OAKLAND -- It was a scenario that called for a closer -- the A’s holding a one-run lead after eight innings, with the heart of the Tampa Bay Rays lineup due up in the ninth. And for the first time in nearly three months, the A’s had their erstwhile closer available in the bullpen, activated from the disabled list Saturday afternoon and healthy enough to pitch.
Yet as though to underscore this nightmarish season for the A’s bullpen, Sean Doolittle remained seated on the bullpen bench and watched as Pat Venditte -- who was not called up to the majors until June -- and Drew Pomernaz -- who began the season as a starter -- tried to close out the game, and could not.
Venditte, the ambidextrous pitcher, walked Daniel Nava on four pitches with one out and allowed a double to Logan Forsythe. Pomeranz came in and threw one pitch to Asdrubal Cabrera, who shot it down the right-field line for a double to score both runs. And the A’s lost 5-4 to the Rays, victims of their 18th blown save this season.
"That’s been a little bit of a theme for us this year," manager Bob Melvin said. "We have played seven or eight good innings and we end up losing some games late. These one-run games that we’ve lost typically come a little bit later on in the game. It’s frustrating."
As players changed and ate in the A’s clubhouse after the game, Venditte sat at his locker with his head resting on clenched hands. The save chance had been Venditte’s first in the majors, a potential milestone after years spent toiling in the minors. Still, Venditte said he wasn’t thinking about those circumstances as he warmed up before the ninth inning.
"That doesn’t enter your mind at all in a situation like that," Venditte said. "You’re just out there to get ahead of hitters, do the same thing you’re always doing."
Doolittle, the A’s closer when healthy, was available in the bullpen for the first time since he went on the disabled list May 28 with a strained shoulder. But because of that absence, and the fact Doolittle has pitched in just one major-league game this season, Melvin said the A’s had decided Doolittle is "not going to close yet."
"We’ll give him at least one outing where he’s not closing," Melvin said after the game.
Melvin wanted a right-hander to face Evan Longoria starting the ninth, and Venditte won a 10-pitch at-bat with the Rays’ third baseman, getting him to swing at a fastball high and away for strike three. Venditte then switched from pitching right-handed to throwing left-handed, with the A’s wanting to make Nava hit right-handed.
Only Nava didn’t have to swing the bat. Venditte threw four consecutive balls to Nava from the left side, then missed with his first two pitches to Forsythe. Two pitches later, Forsythe lined a fastball into the gap in left-center, sending Nava to third and setting up Cabrera’s go-ahead double.
"Four-pitch walk, that’s unacceptable in that situation," Venditte said of the Nava at-bat. With Forsythe, he said, "I was trying to keep the ball down, get him to hopefully roll over something and same thing: got behind in the count again and left a pitch up in the zone."
The blown save cost Sonny Gray a chance at his 13th win, despite the right-hander giving up three home runs in a start for the first time in his big-league career. All three homers were solo shots, and Gray completed eight innings on 108 pitches, keeping his ERA at an A.L.-low 2.10. His record of 12-5 could look even more impressive if not for the bullpen blowing leads in now five of his starts.
"Heck of a game by Sonny," Venditte said. "For the guys to give us a lead going into the ninth inning, especially with the late-inning losses we’ve been having this year, I wanted to go out there and get it done for the guys. But did not do my job today."
After the brief high of a two-game sweep against the Dodgers, the A’s have dropped the first two games of their series against the Rays, despite their starting pitchers combining to allow four runs in 14 2/3 innings. The two one-run losses dropped their record in those games to 14-29 this season -- their most losses since 1986, when they were 22-29 -- with more than a month of the season still to go.
"They’re tough, man," Gray said. "We’re going to have to figure something out, or it’s going to be a long month here."
* Before Saturday, Gray had only allowed as many as two homers in a start twice in the majors. He kept the Rays on the ground for the most part -- through the first five innings all of his outs came via either groundout or strike out. But three times, Tampa Bay hitters put the ball in the air, and over the fence.
