The A’s clubhouse had mostly emptied Sunday afternoon and closer Tyler Clippard still sat at his locker in his white uniform pants, shoulder wrapped in ice, staring quietly ahead. Shortly before, Clippard had allowed a bases-loaded, two-run double to the Astros’ Evan Gattis in the ninth inning that proved the difference in the A’s 7-6 loss to Houston, their fourth defeat in a row.
“I got it eye-level,” Clippard said of the 1-2 fastball he threw to Gattis, who managed to get on top of the pitch and drive it over Sam Fuld’s head in center field. “For a guy to be able to catch up to that at his eyes, it’s not an easy thing to do. I can think of three times it’s happened (to me), and today was the third time.”
Catcher Stephen Vogt was also left shaking his head by a swing he called “unbelievable.” Gattis had swung wildly and missed at a high fastball to fall behind 0-2. So Clippard and Vogt went back to the pitch three more times. Gattis took one, fouled the next back and beat the A’s on the third.
“I would not change one thing about it,” Vogt said of the pitch sequence. “You elevate there and if he’s going to chase, the worst thing in the world is he hits a medium fly ball, not tomahawks a double off the center-field wall.”
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So it goes for the A’s, though, that even a thought-out, executed pitch ends up hurting them. The A’s took leads of 2-0 and 6-5 and gave both of them back. They received three scoreless innings from a beleaguered bullpen, with Clippard coming in to record the final out of the eighth and strand two runners, only to see the bullpen get charged with its sixth loss. Two unearned Houston runs – the difference in the game – scored in the third inning following the A’s majors-leading 20th error of the season.
“We did a lot of good things right today,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We’re doing just enough to lose games right now.”
Melvin watched most of the game from the clubhouse after being ejected in the fourth inning by plate umpire Quinn Wolcott for arguing balls and strikes. The pitch that got him ejected was a close 2-2 pitch by Drew Pomeranz to Jason Castro that Wolcott ruled a ball. After Melvin was tossed, Pomeranz walked Castro and surrendered a home run to Jake Marisnick that gave Houston a 5-2 lead.
The A’s tied it in the bottom of the inning, though, with a two-run single by Brett Lawrie and a single from Craig Gentry that scored Lawrie – two players who are off to bad starts offensively. Gentry’s single was just his second hit of the season, but it re-energized the Coliseum. Gentry then gave the A’s a lead in the seventh when he walked, advanced on Fuld’s sacrifice bunt and scored on Marcus Semien’s line-drive single to left.
Evan Scribner allowed consecutive one-out singles in the eighth, but struck out Marwin Gonzalez and then gave way to Clippard, who got Castro to fly out to preserve the lead. But things went awry in the ninth. Marisnick led off with a single. Jose Altuve then hit a sharp grounder to Lawrie at third, who threw to second base. But Marisnick was running on the pitch and slid in ahead of Lawrie’s throw, which got away from Semien.
“Even if (Semien) comes up with the ball, he’s probably safe,” Melvin said. “But your instincts tell you the ball’s hit hard enough, and that’s what (Lawrie’s) instincts told him to do.”
Clippard struck out George Springer and intentionally walked Jed Lowrie to set up the double play. But Gattis beat his 1-2 fastball to center field, where Fuld seemed to freeze before breaking back and watching the ball carry over his head. Fuld said he was playing shallow to have a better shot at throwing out the potential tying run at home on a hit in front of him.
“That’s the toughest ball is a line drive hit right at you,” Melvin said. “Tell you the truth, if he breaks straight back, it’s still questionable whether he’s going to catch that ball.”
It was the A’s sixth loss this season in their opponents’ last at-bat, and although it’s early in the season, they are four games below .500 for the first time since July 1, 2012. The A’s are winless in seven day games and trail the Astros in their season series 4-2 after losing just four of the teams’ 19 meetings two seasons ago.
Perhaps most striking, the A’s are 0-8 in games decided by two runs or less, an area where the team has thrived in recent seasons. Melvin summed up the difference so far in 2015 in two areas – shaky relief pitching and defense. Fuld said the stretch “kind of reminds me of the way things went last year” in the second half, when the A’s lost 33 of their final 55 games to stumble into the wild-card game.
“Just coming up short,” he said. “You expect it to happen to a degree, but you also expect it to work in your favor, too. And it doesn’t seem like we’re winning those close ones.”