OAKLAND – Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro had already hit third base and turned for home by the time Yoenis Cespedes gathered Alfonso Soriano's single to left field in the fourth inning of a scoreless game Thursday. So when the ball arrived at the plate before the runner, there might have been nobody more surprised than Castro.
"I thought I was going to be easy safe," Castro said.
Instead, A's catcher Derek Norris fielded the one-hop strike from Cespedes, who made a rapid exchange of the ball from his glove to throwing hand, and tagged the sliding Castro to preserve the tie.
Soriano's turned out to be the lone hit surrendered in seven innings by A's starter Dan Straily as Oakland won 1-0 without the benefit of an earned run when Norris scored on a passed ball in the seventh inning.
Castro wasn't the only person at O.co Coliseum who thought he'd given the Cubs the lead.
"I didn't think (Cespedes) had a chance," said A's manager Bob Melvin. "He made the right throw – it was down and could've been cut off. But when the ball was hit, I didn't think he had a chance of throwing him out. It was a spectacular throw."
Melvin said Cespedes' arm is such that "a lot of times you'll see teams not even try to send the runner right there."
As a National League team, the Cubs likely don't have the familiarity with the A's outfielders that an American League team would. Castro said he hadn't seen Cespedes throw, but his surprise came largely from the fact that Soriano hit the ball so softly it didn't seem likely there would even be a play at the plate.
"I never said, OK, I'm out because I stopped," Castro said. "I run hard right away. I'm surprised he (threw) me out."
Norris said he expected a close play. "Anywhere the runner is, I know (Cespedes) has got a shot. He's got that good of an arm. He put it on the button."
Straily, who was backing up the throw, gave a fist pump that mirrored plate umpire Brian Gorman's out call. "I was pretty excited about it," Straily said.
Straily, then, had to be downright tickled when, two pitches later, Norris threw out Soriano trying to steal second after Soriano had neglected to advance on Cespedes' throw. From there, Straily faced 10 more batters and retired nine, allowing only a two-out walk in the sixth.
The A's had recalled Straily from Triple-A Sacramento earlier in the day to pitch against Chicago. That was two days earlier than they'd initially planned his return to the rotation, with Jarrod Parker having his next start pushed back to Saturday. Straily, who made one start for the River Cats during his brief minor-league visit, responded by allowing a career-low one hit and striking out six in arguably his best major-league outing.
"He looked like he wanted to come out today and make a statement that he deserves to be here," Norris said.
Straily, who needed just 87 pitches to complete seven innings, said he and Norris were in a groove that allowed him to shake off his catcher only once, in the first inning. With one out in the second, he walked Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, prompting a discussion with Norris.
"I went out and told him, 'Listen, you've got to own the mound,' " Norris said. "Get on the mound and show these guys who you are, and show this coaching staff and front office what you can do. He got out there and made a statement and did a great job."
Straily threw his final pitch still in line for a no-decision. In the bottom of the seventh, though, Norris drew a two-out walk and moved to third on Seth Smith's single. Pinch hitter Eric Sogard swung and missed at Cubs reliever Matt Guerrier's 0-1 pitch, but it skipped under catcher Welington Castillo's glove, and Norris sprinted home with the game's lone run.
Castillo said Guerrier "made a really good pitch and I just didn't read it good out of his hand."
For Norris, the play had an element of redemption. Before drawing the walk, he had missed a hit-and-run sign that led to Chris Young being thrown out at second base for the second out of the inning.
Norris said he tried to forget the mistake quickly, but grinned when asked if having that in the back of his mind fueled his race for home.
"Maybe a little motivation trying to make up for it," he said.