Forsythe hit a two-strike breaking ball that backed up over the plate in the second inning. John Jaso jumped a fastball over the inside corner in the third. Cabrera waited back on a two-strike curveball that hung up in the seventh and hit it the other way over the fence in left-center.
"There were a few mistake pitches, and they put good swings on them," Gray said. "But I think we were able to battle through and give eight pretty good innings, have a chance there at the end.
"They hit some not great pitches, but they swung the bat pretty well. But I thought my stuff was pretty good. Just the hits they did get were homers."
Two of Gray’s previous four starts had been complete games, but there was no talk this time about sending Gray back out for the ninth at 108 pitches. Melvin was asked before the game about handling Gray’s workload the rest of the season and said he’ll continue to treat Gray "the same as we would any other time in the season." For what it’s worth, Gray said he still "felt good" after the eighth.
Melvin described Gray’s outing after the game as "gutsy."
"His command wasn’t as good as we’ve seen at times, he left a couple balls up where they hit some home runs off him, but at the end of the day he comes out in the eighth inning and we have a lead," Melvin said. "That’s all you can ask from your starter."
A’s pitchers have now allowed a home run in 16 consecutive games, an Oakland-era record.
* Gray afterward was complimentary of Phegley, who has been catching more regularly lately with the A’s facing a string of left-handed starters. Phegley actually wasn’t meant to start Saturday, but when Danny Valencia was scratched from the lineup with hamstring soreness, Stephen Vogt moved from catcher to DH and Phegley got the start at catcher against Rays right-hander Erasmo Ramirez.
Phegley then drove in three of the A’s four runs with an RBI double against Ramirez in the second inning and a two-run homer in the sixth. The home run came on a first-pitch breaking ball after Phegley had also seen a first-pitch slider in his previous at-bat, which he swung at and missed.
Phegley said he’d checked with hitting coach Darren Bush, and the slider in his fourth-inning at-bat was slower, around 81 mph. "I guess he caught me trying to get the (bat) head out early," Phegley said. "The (sixth-inning) at-bat, I just wanted to see the ball and he kind of threw something medium-speed over the plate." The breaking ball he hit for the home run was more in the 84-85 mph range.
Admittedly, Phegley is a better hitter against left-handers (.299/.346/.485 this season) than righties (.224/.277/.421 entering Saturday). But he had two big hits against right-handed pitching Saturday night, and also lined out hard against Ramirez in the fourth.
"He’s been getting good at-bats for us regardless," Melvin said. "He’s proven that he can take a workload behind the plate, he shuts down the running game for the most part. And he’s been swinging a hot bat for us."
* Mark Canha, moved into the cleanup spot Saturday, also stayed hot with two hits, including his 10th home run. Canha is 11-for-20 in his last four games and batting .429 with seven RBIs in his last 11 games. Tomorrow’s print feature is on Canha and his passion for fine dining, but it also touches on the adjustment Canha made to his swing before his recent hot streak. Read on.
* Canha nearly had an RBI on his first-inning double, but Josh Reddick was thrown out at the plate following an aggressive send by third-base coach Mike Gallego. Canha’s hit was down the left-field line and Desmond Jennings cut it off before it got to the corner, but Gallego still sent Reddick, who was cut down by the shortstop Cabrera’s relay throw.
"I think he was trying to be aggressive there," Melvin said of Gallego. "I think maybe he thought it was a little farther down the line. I was actually watching the relay come in and I didn’t see when he sent (Reddick). But they made a couple good throws and got him."
Stats man Bill Arnold (@sfgwire) tweeted that Reddick was the 18th Oakland runner to be thrown out at home this season, second in the majors only to the Tigers’ 19.
* Two nice diving catches by the guys in white uniforms in this game: One by center fielder Billy Burns to rob Forsythe of a hit in the seventh, and one by the ball boy near Oakland’s bullpen to, well, prevent a foul ball from rolling around and maybe delaying the game.
"That was crazy," Gray said. "He definitely got full-extension."
Gray was describing Burns’ catch. But he might have been talking about either.
* The series wraps up Sunday with A’s right-hander Kendall Graveman (6-9, 4.27) facing Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi (6-6, 3.02). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.