For a moment, Jake Smolinski thought the game was over. The A’s right fielder dove for Daniel Nava’s sinking liner in the ninth inning and jumped up seeing an umpire signal a catch. He threw the ball to first base, apparently doubling off Todd Cunningham for the third out of the inning and last of a one-run win.
But as the Angels challenged whether Smolinski had trapped the ball instead of catching it, Smolinski and A’s center fielder Billy Burns met on the grass in right-center.
“He came over to me all excited,” Burns said. “I didn’t say anything. And then he asked me directly, ‘I caught it, right?’ And I said, ‘No.’ ”
In New York, an umpire watching the replays concurred. Nava was awarded a single and Cunningham sent to third base, the game continued and the Angels tied it one batter later on Johnny Giavotella’s sacrifice fly.
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A half-inning later, though, Smolinski and Burns helped script a conclusion that left no doubt. Smolinski’s two-out single off Angels reliever Fernando Salas moved Marcus Semien to third base and set up Burns’ game-winning single through the left side of the infield, giving the A’s a walk-off 3-2 win in their series opener against Los Angeles.
“That was interesting,” Burns said of the top of the ninth. “I mean, you don’t have that situation happen, especially late in the game like that. I was just wondering what they were going to do with the runners.”
Nava hit his sinking liner off Ryan Madson with Cunningham on first base. Cunningham broke immediately for second and was almost halfway to third when he saw the umpires signaling a catch. He turned back toward first base as Smolinski fired the ball back in.
“Initially I thought that I caught the ball,” Smolinski said. “As soon as I saw the video, it wasn’t really that close.”
The game paused, its outcome in limbo, for a replay review of 1 minute, 42 seconds. As umpiring crew chief Jeff Nelson emerged from the headset and pointed Cunningham to third base due to his progress before the play ended, A’s manager Bob Melvin protested, but to no avail.
Giavotella’s sacrifice fly handed Madson just his third blown save this season and tied a game the A’s had led since the fourth inning. Still, Melvin said, “The guys were pretty spirited, even going into that (bottom of the ninth).”
Salas recorded two quick outs before walking Semien. Smolinski, who had entered as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning and flown out to the warning track in right field, this time hit a soft liner to right. With the Angels’ outfielders playing deep in a dramatic no-doubles defense, the ball fell in front of right fielder Kole Calhoun.
“Maybe he catches that ball if they’re not playing no-doubles,” Smolinski said. “Maybe it was like a trade-off.”
Burns then shot the first pitch from Salas, a 91 mph fastball, the other way into shallow left to bring the A’s streaking out of their dugout in celebration. It was Burns’ first walk-off hit in the majors and ended a three-game losing streak for the A’s.
“It was great, of course,” said Burns, who was hitless in four at-bats before that trip. “It’s nice, especially when you don’t really get hits the whole game and then come through for the team and just find a way to find a hole.
“But the real hero tonight was Kendall Graveman.”
Graveman, the A’s starter, pitched seven innings and held the Angels to one run on a solo home run by Calhoun in the third inning. Graveman faced 15 more batters and did not allow another hit, retiring his last 13 after walking Albert Pujols with two out in the third.
The right-hander credited catcher Stephen Vogt with making “a great adjustment,” going away from their original game plan against the Angels’ hitters and repeatedly calling for sinkers down in the strike zone.
“After the home run it was something we said, ‘hey, the sinker’s so good today, they’re not hitting it, they’re beating it into the ground, we need to stick to it,’ ” Graveman said.
“(Vogt said) ‘I’m just going to get down there in the bottom of the zone, just hit my mitt.’ He gave me a small target … We thought we were going to have to mix in more offspeed but that’s the way baseball is sometimes.”
Graveman recorded eight of his final nine outs by strikeout or groundout. Melvin said the outing was “the best we’ve seen in a while” from Graveman, who has received two or fewer runs of support in seven of his 13 starts.
“As a hitter I definitely feel a little bit of that weight,” Burns said. “Him and (Daniel) Mengden lately, they’ve been throwing really well and we just haven’t been able to get them any run support, which is on the hitters.
“As a team we’re not really helping him out, but at the same time he’s doing his part. So it really is nice to at least get a win out of it, even though he isn’t credited with it.”