OAKLAND -- Along with post-walkoff pies and deep flyouts at the Coliseum, one thing the A’s could mostly count on last season was this: When they reached the eighth inning with a lead, they typically nailed down the win. The A’s went 76-6 last year when going into the eighth with a lead, a winning percentage of .927.
This year, a quarter of the way into the season, they already have five such losses. The most recent came Wednesday, as Luke Gregerson gave up a go-ahead three-run homer to Jose Abreu that was the difference in the A’s 4-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
It was Gregerson’s fifth blown save of the season, the eighth overall for the A’s in just 15 chances, and it continued arguably the most troubling trend so far this season in Oakland. In one respect, the bullpen -- widely thought to have improved over the offseason through additions such as Gregerson and Jim Johnson -- has been among the league’s best, in that its ERA entering Wednesday was the lowest in the A.L. (2.95).
But when it comes to closing out late leads, they’ve been among the worst. Seattle was the only team with five losses when leading after seven innings going into Wednesday. And the A’s have now matched them, thanks to one swing of the bat from Abreu, who hammered his majors-leading 15th homer and 11th in his last 24 games.
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"Just got a pitch in the middle of the plate to a real good hitter who’s been hot," said A’s manager Bob Melvin. "You’re not going to win too many games with two hits going into the ninth, either. But a really good hitter who’s hot got a good swing off (Gregerson)."
True, the A’s had managed just two hits in the first eight innings. But both had left the yard, solo homers by John Jaso and Josh Donaldson, good enough to give the A’s a 2-1 lead going into the eighth with Tommy Milone shaking off a leadoff homer by Gordon Beckham to last six innings without allowing another run.
Dan Otero retired the side in the seventh. But in the eighth, Fernando Abad allowed one-out singles to Beckham and Conor Gillaspie, and Melvin then brought in Gregerson for a matchup against the right-handed-hitting Abreu.
In his first 11 at-bats in the series, Abreu had just one hit -- a solo homer in the ninth on Monday night -- and Melvin and Milone said the A’s were having success against Abreu attacking him with inside fastballs. Gregerson said he was thinking the same in the eighth and threw a good sinker down and in on the first pitch that Abreu swung at for strike one.
Gregerson then threw another sinker, and this time Abreu lined it off the SHARP sign in left field. "I think it just caught right on the corner," Gregerson said. "He opened up quick and was right on top of it."
"I don’t really think it was a bad pitch," Gregerson said. "It was just something he was ready for. I think he was looking for it. We’d been doing it to him the whole series, pounding him in, and I think it just stayed up a little too much."
Melvin struck a more blunt tone: "We’d been pitching him in all day," he said. "Just left one over the middle of the plate."
Melvin did say that Gregerson’s "stuff is still good," despite his numbers in save chances. Gregerson, though, wasn’t alone in his struggles this series. Monday night, Abad and Jim Johnson combined to face three batters in the ninth and failed to record an out as the A’s barely held on for a 5-4 win after entering the ninth leading 5-1. Sean Doolittle came on to secure that save, and would have pitched the ninth Wednesday, Melvin said, had the A’s gotten there with the lead.
"It’s a tough game," Gregerson said when asked about the bullpen struggles. "It’s funny, you can get any guys out there at certain times, and sometimes you make great pitches and guys hit the ball.
"I think a lot of what’s going on with Jim, too, is kind of blown out of proportion. If you look at some of the at-bats, a lot of them are good pitches, they’re just poking them into the outfield. It’s not like he’s getting home runs hit off of him every single day. It’s just, sometimes things don’t go your way."
Still, that seems to be happening at a rate higher than the A’s have grown accustomed to in recent seasons. Milone, who was denied a shot at his second win, was asked if seeing the bullpen struggle has been surprising and said this:
"You know, certain parts of a team are going to struggle at times. It just happens, it’s part of the game. And it’s just something we’ve got to deal with.
‘We’ve got to go out and work hard and forget about this one, because it’s over. So, get out there and go to Cleveland and start over again."
* Milone backed up his best outing of the year last week -- eight shutout innings against the Nationals -- by going six innings on Wednesday and scattering five hits, including the leadoff homer by Beckham.
