OAKLAND -- The A’s left the bases loaded in three different innings Monday night, left a season-high 18 runners on base and went 2-for-13 with men in scoring position. With one swing, though, Derek Norris released a good amount of the lingering frustration.
Batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 10th, Norris chopped an 0-2 pitch from Grant Balfour back up the middle for a well-placed single to score Sam Fuld from third base and give the A’s their eighth walk-off win of the season, 3-2 over the Tampa Bay Rays.
"My thinking was if we keep getting in that position, we’re going to come through," said manager Bob Melvin. "I really did."
The A’s loaded the bases with one out in the first inning on three walks by Rays starter Alex Cobb -- and failed to score. They did so again with two outs in the second on a Jed Lowrie single, a walk and a hit batter -- and again failed to score. Seventh inning, two outs, bases loaded -- Fuld struck out to end the inning.
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Norris had come up in the first after Cobb’s third walk of the inning and flew out to right field, too shallow for Fuld to tag up from third. He said that had remained on his mind for the rest of the game.
"I was really irritated with myself that I couldn’t get a couple runs across," Norris said. "I was preaching the other day about our situational hitting and there I was in the limelight trying to come through and … I fell right into the pool again.
"It was good that I could come up and get the game over, with the plenty of opportunities that we had."
Ironically, the game-winning hit came off of Balfour, the former A’s closer whom Norris caught regularly the past two seasons. Norris, though, said that didn’t give him an idea of what to expect from Balfour in the 0-2 count.
"Sometimes he falls into patterns, but tonight he was mixing pretty well," Norris said. "(And) once he gets runners in scoring position, he turns on another switch. I saw it time in and time out, he’d walk the first two guys and all of a sudden it was 1-2-3. So just looking for something over the plate."
Norris said he has noticed teams, including the Rays, shifting their infield in expectation of him pulling the ball, playing the shortstop closer to the 5-6 hole between second and third than the second-base bag. The single off Balfour was not hard-hit, but with Yunel Escobar shading Norris toward the hole, it bounced into center field for Norris’ second career walk-off RBI.
"I thought anything back up the middle didn’t have to be too hard to get through," Norris said. "You don’t always draw it up that way. Fortunately it had enough to get through."
* Josh Donaldson had the A’s only other hit with a man in scoring position, with his two-out single in the sixth scoring Eric Sogard from second. Donaldson also came up with a runner on third in both the second and fourth, though, and grounded out and struck out, respectively, to end the innings.
Brandon Moss flew out to end the sixth with runners on first and third, and struck out in the 10th ahead of Norris’ at-bat. Josh Reddick grounded out with the bases loaded to end the first inning, and Fuld’s strikeout against reliever Brad Boxberger left the bases full in the seventh.
It continued a trying week for the A’s offensively, but Norris said players weren’t letting any frustration seep into the dugout Monday night.
"Obviously you’re going to have a little frustration individually," he said. "But as far as the team, no. If one guy doesn’t get the job done, we always look to the next guy to pick us up. We’re not getting down on ourselves."
* In some ways, it was like Balfour never left. The right-hander was notorious for putting himself into jams in the ninth inning when closing for the A’s -- though as Norris said, he often escaped them. Also, when he entered the game in the middle of the 10th, fans in the right-field bleachers brought back the "Balfour Rage" dance, despite the lack of Metallica on the sound system.
"I saw that. I’m not really sure what that was," Norris said. "Maybe they’ve been waiting the last five months to do that."
It’s clear, though, that Balfour’s contributions to the A’s division-winning teams the past two seasons have not been forgotten. Balfour received a nice ovation from what remained of the crowd when he was announced in the 10th, and Norris acknowledged it was fitting for them to react that way to a player who "was a fan favorite."
"They’re supporting us, which is the biggest thing," Norris said. "And you can’t fault them for showing appreciation for one of their favorite players over the last few years."
Balfour left the mound after Norris’ hit yelling and gesturing angrily -- also reminiscent of old times. But it had already been a frustrating inning for the Rays. Manager Joe Maddon was ejected after arguing that Donaldson had gone around on a check swing on a 2-2 pitch. First-base umpire Quinn Wolcott ruled that Donaldson had held up, and threw Maddon out of the game almost as soon as Maddon left the dugout to protest.
