OAKLAND -- The A’s don’t have long to ruminate on Tuesday night’s 5-4 loss with a day game Wednesday, which is good, because of the number of games in which they’ve lost a late lead already this season, this one might have been the most frustrating.
The A’s were one out away -- one strike away, in fact -- from the win, only to have their division rivals from Texas steal the game away in the ninth. Rubbing salt into the wound was the fact the A’s had seemingly dodged a bullet when the Rangers, still trailing 4-3 at the time, botched a squeeze play for the second out of the ninth.
That left Texas with a man on first and two outs, but that runner -- Leonys Martin -- stole second off A’s righty Luke Gregerson and scored when Josh Wilson doubled over Yoenis Cespedes’ head in left field. The Rangers then took the lead with an RBI single by former A’s prospect Michael Choice, who lined a Gregerson slider into center field.
Just like that, the A’s went from splitting this series with a chance for the win tomorrow behind Sonny Gray to losing two consecutive games for the first time all season.
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"You kind of feel the wind come out of the sails there," Lowrie said.
What wasn’t new, though, was the A’s inability to close out a game with a lead. The A’s bullpen has been for the most part very good this season. Their 2.55 ERA is sixth in the majors. They have held opposing hitters to a .198 average, which is the lowest mark in baseball. After Tommy Milone recovered from a rocky first few innings to finish six on Tuesday, Ryan Cook and Fernando Abad combined to allow just one baserunner getting the game to the ninth.
But nailing down those last few outs has been a problem, even since Jim Johnson fell out of the closer role with his difficulties getting them. The A’s as a team are 5-for-11 on the season in save opportunities. Gregerson is 3-for-6 after Tuesday night. Johnson and Sean Doolittle are each 1-for-2. Dan Otero is 0-for-1.
The A’s continue to go with a closer-by-committee system for now, with Melvin saying there’s no change imminent. He acknowledged the other day that it’s sometimes easier for relievers when they have set roles, so they know when they’ll be getting into games and can prepare accordingly, but said he believes the A’s bullpen is flexible enough that pitchers are still comfortable under the current system.
"We have a good idea of pretty much where we’re pitching right now," Gregerson said after Tuesday night’s loss. "I know it’s a closer by committee kind of deal, but I think for the most part we all kind of know where we fit in that committee. So I had a pretty good idea that was going to be the situation (in the ninth)."
Asked if the little bit of uncertainty makes it difficult to prepare, Gregerson said: "We’ve got to go out there and get outs no matter what inning it is. So that’s it. You’ve got to go and get outs no matter what."
Tuesday, Gregerson saw his first pitch hit into the gap in right-center for a leadoff double by pinch hitter Mitch Moreland. Moreland moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, then tried to score when Leonys Martin dropped a one-out bunt right back to Gregerson. Gregerson made a nice play to field the ball and flip to catcher Derek Norris, who tagged Moreland.
"It’s funny, you get a gift like that, ball comes right back to you, get the guy at home, get to two outs," Gregerson said. "I just didn’t execute my pitches. I didn’t get the ball down in the zone like I wanted to. The slider backed up on me, and they took advantage of it."
Gregerson said he felt me may have been "a little rushed" in his delivery. "I think I was just moving a little too quick today, I was having a hard time finding the zone a little bit with the fastball and I was trying to get the outside corner but wasn’t getting it."
Melvin also said Gregerson seemed to be having trouble locating the slider away, "which is usually his go-to pitch when he’s ahead." Both Wilson and Choice hit sliders.
Lowrie said there’s been no faith lost in the bullpen despite some of the late-game issues. "We’ve got some great arms down there," he said. "And they’re going to be a big part of this team. They’ll get it all squared away. I think everybody in this clubhouse has complete faith in their abilities."
Added starter Tommy Milone: "I don’t want to go so far as to say we’re struggling in the bullpen because we’re doing really well. It’s just one of those things where we’ve got to fight through it, along with anything. There’s going to be times when something’s going to be struggling, you’ve just got to keep fighting, keep fighting and pull through it. And I think in the end we’ll be better for it."
Gregerson did display a closer’s mentality when asked how long it would take him to put the outing behind him.
"Soon as I talk to you guys," he said.
For Melvin, it would take a little longer.
"Sometime tonight," he said. "But this team’s been real resilient over the years from tough losses. So you process it and try to figure out what you could have done differently or what you need to do a little bit differently and then move on."
* As Melvin pointed out, the A’s also had their chances to add on early in the game but didn’t. The most obvious opportunity came in the bottom of the second, when they had the bases loaded with one out. Jed Lowrie hit a fly ball to center, and John Jaso tagged up on Martin, who had airmailed a throw home in the first. This time, though, Martin threw a strike to the plate in time to get Jaso for an inning-ending double play.
The A’s also put runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth, but the Rangers executed a wheel play on Eric Sogard’s sacrifice bunt attempt, throwing out Norris at third, and Coco Crisp then grounded into a double play. Overall, the A’s went 4-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded eight men on base.
"I think if we continue to give ourselves opportunities like that, it’s going to work out in the end," Lowrie said. "It’s frustrating when you don’t get the job done, but you just have to continue to give yourself an opportunity to keep scoring those runs."
* Remarkably, before the Rangers rallied, the story was probably going to be Milone in line for his first win. That’s remarkable because Milone needed 63 pitches to get through the first three innings, walked four of the first 10 hitters he faced and allowed nine of the first 16 to reach safely.
But he limited the damage somewhat by inducing double plays in the second and third innings. And then he cruised through the next three innings on 22 pitches, retiring 10 of the final 11 hitters he faced.
"It was one of those nights," Milone said. "I felt good even though I wasn’t throwing strikes. I felt I was still around the zone. And I was just telling myself, stay there, stay low, just try to throw quality strikes. Eventually it came."
Milone, who’s known as a control artist, walked in the second run of the first inning and was visibly frustrated on the mound, calling Jaso out to the mound. Texas had already scored when Donnie Murphy hit a bases-loaded chopper so slowly up the third-base line that Josh Donaldson had no play on it, and Milone said he was frustrated with himself more than that play or the strike zone for his inability to find the zone.
He said he decided he was "maybe trying to nibble a little bit" and, after the third, opted to "just throw it over the plate and let them hit it." He wound up allowing three runs on five hits in six innings -- the run and inning requirements for a quality start.
"He’s a battler," Melvin said. "If he gets off to a slow start he usually finds himself and gives you enough to get you, like today, through six. And we felt like we had the bullpen lined up to finish it off the last three and just came up an out short."
* Yes, it’s one game in mid-April, so there’s no panic in the clubhouse. Still, as the A’s themselves showed two years ago -- against these same Rangers -- every win can count when it gets to the final weeks of the season. The A’s don’t want to have to look back at games like Tuesday’s and rue the one that got away.
They can still salvage a game in the series in Wednesday’s finale. It’s a good pitching matchup: right-hander Sonny Gray (3-0, 1.80) vs. young Rangers lefty Martin Perez (3-0, 1.86). First pitch at 12:35 a.m.