OAKLAND -- Before the A’s and Rangers played for the first time this season Monday, Texas manager Ron Washington said the impending series between the teams that have finished first and second, respectively, in the A.L. West each of the past two seasons did have some significance for his club, early as it might be.
"This is the team you judge yourselves by," Washington said about the A’s. "Right now, they’re the leaders."
Two days later, the Rangers have to be leaving Oakland feeling pretty good about their brief stay, while the A’s head out on a 10-game road trip on the heels of being swept at home in a series for the first time since September 2012. The A’s were shut out in the finale by left-hander Martin Perez, who threw a complete game and ran his consecutive scoreless innings streak to 26, and lost 3-0 to the Rangers, who now have the division’s best record by a half-game.
"They just beat us," A’s manager Bob Melvin said. "Not much you can say about that. They played better than we did and deserved to win. Give them credit."
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That was certainly the case Wednesday, with Perez besting Sonny Gray in a matchup of exciting young starting pitchers. Gray allowed a run in the first when he walked the first batter of the game for the third time this season in five starts, then saw Alex Rios triple to left-center two batters later. A potential second run in the inning was wiped out when the A’s won a challenge on a play at the plate.
But one was all the Rangers needed behind Perez, who didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning and didn’t let a runner past first base until Josh Donaldson’s double in the seventh.
"He keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat, whether it’s a little sink, a little cut, changeup, curveball, slider," Melvin said of Perez. "And the reason he can get deep into games, he’s not striking a lot of guys out, he’s just keeping it off the barrel of the bat."
Perez came in leading the majors with nine double plays induced in his first four starts. Wednesday, The A’s got leadoff singles in the fourth and fifth innings from Jed Lowrie and Derek Norris, only to have them wiped out immediately on double plays.
"He was on location most of the day, he was keeping us off-balance," Norris said. "When we got into some situations, we just didn’t have that come-through at-bat to force across a couple runs, and whenever we hit a couple balls hard it was right at them."
Melvin said Perez did a good job of pitching hitters differently in subsequent at-bats. He said Perez seemed to throw mostly sinkers and changeups early in the game, then slowly added his curveball while pitching more inside to the A’s left-handers. "Even if you had a beat on him, the next time up he pitched you a little differently," Melvin said.
Donaldson, meanwhile, said he saw "a lot of fastballs. I might’ve seen two changeups, one breaking ball. But he was using both sides of the plate with his heater pretty well." Perhaps the discrepancy can help explain why Perez was so tough.
The lefty needed just 109 pitches to complete the game, and threw no more than 16 in any one inning. The good thing for the A’s (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view): Assuming the Rangers stay on turn, they’ll see him again in his next start, when they visit Texas for three games April 28-30. Perez would pitch the second game of that series, a 7:05 p.m. start.
* Perez’s performance took the drama out of his matchup with Gray, who was solid but not spectacular. Gray again seemed slow finding his command, issuing two walks in the first inning and a career-high four in the game, but said afterward he "felt fine. … I felt like I was throwing the ball where I wanted to."
After allowing the first-inning run, Gray struck out the side in the second and pitched around a leadoff error in the third. He gave up single runs in the fifth and sixth, the latter on a solo home run by Donnie Murphy, who went the other way with an outside fastball, but completed seven innings while striking out eight.
"We’ve seen a couple games like that where he fights a little bit early in the game with his command," Melvin said. "But he always finds a way to come back and keep you in the game and get through those tough periods with limited damage."
Gray was asked if there’s anything he can do pre-game or preparation-wise to avoid the early wildness he has displayed a few times this season and said: "No, I don’t think so." Norris was asked the same thing and expanded a little more:
"I don’t think that’s anything physical, I think that’s just something maybe he’s going to have to work extra hard at," Norris said. "It’s nothing that has to do with getting ready, warming up. I just think mentally he’s got to really bear down like most people have to do in their latter innings -- I think that’s just a focus thing he’s going to have to do in the first inning."
Gray had a six-game winning streak dating back to last September snapped. But on this day, there wasn’t much more he could do with Perez throwing short of picking up a bat and trying to hit for himself.
* Make it two successful replay challenges in a row for Melvin, who effectively took a run off the board for the Rangers in the first when he challenged the call that Rios slid in safely trying to score on Prince Fielder’s grounder to Jed Lowrie with the infield in.
Lowrie’s throw came in a little high, but Norris partially blocked the plate with his left leg and replays showed him tagging Rios before Rios touched the plate. The review took 2 minutes, 37 seconds. Melvin credited the personnel in the A’s replay booth with telling him to challenge, saying the angle of the play from the dugout was one where "you could not really tell."
Norris, meanwhile, said he was pretty sure Rios was out and was not worried the umpires might rule he’d illegally blocked the plate. (Rios seemed to indicate to home plate umpire Larry Vanover that he thought so). Norris was briefly checked by a trainer as the review was going on, and had his lower left leg wrapped after the game, but said he’s fine.
* In a losing cause, Jim Johnson came in and pitched a scoreless ninth, though he did put two runners on with one out before pitching out of trouble by striking out Michael Choice and getting Elvis Andrus to ground out.
Johnson has pitched better since being taken out of the closer role -- he has retired 19 of the 27 batters he’s faced over his last five outings and not allowed a run in 6 2/3 innings. Still, Melvin said before the game there’s no plan right now to deviate from the closer-by-committee system he’s currently using.
* Donaldson was asked if this is a difficult series to swallow -- the A’s lost a ninth-inning lead Tuesday night, giving Texas the chance to go for the sweep, and answered this way:
"You’re going to have your little lumps in the road," he said. "Everybody knows that. So just to come back, and the next game’s the most important."
The next game is tomorrow in Houston, as the A’s get a chance to recover against a team they’ve dominated since the Astros joined the A.L. West last season. Here’s the probable pitching slate:
Thursday: LHP Scott Kazmir (2-0, 1.65) vs. LHP Brett Oberholtzer (0-3, 3.04)
Friday: RHP Jesse Chavez (1-0, 1.38) vs. RHP Brad Peacock (0-1, 3.60)
Saturday: RHP Dan Straily (1-2, 5.40) vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel (2-1, 3.38)