OAKLAND -- The A's 6-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday featured two pitching outings that were very much unlike how those pitchers have performed in the past month. One was costly, but the other was nearly encouraging enough to overshadow the loss.
The latter belonged to starter Jason Hammel, who went 6 1/3 innings, allowing one run on four hits. It was the second strong outing in a row by Hammel, the right-hander who over his first four starts with the A's after arriving via trade in early July went winless with a 9.53 ERA.
Hammel has given up just one earned run in 12 innings over his last two starts, with the lone damage against him Sunday being a first-inning home run by Brian Dozier. After that, Hammel didn't allow another runner into scoring position until the seventh inning, and he recorded 13 of his final 14 outs by either groundout or strikeout.
The right-hander attributed the latter number to better command of his fastball and slider to the "bottom of the zone. First few starts, everything was up -- even my slider, when I was missing, was up. If I can continue to work the ball down in the zone, that's when I'm at my best. That's when I'm getting ground balls, the two seamer's working, and you can pitch off of that."
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Manager Bob Melvin said that in his eyes, Sunday was "the best (Hammel has) pitched" since joining the A's. "Ball was down in the zone, mix of pitches was good, slider was sharper. After the second, we saw a lot of ground balls, and that's typically the way he pitches when he's on."
Tomorrow's print story focuses on the recent improvements from Hammel, who admitted that his struggles immediately after the trade were a likely product of trying too hard to prove to the A's and their fans that his acquisition had been worthwhile. Hammel said he told himself to "stay the course," difficult as that was early on, and that mentally pressing led itself to some bad mechanical habits that he's now working out of.
One other note, though: Sunday was the first time since joining the team Hammel worked with catcher John Jaso, and the two seemed to click quickly. Hammel also pitched well in his last start with Derek Norris behind the plate, but acknowledged the two catchers call slightly different games.
"Some guys are more fastball-heavy, attack with the fastball, and obviously it's my game so if I don't want to throw something I'll shake it," Hammel said. "Jaso will throw in a little more off-speed here and there. But it's all depending on exactly what I'm doing that day. It was nice to be able to click so quickly with (Jaso), hopefully we keep it going."
Hammel said his slider is typically his go-to pitch, and that's something Jaso picked up on from talking with Hammel before Sunday's start. Although Hammel did miss with a few sliders in the dirt, Jaso said the pitch "was a good pitch to get him back to where he needs to be mechanically." As a result, Jaso said he made a point of calling for the slider even when Hammel was behind in counts.
"I think that was pretty much it," Jaso said, "was keeping him smooth and keeping him confident."
The other out-of-character outing belonged to reliever Luke Gregerson, who entered a 1-1 game in the eighth inning and allowed three runs on an RBI double by Kurt Suzuki and a two-run homer by Josh Willingham. They were the first runs allowed by Gregerson since June 25 -- a span of 15 consecutive outings without one.
Both RBI hits came on sliders to right-handers. Melvin said it looked like the pitch that Willingham hit was "probably more middle than anything," and that he considered this simply a bad day at the office for Gregerson.
"I don't know how you can be much better than he's been for the better part of a month and a half," Melvin said. "Probably a couple guys sat on a couple pitches and got them. ... But he's been terrific."
After setting an Oakland-era record of 28 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings earlier in this series, the A's bullpen had an off final two days. Dan Otero snapped that streak Saturday night, allowing two runs in an inning, and after Gregerson's inning Sunday, Jesse Chavez gave up two runs in the ninth, one on a bases-loaded walk, while throwing 42 pitches.
The A's offense, meanwhile, is still searching for consistency. After scoring nine runs in their win Saturday night, they were held to a Stephen Vogt RBI single in the first on Sunday by Twins right-hander Phil Hughes and two relievers.
"He was good," Vogt said of Hughes. "Had a good cutter working, used his curveball effectively. He did a good job of changing eye (levels), going up, going down, used his backdoor cutter well to punch a couple of us out. When he's on, he's a good pitcher."
One hitter who's really struggling right now is Brandon Moss, who went hitless with two strikeouts Sunday and finished the homestand with a 2-for-28 line. Moss is 4-for-44 over his last 12 games and struck out with runners on first and third with one out in the eighth Sunday, part of a 1-for-8 day by the A's with runners in scoring position.
Moss is going to have his share of strikeouts, but Melvin said that it looks like "a little more here recently, (Moss is) chasing some pitches.
"A lot of times when you're going through this type of slump you're swinging at some pitches out of the zone, and he's usually very good about swinging at pitches in the zone, waiting for his pitch up to two strikes," Melvin said.
"For a guy that we expect so much of, and he's been there -- it's just been a bit of a funk for him. He'll get out of it, though."
Hammel escaped with just the one run allowed with a big assist from reliever Fernando Abad, who replaced Hammel with runners on first and third and one out in the seventh. With Jordan Schafer up, the Twins appeared to put on a squeeze play but Schafer missed the bunt and Eduardo Nunez was tagged out in a rundown between third base and home.
Abad then struck out Schafer to end the inning and preserve what was then a 1-1 tie. For the season, Abad has now inherited 21 runners and allowed none of them to score. That's the most stranded by a major-league reliever this season who hasn't allowed an inherited runner to score.
"Steak dinner for Abad, for sure," Hammel said.
Despite the loss, the A's maintained their four-game lead over the Angels in the West, thanks in part to an old teammate. The Angels lost to the Red Sox, 3-1, on Sunday, with Yoenis Cespedes providing the decisive blow with a three-run homer.
The four-game lead is the A's largest since July 8. Recently, it's seemed like the Angels' games have been showing up more regularly on the TV in the A's clubhouse -- but Jaso said it's still too early to be obsessing over standings.
"Can't really worry about what the Angels are doing, because if we start looking at that, it's like, 'Oh, we've got a pretty good lead here, we can kind of start Cadillac-ing," Jaso said. "Then the panic starts setting in when stuff starts getting bad. So it's just worrying about us, preparation and all that good stuff."
The A's are now on their way to Kansas City to start a three-game series with the Royals on Monday evening. Where late-summer trips to Kansas City may have once seemed not so daunting, that's not the case right now: The Royals have been the hottest team in the majors the last 10 days, winning 9 of 10 and seven in a row.
The pitching probables:
Monday: RHP Sonny Gray (12-5, 2.87) vs. RHP Yordano Ventura (9-8, 3.47)
Tuesday: LHP Jon Lester (12-7, 2.44) vs. RHP Jeremy Guthrie (8-9, 4.35)
Wednesday: LHP Scott Kazmir (13-4, 2.73) vs. LHP Jason Vargas (8-5, 3.68)