OAKLAND -- The A’s led 3-2 in the fourth inning Friday night and looked poised to add on. Back-to-back leadoff singles and a fly ball dropped by Houston Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler had given them the bases loaded with no outs, and the middle of the order coming up.
They couldn’t capitalize. Craig Gentry hit a chopper to third baseman Matt Dominguez, who threw home for one. And team RBI leader Josh Donaldson followed with nearly an identical ground ball, this time for an inning-ending, 5-2-3 double play. Hours later, that inning loomed as a costly missed opportunity, after Houston’s Chris Carter hit a two-run homer that proved decisive against his former team, and the A’s, with their 4-3 loss, fell to a season-high six games behind the Los Angeles Angels in the A.L. West.
After that fourth inning, the A’s managed just one more hit -- a leadoff single from Coco Crisp in the seventh -- in losing for the seventh time in eight games and the ninth in their last 12. Jeff Samardzija threw seven innings, struck out nine and did not issue a walk, but he did give up two home runs, including Carter’s 36th of the season in the sixth, and took his fourth loss in his last five starts.
"You can’t continue to put pressure on our pitching like this," manager Bob Melvin said. "If we can score some runs there (in the fourth), it’s a completely different game.
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"We already have a lead. If we can add on, certainly the tone of the game is a lot different going forward. But we don’t score anything there and now it puts more pressure on the pitching to be perfect and not give up any runs, and we end up giving up one more than we wanted to, obviously."
The A’s had capitalized on a similar situation just the inning before. After loading the bases with one out in the third on an Alberto Callaspo infield single and two walks, the A’s got a bloop single from Derek Norris that scored two runs when right fielder Jake Marisnick couldn’t field it cleanly. Two batters later, Adam Dunn chopped a two-out single off Astros starter Brett Oberholtzer -- Dunn’s ninth hit of the season against a left-hander -- that beat the shift into shallow right and scored another run.
Still, the A’s came away from Friday night’s loss having left eight men on base, six in innings two-through-four alone. And that more than Carter’s decisive home run was the source of Norris’ frustration after the game.
"We had many opportunities to put that game out of reach before (Carter’s homer) and we didn’t capitalize," Norris said. "You let teams hang around for long enough, they’re going to come through and they’re going to beat you. We had multiple opportunities to score more runs, and we didn’t."
Is there a solution? Norris acknowledged the A’s have let too many scoring chances get away from them recently -- "a ton" -- and basically reiterated what he said after their 2-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday.
"We’ve just got to be better," Norris said. "We’re getting opportunities on the table, and we’re not coming through with the hit to cash them in. Guys just have to search within to find themselves."
Norris said he didn’t think the A’s inability to score in the fourth caused any "here-we-go-again" thoughts in the dugout. "We’re not a negative team, and we never will be," he said. "We’ve just got to get back to believing in one another, whenever someone doesn’t do the job, we’ve got to count on the next guy to do it for us. I mean, that’s it."
They can’t do so soon enough. Along with falling six games out of first place on Friday, the A’s loss shrunk their lead for the top wild-card spot to just two games over Seattle. This series against the Astros appeared to be one where the A’s could make hay before going on the road for a week, including three games against the Mariners. Now they must win both remaining games just to take the series.
"We understand what’s at stake and where we’re at, how things are going," Samardzija said. "We’re trying to find that happy zone of not trying to press too hard and have fun, but also understand that we need to do things a little differently.
"Everyone’s going to keep playing in here. We’ve got a lot of gamers in here, and a lot of baseball left to be played."
* Tomorrow’s print story is actually on Carter and his quiet chase for MLB’s home run crown this season, and doesn’t that look timely now. Carter continued his assault against his former team this season -- in 16 games, he has hit seven home runs and driven in 20 runs, his highest totals against any team.
Carter said it’s "always exciting" for him to come back to the Coliseum, but that there’s no added personal motivation playing the A’s, despite the numbers. "I mean, it’s nice to get wins against them," he said. "It’s good beating them -- it’s good for the team that we beat the Angels, and we beat them too, the top two teams in our division and in baseball."
The former A’s minor-leaguer has been on a tear in the second half. In his last 50 games, he’s batting .292 with 21 homers and 50 RBIs. He now has 36 home runs on the season, one behind MLB leader Nelson Cruz. He has also homered in each of the last four games against the A’s.
