wasn’t particularly deep. The speedy Fuld tagged up anyway and scored standing up ahead of a weak throw by Hamilton.
"I think it’s good to be aggressive no matter what, put pressure on the defense," Fuld said. "I don’t know if we made an extra effort or not to do that -- we’ve got to recognize outs are precious and can’t make any silly mistakes on the bases. But at the same time, that’s a good way to get the offense going, is be aggressive."
Melvin said the bottom half of the order contributing to the scoring is "what we need. We need to have a deep lineup at times, we can’t just rely on a couple of guys. That really is the strength of our lineup, and why we’ve put up the numbers we have this year."
* As stated, it wasn’t the cleanest ninth inning for Doolittle, who allowed two hits and a walk and needed 26 pitches to record two outs for his 19th save. Doolittle, who hasn’t had many save opportunities lately, admitted that "getting a chance to be back out there in a situation like that, at home, with our fans behind us, felt really good -- a little too good in the beginning there."
Doolittle credited the Angels with putting together good at-bats in the ninth, while saying the adrenaline of the moment might have played into a shaky outing.
"At home or on the road, there’s going to be adrenaline going, there’s going to be electricity in the stadium," Doolittle said. "You definitely can use it to your advantage if you can slow it down, take a step back and really focus on your game plan.
"Fortunately I was able to do it just well enough tonight to get a save."
* It’s a matchup of left-handers in game two of this series Saturday evening, with Lester (13-8, 2.58) opposing the Angels’ C.J. Wilson (10-8, 4.59). First pitch at 6:05 p.m.