OAKLAND -- Thursday night, Twins second baseman Brian Dozier just missed a three-run home run when his drive off of A’s left-hander Jon Lester hooked inches outside the left-field foul pole. Friday night, with the A’s clinging to a 6-5 lead in the ninth, Twins pinch hitter Josh Willingham turned on a high fastball from closer Sean Doolittle -- and again hooked it just outside the left-field pole, missing a go-ahead, two-run homer by a few feet.
"I was joking after the game that so far this series our grounds crew’s done a great job of putting the foul pole in a good spot," Doolittle said. "So tip of the cap to them."
Doolittle froze Willingham on a 96 mile per hour fastball for strike three on his next pitch to secure a 6-5 win for the A’s, and in doing so set a couple of milestones for himself and the A’s bullpen. The save was Doolittle’s 18th of the season, the most by an A’s lefty in a single season. And the A’s bullpen has now gone 28 2/3 innings without allowing a run -- an Oakland-era record.
"It wasn’t really something we were thinking about," Doolittle said. "I think it’s going to be one of those things in a few months when the season’s over, it’ll be cool to look back on. But I think as a bullpen and as a team, we’ve got our sights set a little more in the present and with things moving forward."
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The bullpen, which hasn’t allowed a run in its last 14 games, contributed 2 1/3 scoreless innings Friday night that were critical after it looked early like they might not be needed at all. Scott Kazmir faced the minimum 18 hitters through six innings, but got in trouble in the seventh, allowing five runs as the Twins trimmed a 6-0 deficit to a one-run game.
Ryan Cook relieved Kazmir with two outs and a runner on third and allowed a double to Eduardo Nunez before striking out Jordan Schafer to end the inning. Luke Gregerson pitched a perfect eighth and Doolittle allowed a leadoff single to Kennys Vargas before retiring the next three hitters in order.
The bullpen began the day second in the American League in ERA (2.77) and opponents’ batting average (.219) and first in opponents’ on-base percentage (.275). And, of course, that’s factoring in the disastrous tenure of Jim Johnson, who had a 7.14 ERA in 38 games before being released. Cook has not allowed a run in 18 innings, Gregerson gave up his last run June 25 and Doolittle recorded his ninth scoreless outing in a row Friday.
"They’ve been on a roll, no doubt about it," Melvin said. "Since we kind of figured out what the roles were, they can prepare a little better, they know when the phone rings who’s coming in the game. It took us a little while to get there, but we’ve got a lot of quality down there and depth, the whole bit. It’s quite a feat."
Previously, the A’s record for saves by a left-hander belonged to Alan Embree, who had 17 in 2007. Doolittle said he wasn’t aware he’d set a new record until after the game, "So it wasn’t something I had been counting down or anything like that.
"I’m obviously really proud to be in the Oakland record books with the track record they have had here as far as bullpens go," Doolittle said. "But we’ve got a lot of work left to do this season.
"Hopefully it can be something I can look back on, and the run the bullpen’s had -- that can be something we can look back on at the end of the season and be really proud of when it’s all said and done."
* Kazmir was admittedly frustrated with how his night ended. He allowed only one hit in the first six innings and said he "felt like I was cruising the entire time." In the seventh, though, he left a two-strike pitch up to Danny Santana for a leadoff single, and went on to give up four hits and a walk in the inning, leaving with a runner on third and two out after Chris Parmelee lined a two-run double down the left-field line.
"Everything felt good delivery-wise," Kazmir said. "Then the seventh came around and pitches that needed to be quality in certain situations, I just left up."
The five runs were the most Kazmir has allowed in an inning this season. It was also the first time he has allowed a run after the sixth all year. All that said, he was still the pitcher of record for the win, improving to 13-4, and is now 5-0 with a 2.67 ERA over his last seven starts against the Twins.
"Maybe just got some balls up in the (seventh), which was completely the opposite of the way he was pitching the whole game," Melvin said.
"It was a little bit of a surprise he gave up some hits and gave up some runs there. But up until that point, it was as good as we’ve seen him pitch all year."
* It hasn’t been a banner 10 days for the A’s offensively, and the first four innings Friday looked like more of the same. They had two-out extra-base hits in the first and fourth but failed to drive those runners in, and stranded a two-out walk in the third as well.
"Their guy was really pitching well," Melvin said of Twins starter Kyle Gibson. "He was dealing."
The A’s, though, loaded the bases with nobody out in the fifth on two walks and another drag-bunt single by Sam Fuld. And Coco Crisp came up with the elusive big hit, lining a triple into the right-center field gap to clear the bases.
"Really the hit by Coco sent (Gibson) into a different direction," Melvin said. "A lot of times, there’s one or two at-bats over the course of a game that have a little more oomph behind them than others, and that was huge."
Crisp scored on a passed ball -- also important, given the final score -- and Eric Sogard drove in the A’s other two runs with a one-out double in the sixth. Looking much like a forgotten man in the clubhouse a few weeks ago, Sogard has quietly hit .333 since the All-Star Break (13-for-39) with 11 runs in 14 games. He hit just .186 with 18 runs in 63 games before the break.
Melvin constantly reminds us that the A’s are built to count on contributions from up and down the lineup, and to have Sogard hitting -- especially recently, with Jed Lowrie out a few games with a finger injury -- has been key. Sogard also drew the fifth-inning walk that loaded the bases for Crisp.
"It just seems like recently if we score that first run and get on the board, you feel like the starter can do his thing and the guys seem to have better at-bats after that," Melvin said.
* Sogard was also in the middle of the night’s defensive highlight, a 5-4-3 double play in the fifth. Josh Donaldson dove to his backhand side for a hard-hit ball from Kurt Suzuki, Sogard made the turn with Vargas bearing down on him and Stephen Vogt scooped a low throw from Sogard out of the dirt.
"That was huge," said Kazmir, who had just given up his first hit of the night to Vargas. "Being able to get a strikeout and then get the double play, get us back in the dugout quick, that was huge."
Crisp called it a "heck of a play" -- but sounded most impressed with Vogt’s pick at first base. Vogt, of course, is a catcher who has played mostly outfield in the minors and had never played first base in the majors before the A’s stuck him there earlier this year.
"He does an amazing job over there at first base," Crisp said. "Shocks me a little bit, you know, simply because he’s a good catcher, he’s good in the outfield, made a heck of a pick today at first. It’s tough to be a utility guy like that with limited experience in certain positions and be able to be a plus player at those positions. But he’s been doing a great job for us."
* The A’s are now a season-high 27 games over .500 and have run their winning streak against the Twins to 11 games, the longest in the Oakland era against Minnesota. They face a pitcher making his major-league debut Saturday evening in right-hander Trevor May. He’ll be opposing right-hander Jeff Samardzija (2-1, 3.09). First pitch at 6:05 p.m.