OAKLAND -- A’s manager Bob Melvin had a simple explanation for batting infielder Danny Valencia, who was picked up off waivers from the Blue Jays last week, cleanup against the Houston Astros and their ace Dallas Keuchel on Friday night: In nine career at-bats against Keuchel entering the game, Valencia had five hits, including a home run.
Valencia then made his manager look good, reaching base in his first three at-bats Friday and hitting a third-inning homer off Keuchel in the A’s 3-1 win for his first home run in an Oakland uniform. Valencia’s career numbers against Keuchel, one of the best pitchers in the American League, now read: 7-for-11, two home runs, four RBIs.
"Obviously he sees the ball pretty well off him," Melvin said, "which, I would say, the majority of the American League does not."
It was a good night for Valencia -- who also made several nice plays at third base -- and for the A’s lineup overall, which collected 10 hits against Keuchel, who came in with the second-lowest WHIP in the American League behind his counterpart Friday night, Sonny Gray.
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The A’s built a second-inning rally on singles by Josh Phegley, Marcus Semien and Mark Canha, scoring their first run on a Billy Burns sacrifice fly. Valencia’s third-inning homer gave Gray all the support he needed, and the A’s added an insurance run in the fifth when Phegley doubled down the right-field line with two outs to drive in Brett Lawrie.
In two previous starts against the A’s this season, Keuchel had allowed just eight hits in 16 innings. Melvin said the A’s had a better approach Friday night.
"You really have to stay the other way with him," Melvin said. "With that sinker, if you try to pull him, you’re going to wear the shortstop and third baseman out all game long. I thought at least early on, our approach was pretty good trying to shoot it the other way."
Phegley said he made a conscious effort to do that after grounding out to the left side "about seven at-bats" his first two times facing Keuchel. It helped that the Astros were shifting their infield to the left side against Phegley, playing against his natural tendency to pull the ball and leaving gaps toward right field.
"I think we all kind of figured we had to," Phegley said of the opposite-field approach. "I’m mainly a pull guy, you could tell by the way they were playing me, and it just hasn’t worked against him. I was like, ‘I’m just going to try to shoot that hole they had for me over there,’ and it worked out."
Melvin sounded a little surprised, given the natural action of Keuchel’s sinker running away from right-handers, that the Astros did play some of the A’s hitters to pull. He said Keuchel appeared to start pitching inside more in the middle innings, using his cutter, so the left-hander realized the A’s approach and made an adjustment.
"Next time around they probably make some adjustments or do some things a little bit differently," Melvin said. "That’s why he’s a great pitcher. But that was our best approach off of him."
The A’s brought Valencia in to bolster their lineup against left-handed pitching, and he played a big role as they improved their record against left-handed starters this season to 9-20. Valencia’s home run came on a 2-2 pitch that Keuchel appeared to leave up, and he said he was "battling at that point in a 2-2 count. It was definitely more of a defensive swing, to be honest."
Asked about his numbers against Keuchel, Valencia shrugged.
"He’s very tough," Valencia said. "The numbers, a lot of that’s luck sometimes. You get some pitches to hit and you capitalize on it. But he pitches great, he’s very tough. He’s a very tough at-bat every time I’m in there. I feel like I’m always battling."
* Valencia also made a difficult over-the-shoulder catch running into foul territory to end the seventh inning -- and said he’d received some advice about navigating the vast foul ground at the Coliseum from a familiar face while in Toronto: Josh Donaldson.
"I talked to JD about it and (he said) you can’t give up on balls here," Valencia said. "Especially with the wind -- it’s very windy out there, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. You can’t give up on anything."
Valencia also made two sharp grounders in the sixth inning look like routine plays, and started an important 5-4-3 double play to end the eighth that allowed Gray to go back out and pitch the ninth. While Valencia has some of the defensive versatility the A’s covet, Melvin said third base is Valencia’s natural position, and he played a key role Friday.
"Really glad we got him," Gray said. "You don’t really pick up guys like that just out of the blue. He’s a really talented player and he adds some pop in the middle of the order for sure."
* Phegley joked that ahead of the Gray-Keuchel matchup, some of the A’s players were talking about "maybe getting a pool together of how short the game would be." Phegley said his guess would have been "right around two hours." It ended up at 2:20, a breeze compared to Thursday night’s 10-inning affair that lasted more than 3:30.
"Those guys just pound the strike zone," Phegley said. "They challenge everybody."
* Gray took a comebacker off his leg in the fifth inning and was checked by trainers for a brief moment before staying in the game. He said the ball caught him "in a good spot on my calf," but he was fine. He recovered quickly enough to chase the ball down and throw out Preston Tucker at first base.
* The follow-up to Friday’s marquee pitching matchup: A’s right-hander Jesse Chavez (5-11, 3.88) vs. Astros right-hander Collin McHugh (13-5, 4.27). OK, it’s not quite as intriguing. But McHugh is tied for the league lead in wins, and Chavez is trying to right a second half that has not gone well so far. First pitch at 1:05 p.m.