All season, the A’s poor record in one-run games derived largely from the struggles of their bullpen. Those problems surfaced again Sunday, as the A’s took a two-run lead into the ninth inning against the Houston Astros and gave it back in the span of three batters. Only this time, Oakland buried that narrative with a ninth-inning rally of its own, with newest acquisition Danny Valencia playing the hero again.
Valencia’s two-out, bases-loaded single capped the A’s comeback against Houston closer Luke Gregerson and gave Oakland a dramatic 5-4 win, their third in a row over the first-place Astros. In each of those wins, Valencia played a key offensive role, collecting six hits in 11 at-bats and driving in five runs during the series for an A’s team that is mostly still getting to know the 30-year-old journeyman infielder.
The A’s claimed Valencia off waivers last Monday from the Toronto Blue Jays, who designated him for assignment two days earlier. In four games for Oakland he is 7 for 16 with two home runs, and his fifth career walk-off RBI on Sunday ensured his first week in an A’s uniform ended with that uniform dripping from a celebratory Gatorade shower, and with teammates expressing their disbelief over how they acquired him.
“We got a gift-wrapped present from Toronto, I promise you that,” said A’s right-hander Chris Bassitt, who got a no-decision Sunday despite recording a career-high 10 strikeouts in 62/3 innings. “I mean, my goodness. How he got DFA’d is shocking to, I think, every single person on this team, including the coaches and everything. I just don’t know how we got him. He’s unreal.”
In short, the Blue Jays hadn’t seen room for Valencia on their roster after acquiring Troy Tulowitzki and David Price at the trade deadline. For the past three days, though, the A’s have put Valencia in the cleanup spot and reaped the benefits.
Valencia’s fourth-inning home run against Astros right-hander Mike Fiers gave Oakland a 1-0 lead. The Astros tied it in the sixth on daring baserunning by Jose Altuve, who scored from first base on a softly hit double to center field by Carlos Correa. It stayed 1-1 until the eighth, when Billy Burns lined an RBI single past a pulled-in infield and Josh Reddick doubled to give the A’s a two-run lead entering the ninth.
A day before, recently anointed closer Edward Mujica entered a one-run game with a man on first in the ninth inning and secured the A’s first save in nearly a month by retiring three hitters in a row. Sunday, Mujica faced three hitters and didn’t record an out. After Carlos Gomez and Jed Lowrie singled, Mujica left a full-count fastball up to Colby Rasmus, who launched it into the right-field seats. Mujica left to audible boos from the crowd at O.co Coliseum.
Catcher Josh Phegley said he talked with Mujica after the game and Mujica “said he just didn’t feel like he had it today. He felt OK; he just didn’t have a lot of movement and his pitches weren’t sharp … I just told him, ‘We picked you up. We’ve got your back.’”
The A’s half of the ninth inning began inauspiciously, with Mark Canha rolling a slow grounder to shortstop Correa. But Canha, who runs surprisingly well for his build, beat Correa’s throw to first by a step. Canha, who entered the game as a defensive replacement at first base in the eighth, said, “Correa probably didn’t think I could run like that … I think there was definitely some adrenaline playing a factor there.”
Phegley then took advantage of the infield playing him to pull by shooting a single into right field. After Marcus Semien struck out, Houston intentionally walked Burns to load the bases and bring up Coco Crisp, who flied out to left, too shallow for Canha to attempt to score. But Reddick hit a liner back up the middle off Gregerson’s glove that kicked away, allowing Reddick to reach and Canha to tie the score.
That brought up Valencia. Manager Bob Melvin said he considered removing Valencia for defensive purposes after the A’s took the lead in the eighth. But Melvin said, “At this point in time, it’s tough to take his bat out.” On a 2-1 count, Valencia lined a pitch into left to further endear himself to his new teammates, who ripped off his jersey between first and second base.
“We were resilient to come back, kind of give it up there and come back again,” Valencia said. “There’s a lot of fight in here still, and that’s nice to see. Our record is obviously not ideal. But we’re still fighting here, and that’s nice to be a part of.”