OAKLAND - The A’s had played this game before: A fine starting pitching performance, a lineup held quiet for much of the afternoon, a late rally, and the ignominy of watching it all unravel in the hands of their shaky bullpen.
Only Sunday, that was not the end of the narrative. Closer Edward Mujica blew a two-run lead in the top of the ninth, surrendering a three-run homer to Houston’s Colby Rasmus, but the A’s answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning, winning 5-4 in a walk-off on Danny Valencia’s two-out, bases-loaded single.
The particulars of that ninth inning, and Valencia’s impact in his first week with the A’s, can be found here. But after the game, perhaps the most insightful comment came from the author of the latest strong outing by an A’s starter to become a footnote: Chris Bassitt, who struck out a career-high 10 batters in a no-decision.
"It’s just, right now the makeup of this team is just sick of losing," Bassitt said, "and just whatever it takes to win. It’s that simple."
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The 26 one-run losses, the last-place standing in the A.L. West, the 27-34 record at home -- all the things A’s players have been asked about repeatedly this season and struggled to explain, Bassitt implied, have added up to enough. Nobody is expecting the A’s to be a factor in the next two months, not even the A’s front office, which levied the rest of this season against future ones with its deadline deals. The result, however, is not a team that has nothing to play for, but one that has nothing to lose.
"We’re not going to give up," right fielder Josh Reddick said. "That’s one thing. Just because your bullpen gives it up (Sunday), you’re not going to come out with your head down and just give up."
The embodiment of that, Reddick said, was Mark Canha, who led off the ninth inning by beating out an infield single on ground ball to shortstop Carlos Correa. It was a slowly hit ball, and Correa was shifted toward the hole, but it was still a routine play. And it looked as though Correa, when he fielded the ball and saw how far Canha had already sprinted up the line, rushed a throw that was accurate but still too late.
"That’s one thing that a lot of people aren’t really going to remember in that game, with the two-out RBIs and the game-winner," Reddick said. "Credit Canha a lot for hustling. Didn’t get in there until later in the game, but he’s still going to go out there and play his butt off."
Canha, who entered the game in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter, has surprising speed for his 6-foot-1, 200-pound build, and said he thought Correa may have just been caught unaware.
"I think it was definitely some adrenaline playing a factor there," Canha said of his dash to first. "I just ran as hard as I could, like I always do. I think Correa probably didn’t think I could run like that, so I just beat it."
"You talk about keys to that inning, it’s hustling down the line and beating that ball out," manager Bob Melvin said. "A routine ground ball to short, and it started with that."
It ended with Valencia driving in his second run of the game, fifth of the series and fifth to end a game in his career. Again, several A’s expressed their disbelief that Oakland was able to get Valencia at this time of year for virtually nothing, claiming him off of waivers from the Blue Jays, who had no room for him on their roster. Valencia, in turn, was asked Sunday about what impression he’d formed of his new team during his first week.
"We’re resilient, there’s a lot of fight in here," Valencia said. "Our pitching does a good job of keeping us in the game. It’s just a matter of us scoring some runs, stringing some hits, clutch hits, moving guys over, stuff like that. It’s huge taking three of four from (the Astros), but I think we’re a pretty good team here."
Those things Valencia listed are areas where the A’s have faltered this season -- and even Sunday. After scoring twice in the eighth inning, they still had the bases loaded and only one out, but were unable to add to their lead. Before the two-out heroics in the ninth, both Marcus Semien (strikeout) and Coco Crisp (shallow fly out) made unproductive outs with the tying run on third base.
"Situational at-bats we weren’t, at times, as good at," Melvin said. "But the big at-bats, where we have no room for anything but a hit, we were better at today."
The result was what catcher Josh Phegley termed an "emotional win," one that appeared destined to follow a familiar narrative, until the A’s flipped the script.
"We’re just going to battle," Phegley said. "The season’s not over. We’re still trying to win games, and playing for ourselves. And that can happen."