Facing a lineup with seven right-handed hitters, Melvin said that Milone "pitched in very well again, which has really been the key for him the last two games." Milone, too, said the main thing he carried over from his last start was "fastball command, working inside a lot, just keeping hitters off balance and trying to get them out of there early."
Milone said he’s realized the fastball, which he doesn’t throw particularly hard, topping out in the high-80s, can still be effective because opposing teams "know me by now and know that I throw my changeup a lot." The fastball, he said, can be used to "just kind of keep them off-balance, trying to be not so predictable."
Melvin said Milone’s last two outings have been "as good as we’ve seen the last couple of years." If he and Drew Pomeranz, who recently replaced Dan Straily in the rotation, can keep pitching the way they have the past week, that makes the A’s rotation seriously formidable. Their starters haven’t allowed a run in four of the last seven games and have a combined ERA of 1.17 in that stretch.
* Before Abreu’s homer, it looked like the pivotal play of the game would be a play at the plate in the fifth. With the A’s up 2-1, two outs and Beckham on first base, Gillaspie doubled off the wall in left-center. Yoenis Cespedes barehanded the ball and unleashed a strong throw to second baseman Eric Sogard, who wheeled and threw out Beckham at home. The throw beat Beckham by enough that Beckham didn’t attempt a slide.
One thing you noticed right away about the play was Cespedes’ throw: He stood nearly on the warning track when he let it go, and reached Sogard in the air standing where the shortstop would play on the infield dirt. The catch: Sogard wasn’t even the primary cut-off man on the play. Cespedes actually airmailed shortstop Jed Lowrie, but Sogard put himself in position as the backup to take Cespedes’ throw in the air and relay it home.
"Jed was out there a ways, and knowing Cespy with his arm, he’s going to use it when he knows there’s going to be a play," Sogard said. "So I stayed quite a ways behind Jed. I was second cut, but I had a feeling he was coming to me."
Sogard said he looked to see where Beckham was before Cespedes threw the ball, and "I knew with Cespedes’ arm, if he was able to hit me, I would have plenty of time for an easy step and throw. And D-No made a good tag."
Melvin is fond of pointing out that a player can impact a game without getting a pivotal hit or driving in a big run. Sogard has not hit much at all this season -- his 0-for-3 in this game dropped his average to .180. Yet he has started 28 of the A’s 41 games, and at least part of the reason must be defense.
Sogard has yet to make an error in 2014, and has handled the second-most chances of any major-league second baseman without an error, behind Houston’s Jose Altuve. Sogard said he believes defense has helped keep him in the lineup "absolutely a lot," and he has tried not to carry his hitting struggles over into the field.
"I feel like I just have bad aim out there," Sogard said of his current slump. "Hitting some balls well, but can’t find a hole, can’t seem to miss any gloves. So hopefully they’ll start dropping soon."
Wednesday, he did find a way to contribute without the bat, though it was overshadowed by the swing of one of Chicago’s.
* An injury note -- Melvin said he thinks "there’s a chance" that Coco Crisp could be in the A’s lineup when they open their series in Cleveland on Friday. Crisp (strained neck) has been out since last Wednesday’s doubleheader, when he hurt himself smashing into the outfield wall.
"We’ll see how he does in pre-game (Friday)," Melvin said. "But my hope is we’ll see him at some point in time in Cleveland, and hopefully that’ll be after the off-day."
* The A’s finished up their 10-game homestand against Seattle, Washington and Chicago with a 6-4 record, which Melvin termed "all in all, good." It may look better considering the A’s lost three in a row before rattling off six consecutive wins prior to Wednesday.
Still, the margin for error between that and 7-3? "Just ended up a pitch to a guy that hit a three-run homer," Melvin said. "Seems like he’s hit a few this year."
* Now it’s off to Cleveland for the start of a nine-game road trip, on which the A’s see the Indians, Rays and Blue Jays. Here are the pitching probables for the Cleveland series:
Monday: RHP Sonny Gray (4-1, 2.17) vs. RHP Zach McAllister (3-3, 3.89)
Tuesday: LHP Scott Kazmir (5-1, 2.28) vs. RHP Josh Tomlin (2-0, 2.13)
Wednesday: RHP Jesse Chavez (3-1, 2.44) vs. RHP Justin Masterson (2-2, 4.31)