OAKLAND -- Josh Donaldson spent Friday afternoon preparing to face Angels starter Garrett Richards, a right-hander with a mid-90’s fastball and hard slider. The A’s then knocked Richards out of Friday night’s game with five runs before the end of the first inning, meaning Donaldson’s next three at-bats all came against reliever Wade LeBlanc, a left-hander with a mid-80s fastball and big, slow curve.
The result of those at-bats: Home run, single, home run.
Donaldson drove in four runs and recorded his second multi-homer game of the season (and his career) as the A’s took Friday night’s opener from the Angels, 9-5. Perhaps as impressive as the line was that both of Donaldson’s homers came off a pitcher against whom he needed to make such a significant and immediate in-game adjustment after the A’s knocked out Richards so quickly.
Donaldson led off the second inning driving an 84 mph fastball from LeBlanc over the top of the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. In the fifth, he hit an 86 mph two-strike fastball over the wall in straightaway center.
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Donaldson said the pitches were "a couple mistakes over the plate." But where the balls ended up illustrated Donaldson’s adjustment. With the softer-throwing LeBlanc, he said, Donaldson made a conscious effort to let pitches get deeper on him, which ideally would result in his driving the ball up the middle or the other way.
"Just really for me, I don’t want to feel like I’m going to try to hit anything out in front for the sheer fact that that’s what he’s trying to do," Donaldson said. "He’s trying to change speeds on you and trying to take the sting out of your bat. Today I was able to do a decent job of staying back and getting a good pitch to hit."
Donaldson said it’s an indication of "when I’m doing my best," when he’s not pulling the ball and taking advantage of hittable pitches. He’s in a stretch right now of the latter. In his last five games, Donaldson is 10-for-23 with five homers and 10 RBIs, and he’s now at 15 homers with 45 RBIs on the season -- tied for third and ranking fourth in the league, respectively.
"He’s playing really well right now, across the board," manager Bob Melvin said. "He’s got great focus, has a great idea how he’s going to get pitched on a particular night. And his defense always comes with him."
In the fifth, Donaldson made a diving play to his backhand side to rob Erick Aybar of a hit with a runner on second base and one out. The A’s led 7-3 at the time, but the Angels had scored three runs in the fourth and were threatening against Drew Pomeranz. After Donaldson’s play, Pomeranz struck out Mike Trout to end the inning.
"I said thank you to him about 10 times," Pomeranz said. "He hits his home runs and he makes a great play on the ball Aybar hit and saves some more there. He’s a great player."
With Donaldson and Trout on the same field, this series features the two league leaders in Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference.com. It isn’t Trout -- the A.L. MVP runner-up the past two seasons -- however, but Donaldson currently leading the league in both offensive and defensive WAR.
While Trout also homered Friday night -- an impressive shot to center field that hit above the camera well beyond the wall -- Donaldson showed why the WAR statistic reads like it does, and helped the A’s extend their West lead to 2 ½ games as a result.
* Melvin said Donaldson has likely benefited from hitting in front of Brandon Moss over the past few weeks, as pitchers who avoid Donaldson have to deal with a left-handed bat that has slugged 13 homers and driven in a team-high 46 runs. Friday night, after the A’s put the first two runners on in the first, Richards walked Donaldson to load the bases. He then went to a 2-0 count to Moss, who crushed a fastball for his first career grand slam.
"It’s kind of one of those ordeals where you have to pick your poison," Donaldson said of the middle of the A’s order.
The A’s are hoping it stays that way. Moss left Friday night’s game in the third inning after his right calf tightened up. Melvin said Moss is currently day-to-day with a strain, but that he likely won’t play Saturday.
Moss said the calf tightened up on him as he jogged onto the field for defense in the top of the third inning. He played the inning, but was pinch-hit for by Kyle Blanks in the bottom of the third.
"It balled up pretty good into a cramp," Moss said. "I figured if I can’t get the cramp out, I should probably get it taken care of so it doesn’t linger. I didn’t want it to turn into something else."
