OAKLAND -- In the top of the fourth inning Friday, after John Jaso had drawn a walk to give the A’s their first baserunner of the game off Yankees right-hander David Phelps, Josh Donaldson came up and scorched a 3-1 pitch for a line drive to right field. The ball was hit so hard that right fielder Ichiro Suzuki caught it -- and toppled on his backside.
Suzuki caught the ball, though, and so it goes right now for Donaldson and a handful of members of the A’s lineup, which managed just two hits in a 7-0 shutout loss to Phelps and the Yankees in front of a sold-out Coliseum on Friday night. Donaldson went hitless in four at-bats and is now 0 for his last 27 -- the longest hitless streak of his career.
The struggles aren’t limited to Donaldson. John Jaso is 0 for his last 17. Jed Lowrie had a one-out double in the seventh Friday, but remains 5 for his last 33. Brandon Moss is 1 for his last 17. Derek Norris had the only hit aside from Lowrie’s double Friday, a soft single to left with two outs in the fifth.
"Sometimes it goes that way," manager Bob Melvin said of his offense, which scored just two runs in 23 innings in the first two games of their recent series in Los Angeles before winning the finale 7-1. "You’ll get hits in bunches and everybody’s hot, and sometimes it cools off as a club.
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"We’ve just got to keep grinding and try to do what we do best, which is make pitchers work -- even if we’re not getting hits, getting some guys on base. But we’ve been in a little bit of a funk for maybe a week or so."
The A’s didn’t make Phelps work too hard, especially for a pitcher who came in winless in his last four starts with a 6.57 ERA. Melvin said Phelps did a good job staying off the middle of the plate and mixing his cutters and sinkers. Moss also said Phelps didn’t do much to get himself into trouble, but that the A’s hitters didn’t force the issue.
"For as well as he pitched, he threw a lot of balls, which usually we take advantage of," Moss said. "But anytime we would get the pitch count up, we always seemed to have two strikes. Then we’d get a guy on and just couldn’t get anything going."
The A’s entered Friday second in the majors in runs scored and on-base percentage, and sixth in slugging percentage, so logic -- and the extent to which some of their best hitters are struggling -- certainly suggests the offense will even out. The remarkable thing about this stretch, though, is how many hitters seem to be hitting a funk at the same time.
It doesn’t get easier for the A’s tomorrow as they face veteran right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, who has allowed two hits in each of his past two starts against them. Kuroda has also given up just two earned runs in 16 innings in his two career starts at the Coliseum. One piece of positive news: The A’s don’t see 10-1 Masahiro Tanaka in this series.
"You’re going to have your hot times and your bad times," Moss said. "Just got to find a way to fight through those (bad) times -- and try to find a way to be productive at least sometimes during that."
* It wasn’t as consequential with the offense struggling, but A’s right-hander Sonny Gray endured another rocky outing where hitters got to him in the early innings. Gray allowed three consecutive singles to start the game, ultimately leading to two runs, and three more hits in the second inning, when the Yankees made it 3-0.
"That’s probably been his problem the last few times out, it’s been the starts, whether it’s ball-strike ratios, giving up some hits like he did tonight," Melvin said. "Good news was he settled in pretty well, but this was probably his most difficult start as far as giving up hits early on."
Gray has a 5.14 ERA this season in the first inning (eight runs in 14 starts), his second-highest of any inning except the fifth (10 runs in 14 starts). He was asked tonight if he can give any reason for why the early innings have given him trouble.
"I don’t think so," Gray said. "They put the ball in play early and I left a few balls up and they didn’t miss, took advantage of it. Like I said, they were aggressive. And once we were able to start making pitches down in the zone, we got them out. That was just a little too late."
After Derek Jeter’s single in the second inning, Gray retired the next 13 batters in a row, including striking out the Yankees’ 3-6 hitters in order during the fifth and sixth innings. Melvin said it looked like Gray was simply doing a better job later of not missing over the middle of the plate.
Gray said he "really just tried to slow myself down, focus on what we’ve been working on with (pitching coach Curt Young), and trusting my stuff and really not trying to do too much, not trying to make my stuff really, really nasty." He declined to get into specifics about what he has been working on with Young.
Ultimately, Gray did turn in a quality start -- six innings, three runs, seven strikeouts. It has been a theme of his most of the season where even when he has struggled early, Gray has managed to right the ship mid-start. He has failed to pitch at least six innings while allowing three or fewer just twice in his first 14 outings.
Moss was asked afterward about Gray struggling early and said: "You know, we’ve come to expect so much out of him, I think that’s unfair to say. … He didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled out there. And when a guy can go out and battle like that and not have his best stuff and give you six quality innings, limit the damage like he did, that’s a really good start. I thought he did a good job."
* Nick Punto, who was scratched from the lineup Friday, was walking around a large ice pack on his knee after the game. Andy Parrino, who started at second base after being re-called from Triple-A on Friday afternoon, went hitless in three at-bats but made a couple nice defensive plays, including starting an inning-ending double play on a ground ball by Jeter in the seventh.
* Jeter, incidentally, said before the game that he didn’t know what kind of reception to expect playing his final regular-season series at the Coliseum, where he’s arguably still best remembered for "The Flip" that helped beat the A’s in the 2001 ALDS. The answer Friday night: Overwhelmingly positive. Jeter was cheered loudly when he came to bat in the first inning, and after he singled in each of his first two plate appearances.
That may well be the result of a large contingent of Yankees fans in the sellout crowd, which included 1,000 standing-room only tickets sold for a total of 36,067. (It was also Fireworks Night at the yard -- always a big draw). But TV cameras appeared to show a few A’s fans applauding as well before Jeter’s first at-bat. There were also some boos when Jeter was lifted for pinch hitter Brendan Ryan in the ninth inning.
That came out looking like a smart move. A’s reliever Jim Johnson hit Ryan on the elbow with an inside pitch to start the inning, sending Ryan to the ground in pain briefly before he took first base, staying in the game. Jeter’s two singles Friday, meanwhile: Career hits number 3,378 and 3,379.
* A rough outing for Jeff Francis, who came on to pitch the eighth inning in a 3-0 game and allowed four runs on five hits, three of them to left-handed hitters. Incidentally, the Yankees have a lineup that allows them to play matchups in a similar way to the A’s. The only right-handed hitter Gray faced in the Yankees lineup Friday was Jeter -- New York also featured five left-handed hitters and three switch-hitters, with three righties and one switch-hitter on the bench.
* Johnson, incidentally, walked two to go along with his hit batter but didn’t allow a run. He has still given up 11 runs (10 earned) in his last 14 outings after an eight-appearance scoreless streak.
* The A’s are now 40-27 -- tied with Toronto for the most wins in the American League but still the best winning percentage by virtue of two fewer losses. They’ll try to even the series Saturday night behind Scott Kazmir (7-2, 2.20), while the Yankees counter with Kuroda (4-4, 4.12). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.