* Before that, the chess-match aspects of Monday’s game between Maddon and Melvin had been fun to watch. Maddon twice brought in right-handed relievers to face A’s left-handed hitters (Joel Peralta to face Moss in the sixth and Brad Boxberger for Fuld in the seventh) and both times it worked. With two on and two outs in the seventh, Melvin sent up Jonny Gomes to pinch hit for Eric Sogard against Peralta -- despite the fact Gomes is right-handed and Sogard was 2-for-2 with a walk. The reason: Gomes was 6-for-13 with four homers in his career against Peralta. Peralta fell behind 2-0 before the Rays opted to put Gomes on intentionally.
Melvin also scored one in the top of the ninth, after the Rays put runners on first and third with one out. Maddon sent Brandon Guyer up to pinch-hit, at which point Melvin went to the mound for a conference with his infielders.
"(Guyer) has attempted a lot of squeezes for that team, so when Bob went out to the mound he just said, ‘Be ready,’" Norris said. "Their team in general, first and third, they have a lot of action. So that was the purpose of the visit -- just be ready for it."
And indeed, Guyer attempted the squeeze bunt on the second pitch from Sean Doolittle, bunting the ball right back to Doolittle, who flipped it home to Norris for the tag on Sean Rodriguez. It preserved the 2-2 tie and helped send the game into extras.
"We’re ready for it, but it’s a heck of a play by a guy (Doolittle) that used to be a position player," Melvin said.
And some sharp awareness from the manager. If the rest of the series continues like this, it should make for good entertainment.
* Jeff Samardzija, who allowed two runs in seven innings but got a no-decision and then watched Norris’ game-winning hit from the clubhouse, joked that this is getting to be his "M.O." with the A’s. "Go out and throw some innings and then watch these guys put on a show at the end of the game," he said, grinning.
Samardzija summed up his night as good other than two "dumb pitches." One was a 2-0 fastball that Evan Longoria hit for a home run in the second inning. The second was a 1-2 pitch to Desmond Jennings in the fifth that Jennings hit for an RBI single.
"I’d like to have those back, but other than that, just battled," Samardzija said.
Norris said Samardzija did a good job of working with the tight strike zone of home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor. Samardzija finished with just three strikeouts, which he said was a product largely of his splitter not being sharp.
"My strikeouts kind of go as my splitter goes, and it was kind of all over," Samardzija said. "But you’re out there pitching, just dealing with the situation."
At some point, Samardzija said, he’ll be a part of one of the A’s walk-off celebrations.
"It’s going to be a game I don’t pitch in," he said. "(But) it’s fun to watch. I love this team. I love how they play. They don’t quit."
* Melvin said Samardzija going out to pitch the seventh despite being at 100 pitches was "really key." Samardzija finished the inning with 10 pitches, which allowed Melvin to save his key relievers for the later innings.
Luke Gregerson, Doolittle and Ryan Cook each pitched a scoreless inning. Cook had his 17th consecutive scoreless outing -- covering 15 2/3 innings in which he has allowed just six hits and struck out 12 batters -- which is his longest such stretch since going 22 games without allowing a run from Sept. 28, 2011 to May 27, 2012.
Melvin said Cook recently has looked "similar to how he was throwing in the past, when he made the All-Star team. Velocity’s back, opposite glove-side command too. He’s been throwing really, really well."
* Coco Crisp, who had missed the last seven games with a neck strain, entered as a pinch hitter in the seventh and played the rest of the game in center field. Melvin said the plan is for Crisp to be in the lineup Tuesday.
* And finally, perhaps the biggest news of the night. TV cameras in the 10th showed what appeared to be a possum scurrying near the warning track in an area of foul ground at the Coliseum. Both Melvin and Norris said they at first thought it was a rat, which, as Norris said, "would have fit perfectly with the way things have kind of shaped up the last few years here."
But no, it was a possum. And apparently it’s not the first time the animal has appeared in the stadium.
"He’s been out here before," Samardzija said. "He was out here when we were warming up a few times. We’re going to have to give him a name or a jersey or something."
Samardzija was asked if he had any ideas for a name and said, "No, I’m not that clever."
"Hopefully we’ll keep feeding him, and as long as he keeps giving us wins we’ll be all right."
We’ll see if the possum returns for game two of this series Tuesday night. It’s the A’s Jason Hammel (0-4, 9.53) against the Rays’ Drew Smyly (6-9, 3.93). First pitch at 7:05.