OAKLAND -- For seven innings Tuesday night, the A’s offensively looked reminiscent of their recent four-game sweep at the hands of the Angels. While the Seattle Mariners built a 6-0 lead against Sonny Gray, the A’s managed just three singles before the eighth and sent only one batter over the minimum to the plate.
"I think the (Mariners’) starting pitcher had something to do with that, to tell you the truth," A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
The A’s rallied late and had the tying run on second base when Josh Reddick grounded out for the final out in a 6-5 loss. But for most of the game, this night was about Seattle left-hander James Paxton, who may be a name the A’s will be hearing for a while.
The 25-year-old Paxton made four starts last season for the Mariners and Tuesday’s was his eighth this season. He’s a combined 8-1 in those 12 starts with a 1.77 ERA, and even with his facing the A’s for the first time, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Paxton sat in the mid-90’s with his fastball and touched 97 mph regularly, coming from a high angle with his 6-foot-4 frame. He didn’t allow a hit his first time through the A’s order, and they didn’t manage much more the second time -- two singles, promptly erased by a caught stealing and a double play.
"First of all, he was getting a low strike, at times below the knee, which with a downhill plane creates a lot of balls beaten into the ground, because you have to swing at it," said Melvin. "On top of that he had a pretty good cut-slider, and a good curveball. He’s down-hill for a tall guy, and when he’s getting that low strike it’s really not in the hitting zone for very long."
A couple of A’s hitters sounded impressed by Paxton as well. Derek Norris noted that Paxton was "running it up there to 99 (mph) on our gun, which is slow."
"He was working inside, which for any left-handed pitcher with high velocity and a good breaking ball, when you’re consistently working inside and establishing in … allows you to focus on only one side of the plate. Most hitters are one-dimensional, and if you’re constantly pounding inside it just makes that curveball look even better."
As shortstop Jed Lowrie explained, that’s because when hitters have to protect against a mid-90s fastball on the inside corner, it can "speed a lot of guys up," making them more susceptible to being early on off-speed pitches. Still, Lowrie said, "I honestly don’t know if I saw anything but a fastball tonight.
"When you’re 97 with sink and command, the way he was tonight, you don’t really need a whole lot else," Lowrie said. "He dropped a couple curveballs in there, but the way he was commanding his fastball tonight -- if you’re a starter throwing 95 to 97 from that arm angle and his height, if you can throw strikes you’re going to be effective."
The A’s finally got to Paxton in the eighth, when his pitch count reached the 80s and it looked like his command may have faltered. Paxton allowed a leadoff single to Norris and walked Nate Freiman before getting Geovany Soto to hit into a hard-hit double play. Paxton then walked Josh Reddick and was taken out of the game, only to see Yoervis Medina surrender hits that scored Norris and Reddick.
That prevented a scoreless outing by Paxton, who until the eighth looked like he might have a shot at a complete game. Still, he exited with a win and a strong first impression left on a team he may well face many times down the road.
"Maybe he got a little tired at the end, started to lose some of his command," Lowrie said. "But that’s the first time I’ve ever seen him, and I was pretty impressed."
* On the other end of the starting spectrum Tuesday night was Gray, who was roughed up for six runs in five innings, matching his season high for earned runs allowed. Gray also gave up six on Aug. 6 against Tampa Bay, and he followed a rough August -- 1-4 with a 4.38 ERA, rough by his standards -- with a shaky start to September.
Gray was not forthcoming with possible explanations for a mini-slump ("I don’t know."), or his outing Tuesday ("I just missed with some pitches.") Physically, he said, "I felt OK. I’ve definitely felt better. But I’ve felt worse as well. So just OK."
That doesn’t shed much light on whether Gray might be feeling the effects of his first full major-league season. Gray has now thrown 183 innings this year, keeping him on pace to eclipse 200. As has been pointed out, he did throw more than 190 innings last season over Triple-A and the majors, including the playoffs, so this is not new territory for him. But it is the first time he has had to face major-league hitters in major-league environments over the course of a full year.
Melvin did not sound concerned Tuesday night. "I thought his stuff was terrific tonight, especially early on," he said. "They took advantage of the opportunities they had. But I think he’s had a great year to this point, I really do."
Gray allowed a two-run single to Austin Jackson in the third that was the result of trouble he’d created by walking Endy Chavez and Brad Miller to start the inning. He allowed two more hits with one out in the fourth before Chavez hit a slow chopper back up the middle that cleared Gray’s head and snuck through the A’s pulled-in infield for what turned into a two-run double when Chavez aggressively tried for second and no one covered the bag.
