San Francisco Giants

Abreu’s home run gives White Sox a 4-2 victory while exposing A’s struggling bullpen

For most of a three-game series against the Chicago White Sox, the A’s were able to hold rookie slugger Jose Abreu in check. Abreu, who in his first weeks of major-league baseball was named the American League Player and Rookie of the Month for April, entered Wednesday’s series finale with one hit in eight at-bats – a solo home run in a losing cause Monday night.

Through three at-bats Wednesday, Abreu was hitless and with two strikeouts against A’s left-hander Tommy Milone, the second time flailing wildly at a fastball up and away for strike three. But in his fourth trip to the plate, the 27-year-old showed why he’s been the talk of baseball for the first quarter of the season and handed the A’s their first loss in nearly a week.

With two men on, one out and the A’s leading 2-1 in the eighth inning, Abreu hammered an 0-1 sinker from right-hander Luke Gregerson for a screaming home run to left field. And the White Sox bullpen did what Oakland’s could not, securing a 4-2 win to snap the A’s six-game winning streak.

For Abreu, who defected from Cuba last year, it was his A.L.-leading 15th home run and 41st RBI of the season. He’s just the fourth player in major-league history to hit 15 or more homers in the first 42 games of his career, joining Wally Berger, Kevin Maas and Wally Joyner. A league-leading six of those have come in the seventh inning or later.

“I love to have moments like that,” Abreu said. “I put the big part of the bat over the plate. If I hit it, I hit it. In this case, I hit it.”

As they did most of series, the A’s went after Abreu with fastballs inside, with Milone saying that “like every pitch (catcher Derek Norris) called was a fastball in, and just make sure I didn’t miss over the plate.” Gregerson said he had the same strategy facing Abreu, and he “thought I threw two pretty good pitches,” including a sinker down and in to open the at-bat that Abreu swung over for strike one.

“You just try to throw him pitches that aren’t around the strike zone, try to make him fish, which he definitely does,” Gregerson said. “I don’t really think (the second) was a bad pitch. 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 (the pitch) just stayed up a little too much.”

For the A’s, their bullpen continues to struggle to close out games in which they have a late lead. The A’s entered Wednesday with the lowest bullpen ERA in the A.L. at 2.95. Yet Gregerson’s blown save was his fifth of the season and the eighth overall by the A’s.

The A’s are 17-5 in games they’ve led after the seventh inning – tied with Seattle for the most such losses in the A.L. They had six such losses all of last season, and were widely thought to have improved in the bullpen over the winter by adding veterans such as Gregerson and right-hander Jim Johnson.

“It’s a tough game,” Gregerson said. “You can get guys out there at any certain time 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 just sometimes things don’t go your way.”

Manager Bob Melvin said Gregerson “just got a good pitch in the middle of the plate to a real good hitter who’s been hot,” and that “his stuff is still good.”

Gregerson, though, wasn’t alone in his struggles in the series. Monday night, Fernando Abad and Johnson combined to face three batters in the ninth and failed to record an out as the A’s held on for a 5-4 win after entering the inning leading 5-1.

Abad, who did not allow a run in his first 14 appearances this season, stumbled again Wednesday, allowing one-out singles in the eighth inning to Gordon Beckham and Conor Gillaspie. Melvin replaced Abad with Gregerson, with the right-handed-hitting Abreu coming up.

Abreu’s swing loomed largest in a game where all runs were scored on homers, including the A’s only two hits through the first eight innings – solo shots by John Jaso and Josh Donaldson. The A’s finished their 10-game homestand with a 6-4 record, which Melvin termed “all in all, good.”

The margin between that and 7-3? “Just ended up being a pitch to a guy that hit a three-run homer,” Melvin said. “Seems like he’s hit a few this year.”