This weekend’s series in Oakland felt like a playoff preview -- for one of the teams, anyway.
The Chicago Cubs, owners of the majors’ best record, have some believing this could be the season the franchise snaps a 108-year World Series drought. And in getting swept in three games at home culminating in a 3-1 loss Sunday afternoon, the last-place A’s got a first-hand look at why.
Cubs pitching held the A’s to three runs in 27 innings, throwing their three best starters at an A’s lineup that at times looked overmatched. Jon Lester took a one-hitter into the sixth inning Friday. Jake Arrieta threw eight scoreless innings Saturday. Sunday it was Kyle Hendricks shutting the A’s out until the eighth, when Marcus Semien finally snapped a 19-inning scoreless streak with a home run.
“I mean, it’s their top three guys,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “They have five strong starting pitchers, but we got their top three and they’ve been pitching well.”
Hendricks, the least-heralded, may be pitching the best. The right-hander has a 1.60 ERA over his last 14 starts and lowered his season ERA on Sunday to 2.17, second in the N.L. behind Clayton Kershaw.
“He can keep you off-balance,” Melvin said. “His changeup’s great, he throws it in any count, a lot of times in off-counts. Spots his fastball with some sink. Only used a few curveballs. Pitched well.”
Max Muncy grounded a single up the middle in the first inning. Semien had an infield hit in the second. After that, Hendricks retired 17 consecutive batters before Semien hit a one-out homer to left field in the eighth inning, his 23rd of the season, to knock Hendricks out of the game.
“He threw a lot of changeups to righties actually,” Semien said, “but he’s got a cutter, a curveball, and his sinker’s his bread and butter, which he can throw with pinpoint accuracy away. It’s just tough to stay on one thing.”
It didn’t get any easier for the A’s after Hendricks exited. Pedro Strop came on to strike Jake Smolinski out on three straight sliders and retire Ryon Healy on a pop-up. Then, to the delight of the many vocal Cubs fans in attendance, the recently acquired left-hander Aroldis Chapman entered for the ninth, making his first appearance of the series.
Chapman retired his first two batters before Stephen Vogt singled to left field on a 104 mph fastball. Khris Davis then watched a fastball clocked at 104.2 mph go by for strike three to end the game.
“They all have good stuff,” Semien said of the pitching the A’s saw this weekend. “It’s unfortunate, but they got it done.”
Sean Manaea matched Hendricks zero for zero through the first five innings Sunday by dancing out of trouble in the second and third innings. The Cubs loaded the bases with nobody out in the third, but Manaea got Anthony Rizzo to hit a chopper to first baseman Yonder Alonso, who threw home for a force-out. And Ben Zobrist hit a low liner that Alonso snagged, stepping on first base for a double play.
The tenuous deadlock finally snapped in the sixth, when Kris Bryant laced a first-pitch fastball into the left-field bleachers for his 27th homer of the season. The next inning, Jorge Soler homered on a full-count fastball from Manaea, ending a seven-pitch at-bat and Manaea’s outing.
“Just a couple swings ended up being two runs for them,” Melvin said. “But he pitched deep into the game for us again, getting swings and misses, using all three pitches. And that’s a pretty good lineup that, other than two pitches, he did a great job against.”
Manaea said that after getting out of the third inning, he sat down in the dugout and told himself, “You’ve really got to focus here if you want to go more than three or four innings.” The fastball to Bryant, he said, was supposed to be away but ran right over the middle of the plate. The pitch to Soler, he said, was meant to be in with the same result.
“It was just those two mistakes that I left up and they made me pay,” Manaea said. “I felt like I, for the most part, did a pretty good job.”
Given the A’s offensive struggles this weekend, it was not good enough. Chicago added a run in the eighth on Rizzo’s RBI double off Marc Rzepczynski before Liam Hendriks kept the score from getting more lopsided by diffusing a bases-loaded situation. Still, Oakland has now lost eight of its last nine games, falling to a season-high 15 games under .500. The Cubs are trending in the other direction, winning their seventh straight Sunday to move 29 games over .500.
“We had some decent pitching performances, certainly today,” Melvin said. “But we couldn’t do enough offensively to put any pressure on them, score some more runs, give (the pitchers) some help.”