With the Astros down 3-2 in the sixth and Jose Altuve on first, Carter won an eight-pitch at-bat against Samardzija by hitting a 97 mph fastball, low and away, nearly to the luxury suite windows in left-center field.
"You wish you could just go back and maybe choose a different pitch, but that’s the way this game goes," Samardzija said. "You live and die with what your choices are out there but it’s definitely one I’d like to have back, maybe mix a slider or sinker away. We had thrown some fastballs by him earlier in the game and I thought it was a good choice."
And it wasn’t necessarily a bad pitch. Norris set up away and Samardzija appeared to hit the target. But Carter, with a quick and seemingly effortless swing, crushed the ball.
"It was a good pitch," Norris said. "I still don’t know how he hit the ball out where he did, how far he did."
A’s stats guru David Feldman tweeted that Carter’s seven home runs against the A’s this season are the most an ex-Oakland player has ever hit against the team in one season. It wouldn’t surprise Norris, who candidly said that Carter looks like a different hitter now than in years past and even the first half of this season.
"He’s obviously made some adjustments since he played here and even last year and even since the first half," Norris said. "I don’t know what he changed or what approach he’s going with now, but I mean, he’s become a real tough out. You used to be able to throw him sliders all day and he’d just swing and miss 400 times in a row."
After getting ahead 0-2, Samardzija did throw two sliders in the dirt, but Carter laid off of both of them. Norris said that when the count went full, he asked for a "good down-and-away fastball."
"He located it," Norris said, "and that one’s on me."
* Samardzija also allowed a solo homer to Jon Singleton in the third inning, and has now given up 11 home runs in his 12 starts with the A’s after allowing just seven in 18 starts for Chicago before the July trade that brought him to Oakland.
The result, at least Friday: Samardzija, by both his and Melvin’s account, had some of his best stuff since the trade but was still saddled with a loss largely due to those two swings.
"I think the last three (outings), I’ve had some really good stuff," Samardzija said. "The long ball bit me today. That’s really the best way to put it.
"You can have a great day out there, feel really good (and) a couple pitches can jump up and bite you, and that’s what happened tonight."
The encouraging side for Samardzija and the A’s is that in his last three starts he’s thrown 23 innings and struck out 28 batters, an indication that the right-hander has good feel for his put-away splitter right now. He has gone 1-2 in those three starts, however. Melvin pointed to the missed scoring opportunities Friday, but the A’s did stake Samardzija to a 3-1 lead after three innings, and ultimately it was given back.
"You wan to be that guy that goes out and changes things, and I wanted to do that today," Samardzija said. "I had my opportunity, and like I said, if I could have that one (pitch to Carter) back, I’d enjoy it. But that’s the way it goes, and you live with it and get ’em next time."
* Dunn had just 52 at-bats against left-handers before Friday, but was in the lineup facing Oberholtzer with the A’s looking for an offensive spark. Overall, Dunn held his own. He was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat and came through with the two-out RBI single in the third before flying out in the fifth and striking out against left-handed reliever Tony Sipp in the eighth.
The A’s are scheduled to face another left-hander Sunday in Dallas Keuchel and could see multiple lefties during their following four-game series against the Chicago White Sox -- Dunn’s former team. It will be interesting to see if Melvin continues to bend his platoon rules to keep Dunn -- 5-for-11 with five RBIs in four game with the A’s and one of their few hitters producing right now -- as part of the lineup.
* One more note from Melvin, who was asked about Donaldson appearing to be slow getting out of the batter’s box on the inning-ending double play in the fourth:
"He’s dealt with some hip and leg things recently, but there wasn’t a lack of effort," said Melvin. "He was trying to get down the line. You hit a ground ball to third, a lot of times you screw yourself into the ground getting out of the box, and get out a little slower."
* Meanwhile, in Boston on Friday night, Yoenis Cespedes gave the Red Sox a walk-off comeback win with an RBI single in the 10th inning. Those still steaming about the A’s Cespedes-for-Jon Lester trade will enjoy this stat, tweeted by a member of the Red Sox media relations staff: Cespedes has played in 32 games for Boston since the trade, and already leads the team with six hits that either tied the game or put the Red Sox ahead in the seventh inning or later.
* On that note, it’s a quick turnaround to game two of this series. It’ll be Houston right-hander Scott Feldman (8-10, 4.09) against A’s left-hander Scott Kazmir (14-7, 3.39). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.