The rest of the damage came on Kyle Seager’s two-out, two-run homer in the fifth. That pitch Melvin admitted was "up." Gray said he "did what I was trying to do with Jackson" and that Chavez’s hit was "probably the shortest double you’ve ever seen in your life." Gray was clearly not happy with his outing afterward, but overall there seemed to be little in the way of concern about his past month.
"It’s hard to blame a guy that’s been so good all year, you know?" Lowrie said. "I think the stuff was there, so you just have to tip your cap to the Mariners for getting into good counts and putting good swings on pitches."
* About Chavez’s double, which was about as softly hit a chopper as you will see reach the outfield. Lowrie said he was actually shaded toward the 5-6 hole, and away from the middle of the field, because "that’s our scouting report on Chavez, is to play a step to the opposite field, because he’s able to hit the ball really well the other way."
The chopper was just high enough that Gray couldn’t leap for it, and it bounced past the backhand of second baseman Alberto Callaspo into shallow center. Callaspo followed the ball a little as Craig Gentry came in to field it, and Lowrie did not cover second base as Chavez motored in with a double.
"I think I was trying to understand how that ball got through," Lowrie said. "Honestly, I was caught there thinking about the play, and didn’t think he was going to second."
The extra 90 feet didn’t end up costing the A’s, as the next two hitters grounded out to strand Chavez on third. Melvin said of the play: "It’s risky for the runner to go there, but we’ve got to have our heads up."
* Despite the hole the A’s found themselves in after five innings, they still managed to get the tying run into scoring position in the ninth. After scoring three runs in the eighth they plated two against Mariners closer Fernando Rodney in the ninth on RBI doubles by Brandon Moss and Sam Fuld before Reddick’s game-ending groundout.
This is where expanded rosters at this time of year really come into play. Melvin was able to deploy Adam Dunn as a pinch hitter in the eighth, and Stephen Vogt, Moss and Fuld as pinch hitters in the ninth. All except Vogt came up with RBI hits.
Another example: With one out in the sixth and a six-run lead, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon replaced Chavez, who had doubled and walked in two at-bats, with a pinch hitter in Chris Denorfia to get a righty-lefty matchup against reliever Drew Pomeranz. It fizzled, as Denorfia popped out. Still -- September baseball.
* Before the eighth, Pomeranz was the brightest spot of the night for the A’s. Melvin said before the game that Pomeranz, also recalled Tuesday, "could be key for us" going down the stretch, as he provides a long relief option from the left side who has been effective against both right- and left-handed hitters. Tuesday night probably wasn’t what Melvin had in mind, bringing in Pomeranz to replace Gray down by six runs in the sixth inning, but that didn’t make Pomeranz’s outing any less valuable.
Pomeranz retired nine straight hitters before allowing a leadoff single in the ninth and being replaced by Ryan Cook. He kept the A’s in a position to stage a late comeback, and, important for the long run, saved the rest of the bullpen on a night when the A’s didn’t get much out of their starter. Eric O’Flaherty did start to warm up in the ninth, when it looked like the game might go into extra innings, but aside from Cook, the A’s bullpen should be fresh for the rest of the series.
"Really sharp," Melvin said. "He’s got to go out there with the mindset of, ‘I have to give them nothing,’ which he did. But good curveball, good sink, two-seamer when he needed it. He’s done a nice job for us in any role that he’s pitched."
* One note on Lowrie, who played his second game since coming back from a fractured thumb. Asked if the hand is feeling back to normal, Lowrie said: "What’s normal? But it’s manageable.
"It is much better than it was when I went on the DL," he added. So there’s that.
* Gentry, playing center field in place of the injured Coco Crisp, had a good day at the plate, going 3-for-4 with two runs scored and two RBIs. He had been hitless in his last 16 at-bats entering the game.
Along those lines, when Moss hit his RBI double off Rodney in the ninth inning, it was his first run batted in since August 12. This from a guy who’s second on the team with 77 RBIs on the season. That illustrates a couple things -- the fact that the A’s offensive woes recently have really been team-wide, and that they really need Moss to return to form in these last four weeks of the season.
* It’s a marquee pitching matchup in the finale of this series Wednesday: Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez (13-5, 2.23) against A’s left-hander Jon Lester (13-9, 2.55). First pitch at 12:35 p.m.