OAKLAND -- A quirky fact about John Jaso: Before Friday night, the A’s catcher, who’s in his second season playing in Oakland and has spent his whole career in the American League, had never hit a home run at the Coliseum. That was in 47 games in Oakland, the third-most he’d played in any stadium and by far the most at a single building where he hadn’t homered.
Jaso erased the homerless streak Friday night with a solo shot off Nationals right-hander Doug Fister. He then made it two in two days with a third-inning home run Saturday off Washington’s Tanner Roark. And he thought he had a third in the 10th inning, when he drove a fastball from Drew Storen to right field in a 3-3 game.
"I don’t know if the wind shifted or what, but I thought I hit it harder than the other two," Jaso said.
This ball instead ricocheted off the out-of-town scoreboard in right field, above the leap of the Nationals’ Nate McLouth. But with pinch runner Nick Punto taking off from first base, and as McLouth saw the ball bounce away from him back toward the infield, it was enough to cap a furious late rally by the A’s and give them a 4-3 walk-off win.
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After managing just one other hit besides Jaso’s homer against Roark in 7 2/3 innings, the A’s scored twice in the ninth against Washington closer Rafael Soriano, who had entered the game with a 25-inning scoreless streak. Jaso led off the ninth with a single and scored on a double by Jed Lowrie, who then scored when Josh Donaldson singled, tying it 3-3.
Alberto Callaspo led off the 10th with a single off Storen, and after Eric Sogard popped out trying to bunt and Daric Barton flew out, Jaso hit the first pitch for his fourth career walk-off RBI. It earned him the customary pie in the face from Josh Reddick, remnants of which outlined his face as he addressed reporters in the clubhouse.
Jaso said he opened up his stance slightly before his last at-bat knowing Storen throws a harder fastball than he’d seen in his previous at-bats Saturday. "I’d been seeing 89 to 91, and I knew I needed to do a little something to cheat, or else he would have blown me away with the first pitch and gone to his secondary stuff," Jaso said.
Storen didn’t get that chance. The double capped a 3-for-5 day for Jaso, who homered in consecutive games for just the second time in his career. He also did it Aug. 10-11, 2012, while playing for the Rays.
"Every swing he squared up today," manager Bob Melvin said. "Sometimes certain guys come up key in a game where you don’t get too many hits and he did most of the damage. You have a good feeling about him when he’s up there after having good swings every time up."
That the A’s mounted a comeback against the Nationals’ bullpen was impressive in itself. Washington entered the game with the third-best bullpen ERA in the majors at 2.13, and Soriano hadn’t blown a save since last August. His streak of 25 scoreless innings was the longest of his career and longest in Nationals history by a reliever.
Plus, the A’s had done next to nothing against Roark, a right-hander who had a complete-game shutout against San Diego on April 26, but had allowed seven runs in four innings to the Phillies in his last start.
"We did hit some balls pretty hard (off Roark)," Jaso said. "Me and (Eric Sogard) one inning hit two line drives right at the center fielder and both got caught. So a guy just gets in a groove like that and stuff starts going his way. Those kinds of days, that’s when you want to get in the bullpen and change up the momentum. When there’s a different guy on the mound, you kind of get that feel."
Regardless of who the guy is on the mound, Jaso has been seeing pitches well lately -- in his last nine games, he’s batting .428 (12-for-28) after hitting .115 in the 10 games before that. Interestingly, catcher is probably the position where Melvin is most strict about his platoon -- and the position where both halves are performing the best right now. Righty Derek Norris popped out in a pinch-hit appearance Saturday, but he’s still batting .378.
"I think both of us do a pretty good job with the way we take BP," Jaso said. "When we aren’t playing, it’s not home run derby time -- it’s a game approach kind of situation, letting the ball travel, hitting it, squaring it up, seeing contact, that kind of stuff.
"When people don’t play every day, they start goofing around in BP and everything. But I think we both keep professional kinds of days off."
The A’s face a left-hander in Gio Gonzalez in the series finale on Sunday, which means Norris is likely to start behind the plate. It’ll be interesting to see if Melvin keeps Jaso in the lineup as his designated hitter. Melvin might hold Jaso out as a late-game option for matchups, but at this point, few players are swinging it better.
* The ninth-inning rally was startling given how quickly it happened and how equally quickly the A’s hitters had gone down for most of the game. It also featured key hits from two players who have struggled on the homestand -- Lowrie entered his at-bat against Soriano with three hits in his last 25 at-bats, and Donaldson was in a 4-for-23 stretch before his RBI single.
"When you get down to situations like that, you kind of put away the potential struggles and it’s just a grind at that point," Melvin said. "You know you have to give your best at-bat and it’s all about the adrenaline and the moment."
* The rally got Sonny Gray off the hook for the loss despite Gray pitching pretty well outside of a four-batter stretch in the third inning. The Nationals scored three times with one out as Danny Espinosa homered, Zach Walters singled, Denard Span singled and Kevin Frandsen drove in both Walters and Span with a double to the gap in left-center.
"I was behind in the count a little and they jumped on the fastball when they saw it," said Gray. "Other than the home run, I don’t think they were awful pitches … I was in fastball counts and gave them the fastball, and they hit it hard."
Gray suggested that being unfamiliar with the Nationals’ hitters tendencies, he was going to his fastball often early on. After seeing them be aggressive against the fastball, he tried to mix things up more. Jaso credited Gray for having a "mature approach."
"They were hitting his fastball, but it wasn’t like he came back and was saying, ‘Well I’m going to blow this fastball by him this time,’" Jaso said. "He went to other stuff and then came back to his fastball."
After getting out of the third, Gray gave up just two more hits while completing seven innings. The three earned runs matched his season high. One encouraging sign, though, was that he retired the side in order in the first inning and faced the minimum through two -- usually this season, Gray’s bouts of wildness have come in the early innings.
"Usually he works his way into a rhythm," Melvin said. "(Today) he hit a little bit of a speedbump in the fourth where they got some decent swings off him, but like he does, after that he comes back out there and does his thing and keeps you in the game."
* Since allowing four runs without getting an out April 26 in Houston, Sean Doolittle has pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings, giving up three hits and striking out 11. He needed just 17 pitches to get through the ninth and 10th innings Saturday and received his first win of the season. His ERA is inching down, too -- from 6.17 after the Houston blow-up to 3.79.
* The A’s are now 8-6 in games decided in the last at-bat, the most such wins in the A.L. They also have five wins in games where they trailed after seven innings, one more than their total from all of last season.
They’ll go for a sweep of the Nationals tomorrow in what promises to be a good matchup of left-handed starting pitchers. It’s Scott Kazmir (4-1, 2.64) against Gio Gonzalez (3-2, 2.91). Gonzalez, of course, began his career with the A’s and recalled yesterday that his Coliseum debut and first major-league win came Aug. 12, 2008 against the Tampa Bay Rays -- whose starting pitcher that day was Scott Kazmir. First pitch at 1:05 p.m.