The loss of closer Sean Doolittle to a strained intercostal muscle Aug. 24 appeared costly at the time, but it was a little-discussed topic in the ensuing two weeks. Largely because of the A’s 4-9 record during that stretch, entering Sunday they had faced only one save situation in Doolittle’s absence, which Eric O’Flaherty secured Aug. 27 in Houston.
That absence was exposed Sunday. The A’s took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning against the Astros and this time turned to Ryan Cook to record the final three outs. Cook instead walked three of the four hitters he faced before handing the ball to Fernando Abad, who allowed a tying sacrifice fly to Jake Marisnick and then walked in the go-ahead run to help gift the Astros a 4-3 win at O.co Coliseum.
The A’s left for Chicago having lost two of three to the Astros, a team they have mostly dominated since Houston joined the American League West last season, and needed to rally for three runs in the ninth Saturday for their only win in the series. That, at least, was somewhat in character, being the A’s ninth walk-off win of the year. Before Sunday, the Astros had trailed entering the ninth inning in 65 games this season – and not won any of them.
To begin the ninth, the Astros had a switch hitter followed by a left-handed one, making it a logical situation to use O’Flaherty. But manager Bob Melvin revealed after the game that the left-handed O’Flaherty, who last pitched Sept. 1, was unavailable because of back tightness. So he summoned the right-handed Cook, who has experience in closing for the A’s but whose command was shaky from the beginning.
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Cook walked Marwin Gonzalez on four pitches to open the ninth, induced a pop-out from Jon Singleton, then walked pinch hitter Mark Krauss on four pitches. After going to a full count against Robbie Grossman, another switch hitter batting left-handed, Cook threw his third ball four to load the bases.
“I just lost my mechanics for a minute and struggled as much as I could to try and make pitches, but it didn’t happen,” Cook said. “Simple as that.”
Melvin summoned Abad, who had allowed just one of his 31 inherited runners this season to score. Marisnick hit Abad’s first pitch to the track in right field to bring Gonzalez home with the tying run. Melvin then elected to walk major-league hits leader Jose Altuve intentionally, again loading the bases, to face Dexter Fowler with two outs.
“That’s a guy that’s just killed us,” Melvin said of Altuve. “On top of it, against lefties, it’s pretty remarkable (his) numbers ... I just couldn’t let him get a hit and beat us.”
It left nowhere to put Fowler, who took three consecutive balls before Abad threw him a strike. Abad’s next offering, though, also missed the zone, and the Astros regained the lead without a hit.
“There’s no excuses,” said Cook, who took the loss. “I didn’t make pitches, and that’s all there is to it.”
Houston has had its own ninth-inning issues against the A’s this year and opted not to use closer Chad Qualls on Sunday, given that four of his five blown saves have come against Oakland. Tony Sipp and Josh Fields combined to record the final three outs, with Fields striking out Josh Donaldson looking to end the game.
The A’s suffered their eighth loss in 10 games, despite a go-ahead two-run home run by Nate Freiman in the seventh inning that at the time felt momentous, and a third straight strong outing from starter Jason Hammel, who carried a shutout into the seventh.
Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel matched zeros with Hammel until the sixth, when the A’s loaded the bases with one out and pushed across a run on Derek Norris’ groundout to second baseman Altuve. Houston answered the next inning, when Hammel gave up a leadoff double to Chris Carter, walked Jason Castro and saw them score on a Singleton groundout and a Gregorio Petit single, respectively.
“I just ran out of gas in the seventh,” Hammel said. “Other than that, felt like I threw a pretty good game. It’s just been tough to come by some runs right now. We answered back, and this one hurts.”
After Jed Lowrie singled leading off the A’s seventh, Freiman lined a 1-0 breaking ball from Keuchel just inside the left-field foul pole for his fifth home run of the season and seventh hit in 15 at-bats against Keuchel in his career.
As he rounded first base, Freiman, who grounded into a double play that snuffed a potential rally in the fifth, pumped his fist emphatically. He was, for the moment, in line to be the hero.
“It was disappointing to lose today after having a lead late,” Freiman said. “We’re going to spend some time today gathering ourselves, but tomorrow we’ve got another series.
“Good teams have short memories. The best thing we can do now is come out in Chicago tomorrow and be ready to go.”