OAKLAND -- Much criticism of the A's Yoenis Cespedes-for-Jon Lester trade has been framed around its creating a certain void in the Oakland offense. Cespedes, people argue, was feared. He took pressure off the other A's hitters simply by being in the lineup, with opposing pitchers always cognizant of his ability to change games with one swing. And in big moments, Cespedes seemed to rise to the occasion, relishing the role of hero.
The A's needed one of those moments Sunday. And they got it from the player who was arguably the natural fit to assume Cespedes' role as "the guy" in the middle of the lineup -- Josh Donaldson, who lately has seemed just as susceptible as the rest of the A's hitters to the struggles plaguing the offense as a whole.
Donaldson, batting .200 in September going into Sunday's game, hit a two-run, walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the A's an 8-6 win over the Phillies and some needed momentum going into their final home series of the regular season, a three-game set against the Angels, who have the best record in baseball.
It came after the A's scored six runs in the first five innings -- equaling their total in their previous four games combined -- but still found themselves in a tied game after the sixth with starter Scott Kazmir continuing his own second-half struggles. It came after the A's had put the potential game-winning run on third base with one out in the ninth, on a Nick Punto triple, only to strand him as one of 12 runners left on base on the day.
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It was Donaldson's third home run in his last 35 games, after he'd slugged 25 in his first 116. But he has also now hit half of his 28 homers with runners on base. And 12 of them have put the A's ahead, with three sending them pouring onto the field celebrating a win.
"Donny loves the spotlight," closer Sean Doolittle said. "He likes being the guy. And you know great players, they want to be in those pressure situations with the team counting on them. And today he came through huge for us."
"He's a tough customer in big at-bats, there's no doubt about it," manager Bob Melvin said. "He embraces it. He wants to be the guy up there in those situations."
"Since I was a kid, that's just the moment I've always wanted to be in," Donaldson said. "And my teammates have definitely put me in some positions where I could help win the game."
Numbers support that Donaldson bears down with the opportunity to drive in runs. With runners in scoring position this season, he went into Sunday batting .306, and the average spiked to .362 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
There was only one out when he came up in the 10th inning Sunday against Phillies right-hander Miguel Gonzalez. But with speedy pinch-runner Billy Burns on first, Donaldson said he noticed Gonzalez speeding up his delivery and focused on looking for a location mistake. He got it -- a fastball up -- and hit it off the green facade just below the windows of the suites beyond the center-field wall.
"It was good to see, for a lot of different reasons," Melvin said. "A huge hit like that, a home run, JD in particular. And the way the game went back and forth, we kept battling, in certain situations guys came up really big for us. So a satisfying win."
And a timely one. With it, the A's won a series at home for the first time in a month and held onto their half-game lead for the top A.L. wild-card spot. They also picked up some momentum going into the Angels series, which not so long ago looked like it might have division implications, but now is crucial simply for the A's playoff livelihood.
"Momentum's a good thing, you want it on your side," Donaldson said. "We felt like we've been battling, and to be able to come through today and win the game, it's going to give us some momentum."
What can be the reverberations caused by one swing? The next week could show us. The A's have seven games remaining. Had they lost Sunday, it would have been their second consecutive series loss to a last-place team and another layer of frustration, given the fact the offense finally broke through and the A's still could not win without going into extra innings.
Instead, they were able to enjoy Sunday evening before the Angels' arrival. As Doolittle said, the A's right now are "still in the driver's seat, in that we don't have to scoreboard-watch as long as we take care of business."
They needed somebody to seal the deal Sunday. And Donaldson, with a swing, closed it.
The not-so-positive development Sunday: Kazmir's latest shaky outing, which saw him strike out nine but allow a season-high 11 hits while giving up six runs in 5 1/3 innings.
The numbers for Kazmir since the end of July, when he was 12-3 with a 2.37 ERA and coming off a trip to the All-Star Game, are not good. In 10 starts since Aug. 1, he's 2-6 and his ERA has risen to 3.63. He's winless in his last six starts, in which his ERA is a lofty 8.58.
"I thought his stuff was reasonably good again," Melvin said. "But with two outs there were some times they got some key hits off him. I don't think his stuff has diminished. His numbers haven't been as good recently, but his stuff still looks really good. It's just a matter of finishing it off and getting that third out."
The Phillies scored in two innings Sunday in which Kazmir got the first two outs of the inning before allowing a baserunner. But he pitched through traffic in every inning but the fifth, when he struck out the side, and said afterward the problem is "consistency."
"My body, everything feels great," he said. "It's just ... I'm not consistent out there. I can hit my spot, but it's a matter of doing it consistently. It's just something I haven't done.
"It seems like there's been quite a few pitches that have gotten hit that have been my secondary pitches, and I need to be able to bury (those) or get in a situation where I'm not going to be hurt by it. And it's been the complete opposite. It's been those secondary pitches that I leave right over the middle of the plate in counts that I'm ahead. That's the part that's really frustrating."
Kazmir said he doesn't think it's a mechanical issue, and emphasized that physically he's holding up despite nearing the 200-inning mark (he won't reach it before the end of the regular season, since he's at 183 1/3). Still, after being maybe the most consistent starter in the A's rotation in the first half, he's now searching for that quality at a crucial time.
How important was this game for the A's? Melvin used Doolittle for two innings in a tied game, and acknowledged he wouldn't have done so if the A's didn't need a win.
It helped that Doolittle got through the ninth on less than 15 pitches -- the limit Melvin said he and pitching coach Curt Young set before deciding to send Doolittle back for the 10th -- and was equally efficient in the 10th. He retired all six hitters he faced, four via strikeouts, and earned his second win.
"I felt great," Doolittle said. "I was ready for it. Kind of like we were saying (about Donaldson), when you're in that situation, you want to be the guy the team's counting on. I just went out and tried to get them back in the dugout as quickly as possible."
Shortstop Jed Lowrie left the game after the fourth inning with what the A's termed a left foot contusion. Lowrie fouled a ball off his foot in the first inning and stayed in for the next three. But Melvin said Lowrie looked limited going after a ball in the hole, and the A's decided to take him out.
"He's all right," Melvin said. "It just got him pretty good on the foot, and as a shortstop you have to have your range."
Quietly, catcher Geovany Soto had a key game for the A's filling in for Derek Norris, who took a bounced pitch off his chin Saturday and wasn't going in Sunday short of an emergency, Melvin said.
Soto drove in three runs with a two-run double and a bases-loaded walk, threw a runner out at second and blocked several pitches in the dirt with runners on. With the A's down to two serviceable catchers, and Norris down on Sunday, Soto's contributions were big.
"He had a good game all the way around," Melvin said. "He's here for a reason (and) he knew that game was his."
The A's held the half-game lead over the Royals and, perhaps more importantly, gained a game over the Mariners, who lost in Houston and are now two games behind the A's in the wild-card race. The Angels arrive on Monday. The pitching probables:
Monday: LHP C.J. Wilson (13-9, 4.42) vs. RHP Jeff Samardzija (4-5, 3.13)
Tuesday: LHP Wade LeBlanc (0-1, 5.24) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (13-9, 3.28)
Wednesday: LHP Hector Santiago (5-9, 3.98) vs. LHP Jon Lester (16-10, 2.41)