OAKLAND -- Ryan Cook motioned reporters to his locker, waited for them to gather and didn’t mince words answering for his ninth-inning letdown in the A’s 4-3 loss Sunday.
"There’s no excuses," Cook said. "I didn’t make pitches, and that’s all there is to it."
Would that were the case for the A’s. Among the ramifications of this loss: The A’s lost two of three this weekend to the fourth-place Astros, fell seven games behind the Angels in the West on Sunday and failed to pick up a game in the wild-card race on the Mariners after Seattle’s loss to Texas. They wasted a strong outing from Jason Hammel, a dramatic go-ahead home run from Nate Freiman in the seventh, and were forced to reveal that left-hander and current closer Eric O’Flaherty is sidelined right now with back tightness.
It all might have been different but for the fact that Cook, who started the ninth inning for the save opportunity, and Fernando Abad, who relieved him after Cook walked three of the four hitters he faced, could not consistently throw strikes. Two of the hitters Cook put on came around to score, including the winning run on a bases-loaded walk by Abad, and the A’s gifted the Astros a win on a ninth-inning rally in which Houston didn’t have a hit.
Granted, this is not Cook’s regular role. Closer Sean Doolittle is still out with a strained intercostal muscle. Sunday’s save opportunity likely would have gone to O’Flaherty, with the Astros scheduled to have a switch-hitter and left-handed hitter start the ninth.
But manager Bob Melvin after the game explained that O’Flaherty has not been available for several days due to back tightness. So after Luke Gregerson pitched a shutout eighth, and with the A’s leading 3-2 going into the ninth, Melvin went to Cook because "he’s the guy with the most experience (closing)."
Cook walked Marwin Gonzalez on four pitches, got Jon Singleton to pop out, and then walked left-handed pinch hitter Marc Krauss on four pitches. He went to a full count on Robbie Grossman, another switch-hitter batting from the left side, before missing for ball four. Many of Cook’s pitches missed in the same location -- up and away.
"He was pretty amped up out there," Melvin said. "The velocity was good, he just had a tough time getting his arm slot to where he wasn’t missing up and away to the lefties."
Cook said he "just lost my mechanics for a minute and struggled as much as I could to try and make pitches, but it didn’t happen. Simple as that."
How difficult is it to regroup when the mechanics lapse?
"It’s tough," Cook said. "But there’s no excuses. You’ve got to be able to do that, and today I didn’t do it."
Cook said he wasn’t expressly told he would close Sunday if it came to a save chance, but "you can watch the game and know when you’re going to pitch, and that’s kind of the way it unfolded." Cook had retired all four hitters he faced in his last outing against the Astros on Friday, three on strikeouts, but in a wider lens his performance has not been as encouraging. In his last nine games, Cook now has two losses, two blown saves and has allowed nine runs in 7 1/3 innings.
Cook said he would have to look at film to pinpoint the problem with his mechanics on Sunday. For the moment, he was left with only a simple explanation for his contribution to a frustrating loss.
"I didn’t make pitches," Cook said. "You’ve got to make pitches."
* The particulars of the loss are here in the game story. One thing not included: Melvin was asked if it’s now time, with the A’s falling seven games behind the Angels with 20 left to play, to treat the wild-card as a more realistic expectation than a late run at a third consecutive division title. His answer:
"You know what, regardless it’s really just all about winning games for us. You never know what kind of run you can go on, but really it’s just too far out for us to look right now. We’ve really got to focus on winning tomorrow’s game, and trying to follow that with another good one."
Freiman had a similar reaction.
"It was disappointing to lose today after having a lead late," he said. "We’re going to spend some time today gathering ourselves, but tomorrow we’ve got another series.
"Good teams have short memories. And the best thing we can do now is come out in Chicago tomorrow and be ready to go."
* It’s not surprising, but Melvin hadn’t previously mentioned O’Flaherty’s back issues, which the left-hander said cropped up following the A’s off-day last Monday. Melvin said after the game O’Flaherty hadn’t been available in recent days, and probably won’t be again for the series opener in Chicago on Monday.
