The rain started falling in the Coliseum around the ninth inning, and then things got weird. Pitchers began knocking mud from their spikes between every pitch and asking frequently for new baseballs. A sharply single to left field kicked a trail of water and nearly died before reaching the left fielder. A game that was scoreless through nine innings ended with the Astros beating the A’s, 5-4, and Oakland leaving the tying run on second base in the 11th after getting him there with nobody out.
On the losing end of the decision was A’s reliever Eric O’Flaherty, who was brought in to preserve a 2-2 tie in the 11th and could not. O’Flaherty walked his first hitter on five pitches, then walked his second. Both scored when Robbie Grossman hit O’Flaherty’s 3-0 pitch for a single to left, and Grossman later scored to close a rough night for the A’s left-hander. He threw 21 pitches, six for strikes.
Afterward, though, when asked if he had any trouble gripping the ball on a wet night, he answered with a curt: "No."
The issue, then?
"I’m just not throwing strikes," O’Flaherty said.
Counted on to be one of the A’s more dependable late-game relievers, O’Flaherty has a 11.37 ERA through seven outings. He has allowed 10 hits and four walks through 6 1/3 innings, and Friday was his second loss of the season. The lone out he recorded came on Hank Conger’s sacrifice bunt.
"He’s getting pretty good movement, he’s just not harnessing it," manager Bob Melvin said. "He’s not throwing it over the plate."
Dan Otero also allowed two runs in the 10th inning Friday night on a two-out double by Marwin Gonzalez -- the game’s first extra-base hit that provided its first runs. The A’s bullpen, supposedly one of the more stable aspects of the team coming into this season, has a 4.61 ERA.
It’s easy to look for a scapegoat amid such struggles, and right now that’s O’Flaherty, who drew the displeasure of the scattered remaining fans at the Coliseum as he walked off the mound Friday night. After Conger’s sacrifice bunt moved two men into scoring position, O’Flaherty fell behind Grossman 3-0, then watched Grossman line a 3-0 pitch past the drawn-in A’s infield to give Houston a 4-2 lead.
"They were just trying to get that thing over with," O’Flaherty said of Grossman hitting the 3-0 pitch. "Get a 3-0 pitch down the middle, they’re going to swing."
O’Flaherty, a sinkerball pitcher, has the reputation for being able to get ground balls and be effective against both right- and left-handed hitters. Melvin reiterated that line after the game. O’Flaherty is one of only two lefties in the A’s bullpen and, at least until the return of Sean Doolittle, it’s difficult to see O’Flaherty’s role changing too drastically.
"Once our bullpen gets on the right path, everything’s going to be just fine," right fielder Josh Reddick said. "We’ve got to get those guys in sync, but for us to explode late like that was a good sign."
* Reddick drove in the A’s first runs in 19 innings with a pinch-hit, two-run double to left center field off Luke Gregerson in the 10th. Reddick took third on the Astros’ throw home -- but when that throw got away from the catcher Conger, Reddick tried to score and was thrown out by Gregerson, who was backing up the play, by a considerable margin.
"Once I see the ball get by I figure, why not try it?" Reddick explained afterward. "The ball’s soaking wet, rolled in the grass in the outfield, and got away from him there. They gotta make a perfect throw to get me there. So I’m just trying to win the ballgame. We haven’t been scoring runs the best the past two games, so I don’t see a problem with flat-out trying it."
Reddick said he didn’t see or hear whether third-base coach Mike Gallego was yelling at him to stay or go, and the read was his own. Melvin said he didn’t have a view of where the ball went after bouncing past Conger, who tried to make a backhand stab and swipe tag of Stephen Vogt, who scored the tying run.
"All I can see is (Reddick)," Melvin said. "When he took off, I just assumed he had a good chance to score."
Reddick was right about one thing: The A’s had been having trouble scoring runs. They had gone 19 consecutive innings without one before his double and managed two hits off Houston starter Dallas Keuchel on Friday night. Had he stayed on third base, Eric Sogard would have come up with two outs and a chance to drive him in, but no guarantees.
"Once I saw the ball," Reddick said, "I just kept going."
* It was a rough night even for ex-A’s relievers. Gregerson surrendered Reddick’s game-tying double, and Pat Neshek gave up Marcus Semien’s two-run homer in the 11th that made the score 5-4. Ike Davis followed with a single to left and took second on a Neshek wild pitch. Neshek got Ben Zobrist and Billy Butler to pop out, but Chad Qualls recorded the final out and save getting Brett Lawrie to fly out to the warning track in center field.
"It went from a starting pitching duel to a little bit of a slugfest later once the bullpens got in the game," Melvin said. "You’ve got to look at the positives in it. We continue to fight every pitch of the game even though it looked bleak a couple times."
Keuchel gave up just two singles and two walks in nine scoreless innings. The A’s best chance to score against him came when they loaded the bases with one out in the third. But Ben Zobrist, running on a gimpy knee, grounded into an inning-ending double play.
"Zobrist is trying to do the right thing, go the other way, keep the ball in the air, and he still can’t get it in the air," Melvin said. "So (Keuchel has) a good sinker, enough in, and every now and then a curveball and a good changeup. He speeds you up and then slows you down."
Scott Kazmir matched zeroes with Keuchel for seven innings, allowing five singles and three walks while striking out seven. Kazmir’s last pitch, a 93 mph fastball, matched his top velocity of the night and struck out Luis Valbuena with two on to end the seventh. Kazmir also summoned that 93 mph fastball to strike out George Springer with two on to end the fifth, and Colby Rasmus with a runner on to finish the fourth.
"It feels like if I really want to hump up on something, the past four starts I’ve had it," Kazmir said. "That gives a different look out there, throwing something not necessarily 100 percent and then being able to finish guys off with a little bit more on the fastball. That’s huge, it makes it look like two different pitches."
In four starts this season, Kazmir has pitched 27 1/3 innings, allowed three earned runs for a 0.99 ERA, given up 15 hits and struck out 30.
"It’s a shame that he doesn’t have a couple more wins," Melvin said.
* Zobrist looked to be favoring his left knee noticeably while running the bases as a DH Friday night, and Melvin said he will probably not start Zobrist in Saturday’s day game.
"He’s certainly not 100 percent, by any stretch," Melvin said. "I don’t know that he can play a position at this point."
Brett Lawrie after the game had about five different areas of his body wrapped in ice. That included both knees, one of which he banged into the A’s bullpen making a catch in foul territory in the 11th. Melvin said Lawrie’s knee took a "significant shot," but he stayed in and gave his game-ending flyout a ride to center field -- just to the worst part of the park on a cold, rainy night at the Coliseum.
"We’re considerably banged up," Melvin said.
* The Astros, meanwhile, remain in first place in the early A.L. West. Their 9-7 start is the team’s best since 2007. Houston will start right-hander Scott Feldman (1-2, 5.09) in game two of the series Saturday against A’s righty Kendall Graveman (1-1, 6.94).