* Mujica recorded the A’s first save in nearly a month on Saturday, entering with a man on first in the ninth inning of a one-run game and retiring three straight hitters. Sunday, he faced three hitters with a two-run lead and didn’t get an out. Mujica gave up a pair of singles before throwing a 3-2 fastball up to Rasmus, who hammered it.
"I talked to him after, he said he just didn’t feel like he had it today," Phegley said. "He felt OK, he just didn’t have a lot of movement and his pitches weren’t as sharp. As a guy we count on every day, you’re going to have days like that. I’m not worried about him."
How long the A’s stick with Mujica as closer, however, is unclear. Melvin was asked if Oakland might consider a change after Sunday and said: "We’ll see. It’s always kind of fluid with us. He got the big save (Sunday) and deserved to be out here again today. But like it’s been all year for us, we’re going to try to find the best option we can, and it’s been a bit of a problem for us this year."
Melvin simply doesn’t have a lot of other options. And even though Sean Doolittle seems to be on the comeback trail, it’s unlikely the A’s will throw him into the closer role right away, if at all this season. For now, they’ll have to keep piecing together the ninth inning with what they have.
* Bassitt didn’t strike out any of the final eight hitters he faced, which means he secured his career-high 10 strikeouts within his first 18 hitters. The right-hander’s curveball was particularly effective Sunday -- he used it to finish six of his strikeouts -- and he touched 96 miles per hour with his fastball.
"He’s got seven starts for us now and his record really doesn’t indicate what he’s done for us," Reddick said. "He just goes out there and battles through six or seven, sometimes eight innings."
Bassitt is still 1-4 but has a 2.48 ERA. The one run he allowed Sunday arguably should not have scored, at least in the fashion it did. With Jose Altuve on first, Carlos Correa hit a soft line drive to center field. As Billy Burns threw in to second base, Altuve made the daring decision to try for home, and Brett Lawrie’s one-hop through bounced away from Phegley, allowing Altuve to score.
"He’s in a position where he can get it there on the fly," Melvin said of Lawrie, who made his throw from the infield dirt. "Whether or not he was trying to bounce it in there, I don’t know. Where (Altuve) was, we had a good chance to get him out, obviously."
Shortstop Marcus Semien, the cutoff man, had lined up toward third base. But Altuve was clearly going to be safe there, and Burns’ play was to try to prevent Correa from taking the extra base at second. Melvin had no issue with that decision.
"If we make two good throws, absolutely," he said. "I couldn’t believe (Altuve) was going, to tell you the truth, when he came around third, because if we execute there we have him out pretty easily."
* Following Bassitt’s outing, A’s starters have now allowed one or zero runs in eight of their last 10 games. They have a 2.01 ERA in that stretch, and combined to allow four earned runs in 29 2/3 innings in this series against the Astros.
Melvin described the run as "incredible," largely because the A’s, who have been among the league leaders in starters’ ERA all season, are now doing it with a different rotation than they’ve had for most of the season. Scott Kazmir is gone and Jesse Hahn is hurt, but Bassitt and newcomer Aaron Brooks have stepped in and hardly missed a beat.
* The A’s are off Monday and will travel to Toronto for a three-game series against the red-hot Blue Jays. Toronto completed a sweep of the Yankees on Sunday and has won eight in a row to pull within 1 ½ games of first-place New York. The series has subplots for several current A’s, including Valencia (recently DFA’d by Toronto), Lawrie (traded by the Blue Jays over the offseason) and Brooks, whose first major-league start came in Toronto last season and was a disaster.
The pitching probables for the series are as follows:
Tuesday: RHP Kendall Graveman (6-7, 3.90) vs. RHP Drew Hutchinson (10-2, 5.42)
Wednesday: RHP Aaron Brooks (1-0, 2.41) vs. LHP Mark Buehrle (12-5, 3.34)
Thursday: RHP Sonny Gray (12-4, 2.06) vs. RHP R.A. Dickey (6-10, 3.93)