Not trivial to the Kansas City Royals’ appearances in the last two World Series has been their 138-10 regular-season record when ahead entering the seventh inning.
“Scoring late on that bullpen is tough,” said A’s reliever Ryan Madson, and he would know, having been the primary eighth-inning reliever for last year’s championship Kansas City team, which had a .924 winning percentage when leading after the sixth.
Yet that’s how the A’s beat the Royals on Sunday afternoon, scoring single runs in the seventh and eighth innings to turn a one-run deficit into a 3-2 win at the Coliseum. The A’s, who lost seven of their first eight home games this season, won the final two of their homestand against the Royals to take an early-season series from the defending champions.
“Very impressed,” Madson said. “Not surprised, very impressed.”
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The A’s trailed 2-1 and were still facing Royals starter Kris Medlen in the seventh when Chris Coghlan, who entered the game with a .138 average, hit a ground-rule double that one-hopped the wall in center field. Royals manager Ned Yost summoned reliever Kelvin Herrera, an All-Star last season, to face designated hitter Billy Butler. A’s manager Bob Melvin countered by sending up switch hitter Jed Lowrie to pinch hit.
Herrera had the second-highest average fastball velocity (98.1 mph) among major-league relievers last season, according to FanGraphs. And although a right-hander, he was tougher against left-handed hitters (a .151 average and .218 slugging percentage) than right-handed ones (.256 and .368).
“Not an easy task there,” Melvin admitted.
Lowrie said he began preparing around the fourth or fifth inning for a potential pinch-hit appearance and was told at the start of the seventh he probably would hit if the A’s got a baserunner. Lowrie worked the count full and fouled off a 96-mph fastball before lining a single into right field, bringing in Coghlan as the tying run.
“You’re just trying to get a good pitch and battle,” said Lowrie, who turned 32 Sunday. “And he hung a slider, and I was able to keep my hands back and drive it through the hole.”
The inning ended with Lowrie on first. But Billy Burns led off the eighth by lacing a pitch from Joakim Soria down the right-field line for a triple, and two batters later Josh Reddick lifted a fly ball deep enough to center to score Burns from third.
The A’s bullpen, as maligned last season as the Royals’ was lauded, preserved the lead. John Axford, who recorded five outs in the A’s 5-3 win Saturday, retired the two-through-four hitters in the Royals’ lineup in order on three groundouts and has not allowed a run in seven appearances this season.
Melvin then called on Madson for a save situation in the ninth for the second consecutive day, rather than designated closer Sean Doolittle. Melvin later said Doolittle was “unavailable” Sunday after pitching in the first two games of the series. Doolittle has a 6.35 ERA in seven outings and one save. Madson, meanwhile, has saved four of the A’s six wins.
“We feel good about all three of those guys – Axford had a pretty tough job coming into the eighth, and then certainly the ninth,” Melvin said. “Experience has gone a long way for us in the bullpen in late innings this year.”
Madson, who received his 2015 World Series ring from Yost before the series started, admitted “emotions were different” pitching against his former team. Madson said the Royals as a group “play a lot lighter than I do,” and a few old teammates during the series were “making gestures to the bullpen, messing around.”
“It’s hard when they’re trying to be loose and I’m trying to be focused out there,” said Madson. “They’re good guys. They don’t mean any harm. At the end of the day, it’s good and it’s fun. But on to a new (opponent) will be nice for me.”
A’s starter Chris Bassitt gave up just two runs in seven innings. But his only run support came in the fourth, when Coco Crisp scored from third base on a swinging third strike by Coghlan that scooted under Royals catcher Salvador Perez for a passed ball. The A’s had one hit after six innings, hinting little at the rally they would mount.
“Anybody can beat you anytime in our lineup; that’s the fun part,” Madson said. “That’s what makes it tough for a bullpen late in the game.”