“It’s right there,” said A’s right-hander Jesse Chavez. “It’s just one play, one at-bat, one pitch, one cue-ball off the end of the bat – something that isn’t going our way.”
Saturday night it was Adam Eaton’s bunt with nobody on and two out in the seventh inning of a 2-2 game. A’s reliever Fernando Rodriguez came off the mound to field it, but his throw to first base sailed over Eaton’s head and down the right-field line. Eaton sped into third and scored on a single by Melky Cabrera, who scored when Jose Abreu hooked a double into left-center field off Rodriguez.
Like that, a tied score became a 4-2 White Sox lead. As they often have, the A’s narrowed their deficit to one when Billy Burns scored on a Josh Reddick double play in the eighth. And as in eight of their 11 losses prior to Saturday, this one ended with that margin of one run, a 4-3 dud on the first fireworks night of the season at the Coliseum.
The A’s have lost nine of 10 games overall. Their 13-25 record is the worst in the majors. Their 5-13 record at home matches the 1994 team for the worst start in Oakland history. They have lost 13 of 14 games decided by one run.
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“It’s typically a play or two late in games,” manager Bob Melvin said. “(Saturday) we have two outs, nobody on, bunt right back to the pitcher and all we’ve got to do is throw it to first, and end up throwing it away. And then the inning got away from us.”
That it happened in the seventh inning was all the more fitting. The A’s have now allowed 37 runs in the seventh inning in 38 games this season. It appeared Rodriguez, through his first handful of outings, could be a panacea for that problem. He has allowed two runs in each of his last two appearances.
“Clean innings, he’s been really good for us,” Melvin said. “It’s been innings when guys are on base. He gets two quick outs and has the opportunity to get three quick outs, and then unraveled a little bit afterwards. So we’re still obviously searching for what the right answer is in the seventh inning.”
Though Eaton’s bunt wasn’t particularly good, the play at first would have been close if Rodriguez had made a good throw, and Eaton was given a single with Rodriguez’s error accounting for the extra two bases. The A’s 38th error of the season extended their streak of games with at least one error to 13 – the longest in franchise history since they made errors in 13 consecutive games from April 7-21, 1983.
Rodriguez said, in hindsight, he probably should have held the ball instead of risking a poor throw. Having Eaton on third base, he said, “changes the whole game there. Guy’s on first, you can hold him on, keep him at second. It definitely changes everything with the approach, everything. Just made an awful decision there.”
To illustrate, Rodriguez said he thought he made “a pretty good pitch to Cabrera,” a high fastball that was “right where I wanted it.” But with Eaton on third, all Cabrera had to do was fight it off into shallow left field to score the run, which Cabrera did. “Maybe if (Eaton is) on first, at second, different approach, different pitch,” Rodriguez said, almost wistfully.
Rodriguez, like Melvin, said he had no real explanation for why the seventh inning has been such a pitfall for the A’s this season. It’s one reason why the A’s can’t get closer Sean Doolittle back soon enough. Doolittle in the closer role would allow Tyler Clippard – the A’s best reliever this season with a 1.69 ERA – to handle the eighth inning, giving Melvin more options to piece together the seventh.
“It’s just right now that inning seems to be the one that’s going against us,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully we can turn it around there and, whatever it is, hopefully we can figure out what it is and just get after it. It’s baseball. It’s one of those things that – no matter what you think it is, a lot of people can say it’s this, it can be that, you never know.”
▪ It hasn’t helped the seventh-inning issues that A’s starters other than Sonny Gray have combined to pitch into the seventh in just eight of 30 outings. Chavez got through the sixth Saturday, and did so preserving a 2-2 tie, though he threw 22 pitches in the second inning and 34 more in the third.
Chavez limited the damage, though, to a two-out, two-run single by Avisail Garcia in the third inning. He finished his final three innings on 29 pitches, stranding the potential go-ahead run on third base in the sixth by getting Alexei Ramirez to hit into a 6-4-3 double play. Chavez left the mound pounding his glove and pumping his fists.
“It was a lot of pitches, but he kept us right there in the game,” Melvin said. “It certainly wasn’t his doing.”
Chavez said his outing was “a battle all day, just within myself.” He felt himself “sitting on my back leg” and his front side “flying open” – two issues he said he felt a little bit in his last start and that were magnified in his laborious third inning.
“It’s weird how when that happens, those innings happen,” Chavez said. “And then the zeroes are the ones where everything’s in sync. It’s something I’ve kind of got to figure out before it’s too late.”
One encouraging aspect of Chavez’s outing, though, came on the radar gun. Chavez hit 95 mph in the second inning and was consistently around 93 with his fastball. The velocity jump isn’t a mirage. According to Brooks Baseball, even before Saturday, Chavez was averaging 94.33 mph on his fastball in May – his highest average in any month since 2012.
Chavez dedicated this offseason to putting on weight to stay strong into the second half, after he appeared to fall off in the second half of last season. But it seems as though that work is already paying dividends; Chavez said he feels stronger on the mound, and it’s showing up in his velocity.
“Yeah, I feel the effects of the offseason,” Chavez said. “It’s been there from pitch one to pitch 97 or 105, whatever the pitch count may be that day; I can feel it.”
▪ Billy Butler gave the A’s an early offensive jolt with his first home run since April 22, a two-run shot off of left-hander John Danks in the first inning. But Danks allowed just one more hit, a leadoff double by Brett Lawrie in the second, and the A’s did not have a hit from the third inning through the seventh.
“He had a good changeup, just enough cutters, kept us off-balance with the gap in the speeds of his pitches,” Melvin said of Danks.
After Reddick’s RBI double play in the eighth, Butler and Stephen Vogt both singled to put the tying run on second, but Lawrie lined out to center to end the threat.
Butler had his 12th multi-hit game of the season, but in his last 21 games he’s batting just .193. Melvin said the A’s need Butler to produce.
“We brought him in to be that right-handed power bat in the middle of the lineup,” said Melvin. “To hit a ball out of our place, to right-center on a cool night, means you have some power. But we do, we need production from the middle of the lineup. We’ve had some guys hurt, Ike (Davis) is still hurt. So he’s an important guy for us.”
▪ Melvin has maintained over the past few weeks that he believes the A’s are better than their record indicates. He was asked Saturday night if he still feels that way.
“The same,” he said. “I mean, when you’re in that many games, and you lose by one run that many times, certainly you expect to win more of them. We just haven’t, and we have to find a way to do it. It’s frustrating. A lot of times it feels like the same game, whether we come back to one run, or we give it up. We’re just not getting quite enough.”
Chavez said the players in the clubhouse are “still hungry.”
“That’s the thing, is you come in every day and make a ballgame, regardless of the night before didn’t go our way,” Chavez said. “One thing that’s really good about us right now is we haven’t dwelled on anything, which is amazing, as long as this has gone on. But it has to end at some point.”
One thing that won’t end Sunday is the fact the A’s haven’t won a series at home this season. They can salvage one game of this series, but will have to contend with a familiar face to do so. Right-hander Jeff Samardzija (2-2, 4.80) starts the finale for the White Sox against A’s left-hander Scott Kazmir (2-1, 2.78). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.