It didn’t sound like the A’s thought the injury to be severe as of Friday night. Moss said he was hoping "it feels better tomorrow when I wake up."
As for the grand slam, Melvin said he was surprised to learn it was Moss’ first, saying it "feels like he’s hit about ten of them -- this year." Moss, on the other hand, said he was very aware that he’d never hit a grand slam -- he even mentioned that to catcher Derek Norris earlier this year after Norris hit one.
Moss acknowledged the thought crossed his mind again as he dug in against Richards on Friday with the bases loaded in a fastball count. "I hit fastballs really well and you know right there he’s going to throw you one," Moss said. "It was on my mind. Definitely not trying to do it, but thought it’d be really cool to do it."
And how did it feel when he did?
"Really good," Moss said with a smile.
Donaldson added that what impressed him about Moss’ home run was that it came after Richards had just walked him on four pitches and then gone 2-0 to Moss. Still, Moss was aggressive enough to jump on a hittable fastball.
"As a hitter sometimes you get uncomfortable with that -- you’re wondering, should I swing here, should I not swing?" Donaldson said. "He just does a good job no matter what. The guy could throw 20 balls in a row. If he throws one right down the pipe, (Moss) is going to swing at it and for the most part hit it really hard."
* The beneficiary of all the support was Pomeranz, who allowed a season-high five runs but improved to 5-2. Pomeranz also lasted past the fifth inning for the first time in his last 20 major-league starts -- he retired one batter in the sixth, then was replaced by Dan Otero after the next two Angels hitters reached.
The night was something of a mixed bag for Pomeranz. The left-hander said he felt he "did a pretty good job" and made only one really regrettable pitch -- a fastball to Trout that was supposed to be away and came back over the plate for the home run. Howie Kendrick also homered off Pomeranz in the third, but Pomeranz said that pitch was meant to be inside and Kendrick "just got me."
Pomeranz, though, also walked three batters after issuing four in four innings in his last start. And he needed 95 pitches to get through 5 1/3 innings. His pitch count has steadily risen since his first start May 7 against Seattle, as he’s gotten stretched out after starting the season as a reliever. But his outings have not gotten longer -- he threw five innings on 68 pitches in his first start and hadn’t gone deeper into a game before Friday.
"It seems like he wears down a little bit after 80 pitches or so," Melvin said. "We have to get him a little deeper in games, we don’t want to cover that many innings (of relief). But to go from a guy that’s just pitching in relief exclusively to having the numbers he does starting-wise, it’s very impressive."
Pomeranz disagreed with the idea he tires after 80 pitches, but said: "I may just be trying to do too much at that point to make sure I stay in the game, that I’m being effective and efficient." He said he "didn’t really think too much" about pitching into the sixth Friday, but that: "I think the walks are hurting me, and the bad counts."
* While Jim Johnson’s struggles continue and Luke Gregerson remains shaky trying to close out games -- though Gregerson did throw a clean 1 1/3 innings Friday night with two strikeouts -- one back-end member of the A’s bullpen seems to have shaken off his early struggles.
Sean Doolittle got the ninth inning with the A’s leading by four and nullified a two-out single from Aybar by striking out Trout to end the game. It was a good battle -- Doolittle got to two strikes and refused to go away from the high fastball, despite Trout taking two and fouling a couple more back before swinging through a 94 mph pitch for strike three.
Doolittle has now gone 12 appearances without allowing a run. In that span, he’s thrown 13 1/3 innings, allowed five hits and a walk, and struck out 22.
* One more note on Moss -- with the home run, he set a new Oakland record for extra-base hits in May. The grand slam was his 19th. Unless his calf feels good enough for him to play Saturday, Moss will end May with nine homers and 25 RBIs -- both career highs for a single month.
* The pitching matchup for game two is A’s left-hander Tommy Milone (3-3, 3.50) and Angels left-hander Tyler Skaggs (4-2, 3.97). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.