"Hopefully we’ll have him the next day," Melvin said.
O’Flaherty said the back tightness is something he has dealt with in the past, and that it "usually clears itself up in two or three days." He said he played catch Sunday and "felt better," and he’s scheduled to throw a bullpen session Monday in Chicago.
As for not being able to close Sunday in Doolittle’s absence, O’Flaherty said: "You feel terrible when you can’t be out there. We sent some good relievers out there. It just didn’t go our way today."
* Three of Hammel’s best starts with the A’s have come in his last three outings, during which he has allowed four combined earned runs on 11 hits in 21 2/3 innings. All three starts have come with Geovany Soto behind the plate. Hammel, though, offered a wider-reaching explanation.
"I’ve just been aggressive," he said. "We’ve gone over our game plan just like I was with the other catchers and we’ve executed it better. I think I’m getting more comfortable, obviously, with the guys, too and just being here, part of the A’s.
"Moving your family and your life in the middle of the season, I learned, is pretty tough. So obviously, feeling a lot better about it, and comfortable with the guys."
Hammel took a shutout into the seventh inning and had seven strikeouts, five looking. Melvin said Hammel’s mix of pitches was impressive: "Good breaking ball, fastball both sides of the plate, downhill plane."
Now the troubling part. For the second day in a row, an A’s starter acknowledged that he wore down toward the end of his outing. Scott Kazmir said he "ran out of steam" for the first time in the late innings Saturday. Hammel allowed two runs in the seventh on two hits, a walk and a hit batter, and said he "just ran out of gas in the seventh."
"For some reason," he repeated later, "I just ran out of gas."
That’s probably more common around this time of year than most teams and pitchers will admit. To have two starters say as much on consecutive days, however, means it’s likely worthy of some attention over the final month.
* Until the ninth, Freiman was in line to be the hero with his go-ahead, two-run homer off Keuchel in the seventh. It left Freiman 7-for-15 in his career against the Astros’ lefty, and even had a redemptive angle: Freiman had grounded into a double play in the fifth inning that snuffed out a potential rally.
Freiman said Keuchel threw him a changeup to get the double play, and also in his first at-bat, when he grounded out to shortstop. "I just went up there in my last at-bat trying to see the ball a click longer before I made a decision," Freiman said, "just to make sure I sat on the changeup." He got a breaking ball and hooked it just inside the left-field foul pole for his fifth home run of the season.
At the time, it looked momentous, and Freiman gave an emphatic fist pump rounding first base. "It was nice to hit a homer," he said later.
"But I had a big situation early in the game that I contributed to kind of killing the rally," he added. "The at-bats early in the game matter, too. Just have to have better at-bats all throughout the game."
On that note, the A’s with runners in scoring position Sunday: 1-for-9, with the lone hit an infield single that did not bring in a run.
* With the loss, the A’s suffered their first losing homestand of the season and first since Aug. 13-21 of last season. They’d gone 11 homestands in a row without a losing record, tied for the third-longest streak in Oakland history.
"Wins are important right now," Freiman said. "But what this team is good at is not letting losses affect you. The likelihood over these next few weeks is we’re not going to go 20-0. So when we take our losses we’ll have short memories and come back the next day ready to win."
In other words, the A’s packed up and left for Chicago on Sunday afternoon hoping to leave the taste of this loss behind them in the jetstream. They now have a four-game series against the White Sox before heading to Seattle for a series that may have some serious wild-card implications. The pitching probables in Chicago:
Monday: RHP Sonny Gray (13-8, 3.25) vs. RHP Hector Noesi (8-8, 4.28)
Tuesday: LHP Jon Lester (13-10, 2.54) vs. LHP John Danks (9-10, 5.12)
Wednesday: RHP Jeff Samardzija (4-5, 3.70) vs. TBA
Thursday: LHP Scott Kazmir (14-7, 3.42) vs. LHP Chris Sale (11-3, 2.09)