The A’s hit two balls in the first inning Friday night that easily could have been hits and came away with nothing. Sam Fuld yanked a line drive that was caught on a leap by Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Darin Ruf, and Josh Donaldson pulled a sharp grounder down the third-base line that Maikel Franco took on a backhand, throwing from behind the bag to beat Donaldson by a step at first.
In the second, the A’s scored three times with a rally that featured Adam Dunn hitting a grounder that bounced off Phillies pitcher David Buchanan for an infield single, Eric Sogard tomahawking a chest-high breaking ball into left field for a run-scoring hit and Coco Crisp hitting a dribbler that split the Phillies’ middle infielders perfectly for another RBI single.
At this point, though, the A’s will take a rally any way it comes. Left-hander Jon Lester made the early lead stand up with seven strong innings, and the A’s beat the Phillies 3-1 to rebound from their three-game sweep by the last-place Texas Rangers and retake the top spot in the American League wild-card race.
Given the closeness of that race, manager Bob Melvin was asked before the game if he’s watching the scoreboard during games and said: “I hate looking at the scoreboard, to tell you the truth. … It’s just another distraction you don’t need.”
Had he hazarded a glance during Friday night’s game, he would have seen the Kansas City Royals being blown out by the Detroit Tigers and the Seattle Mariners routing the Houston Astros.
The result: The A’s today hold a half-game lead over the Royals for the A.L.’s top wild-card spot, with the Mariners only a half-game behind Kansas City for the second spot. Friday had been the first day the A’s awoke without a share of either the division lead or the wild-card lead since April 5, five games into the season.
“With the way we’ve been going lately,” Lester said, “any ‘W’ matters.”
Their late-season slide may have hit a low point in the Rangers’ sweep at the Coliseum, but the A’s avoided faltering against another last-place team in the Phillies. Lester held the Phillies to a Ryan Howard solo home run in the fourth and has now gone six starts without allowing more than two earned runs.
Since June 12, a span of 18 starts, Lester is 10-3 with a 1.68 ERA. He remains on turn to start the Sept. 30 wild-card game for the A’s, should they make it.
The Phillies made Lester throw 24 pitches in the first inning Friday night, as he issued a one-out walk to Carlos Ruiz and single to Chase Utley but struck out the side. After that, Lester picked up the pace, with Howard the only Phillie to reach scoring position until Ruf doubled with two outs in the seventh. Lester then got Franco to pop out for his final hitter, leaving the mound at 114 pitches.
“He’s been terrific,” Melvin said of Lester. “Unfortunately, you feel like you don’t have to score many runs for him, because he’s going to do his job. You’d like to be able to make it easy on him every once in a while.”
Instead, Lester’s outing was crucial as the A’s offense went quiet after the second inning, when they scored all three runs on two-out singles by Derek Norris, Sogard and Crisp. The A’s did not have another hit until Jed Lowrie tripled to lead off the seventh, and they left the bases loaded in both the seventh – when Donaldson popped out for the third out – and eighth – with pinch hitter Jonny Gomes looking at strike three to end the inning.
“It’s nice to throw a crooked number up there and score more than one run in an inning,” Melvin said. “As long as we keep grinding the at-bats, getting ourselves opportunities, we’ll find our way out of it.”
Donaldson made a key defensive play in the eighth, though, fielding Ruiz’s chopper and throwing home to cut down Freddy Galvis, who had started the inning with a double off Luke Gregerson. The A’s took a two-run lead into the ninth and handed the ball to closer Sean Doolittle, who two nights before had blown a save chance by giving up five ninth-inning runs against Texas.
This time, Doolittle retired the side in order on 12 pitches with help from Donaldson, who went into a backhand slide for Marlon Byrd’s hard-hit grounder, and a nice stretch at first base from Stephen Vogt, making his first start since spraining his left ankle Sept. 3.
“When you have something like (Wednesday night) happen … you want to get back out there as soon as possible and get a good outing back under your belt,” Doolittle said. “So that one tonight was big for me personally, and obviously to seal the win here the first game of the series – with Lester pitching the game he did – to lock it up was big.”