OAKLAND -- Sean Doolittle had to wait one night more than he wanted to for a chance to bounce back from his nightmarish outing Wednesday -- when the A’s closer gave up five ninth-inning runs in a blown save against Texas -- and when it came Friday he was prepared.
Handed a 3-1 lead in the ninth, Doolittle retired the Philadelphia Phillies’ 4-5-6 hitters in order on 12 pitches to record his 22nd save and put some psychological distance between himself and his outing Wednesday night.
"It wasn’t like a lack of preparation or lapse of focus, it just wasn’t my night, and I think that was one of the reasons that I could turn the page (quickly)," Doolittle said Friday.
"It’s one of those things that was just so bad you just have to throw it out and fully invest and focus in the next opportunity you get, so you’re ready to go."
Doolittle went right after his first batter -- cleanup hitter Ryan Howard, who had homered off Jon Lester earlier -- with four 93 mile per hour fastballs, getting Howard to line out to right fielder Sam Fuld on the fourth. After Marlon Byrd grounded out to Josh Donaldson, Doolittle fell behind Grady Sizemore 3-0 but got Sizemore to fly out on a 3-1 pitch.
Doolittle threw 12 pitches, seven of them strikes, all of them fastballs.
"When you have something like (Wednesday) happen … you want to get back out there as soon as possible and kind of get a good outing under your belt," Doolittle said. "That one today was big for me personally, and obviously to seal a win here in the first game of the series, with Lester pitching the game he did -- to lock it up was big."
With the win, the A’s retook a half-game lead over the Kansas City Royals for the lead in the A.L. wild-card race. Doolittle’s meltdown Wednesday had contributed to their being swept in a three-game series at home by the last-place Rangers, and the A’s recovered a little Friday night against another last-place team in the Phillies.
"A closer’s going to blow some games every now and then," A’s manager Bob Melvin said. "He’s been really good for us, so I don’t think he thought too much about it other than the fact he just wanted to get out there again as quickly as he could."
Doolittle confirmed as much, saying he was able to put Wednesday behind him quickly. It was the left-hander’s first blown save opportunity since June 30, and only the second time since that date he’d allowed a run -- a span of 19 outings.
"We all know how good Doo is, and all of us are human, we’re all going to have our bad outings," Lester said. "What happened the other day is obviously an anomaly and for him to come out tonight and do what he did is getting back to being him … So nobody in this clubhouse lost any faith in any of those guys."
In some ways, Friday night could have followed the same script from two nights before. The A’s took a slim lead into the ninth after failing to add on in the late innings. Friday, the left the bases loaded in both the seventh and eighth innings, keeping it a two-run lead as Doolittle took the mound.
This time, though, it unfolded according to the A’s preferred script -- seven innings from their starter, Luke Gregerson in the eighth and Doolittle shutting the door in the ninth.
"The way the offense battled, the way the defense was, Lester doing his thing with seven really strong innings, for me to get back out there," Doolittle said, "it was big for a lot of reasons."
* Lester’s outing had what has become a customary feel to it. He labored a bit in the first inning -- he threw 24 pitches, allowing two baserunners but striking out the side -- and he worked so methodically that it didn’t exactly seem like he was dominating the Phillies. But he walked off the mound after the seventh having allowed one run -- on a solo homer by Howard in the fourth -- with five hits, seven strikeouts and a 3-1 lead.
"Every time out there, he’s deep into games, 110-plus pitches and comes out with a lead," Melvin said. "That’s all you can ask for."
Lester has allowed two earned runs or fewer in each of his last six starts and in 18 starts since June 12 is 10-3 with a 1.68 ERA. He pitched six scoreless innings in his last start against Seattle and said afterward he didn’t feel he had his best stuff. Friday, he said, he "felt better."
"Still not quite there," Lester said. "For some reason the fastball command hasn’t been exactly great the past couple starts. Curveball was better. Still struggling a little with the cutter, as far as getting it down and in to righties. But made some adjustments and was able to maneuver through that lineup and keep the damage to a minimum."
With that kind of self-assessment and Lester’s demeanor on the mound, it makes sense that Doolittle said when the A’s used to watch Lester pitch for Boston, "I just thought he was kind of a robot, with that cutter going out there, doing his thing.
"But the energy he has out there, I think the whole team feeds off it," Doolittle said. "He pitches with a lot of emotion, and I think guys pick up on that, feed off that."
Third baseman Josh Donaldson said that, "What (Lester) does a good job of is making guys put the ball in play." That keeps the defense on its toes and involved pitch to pitch.
With the A’s failing to add on after a three-run second inning, Lester’s outing was key in snapping a three-game losing streak. His response to that: "Regardless of the situation -- winning streaks, losing streaks, anything like that -- that’s what I try to do, is go out and attack hitters early, get them swinging, get them on the defense a little bit and try to maneuver from there."
It worked fine Friday night. Lester, incidentally, remains on turn to start the Sept. 30 wild card game if the A’s make it. And really, if you’re the A’s, would you want anyone else?
* Speaking of the wild-card race, the A’s leap-frogged the Royals to retake a half-game lead for the top spot with their win and the Royals’ loss to the Detroit Tigers on Friday.
The Seattle Mariners, meanwhile, beat the Houston Astros. So the Mariners trail Kansas City by just a half-game for the second wild-card spot.
Melvin said before the game he doesn’t like scoreboard-watching because it’s "another distraction you don’t need." With the top three teams in the wild-card race separated by one game, it’s probably avoiding a headache just to ignore the scores.
Besides, as Lester said, "With the way we’ve been going lately, any ‘W’ matters."
"We’re at the point now where a win makes you feel good and another loss doesn’t," Melvin said. "I know we’re going to be in a better mood tomorrow than we were today."
* Offensively, Friday night was a mixed bag for the A’s. They staked Lester to an early lead with the three-run second, scoring all three runs with two outs on singles by Derek Norris, Eric Sogard and Coco Crisp.
They also had several chances to pad that lead and squandered them. In the seventh, Jed Lowrie hit a leadoff triple but was thrown out at home trying to score on a Sogard bunt. The A’s loaded the bases with two outs, but Donaldson popped out on the first pitch from reliever Justin de Fratus.
In the eighth, they loaded the bases again with two outs, but pinch hitter Jonny Gomes took a called third strike from left-hander Jake Diekman. The A’s left nine runners on base in all, struggles mitigated Friday by Lester and the bullpen.
"It’s nice to throw a crooked number up there (in the second) and score more than one run in an inning," Melvin said. "We had some opportunities again. As long as we keep grinding the at-bats, getting ourselves in some opportunities, we’ll find our way out of it."
* Donaldson didn’t come through in the seventh, but he did make a key defensive play in the eighth. Freddy Galvis started the inning against Luke Gregerson with a double, took third on Ben Revere’s groundout and tried to score when Carlos Ruiz hit a high chopper to Donaldson.
Rather than taking the sure out at first base, Donaldson threw home, his lack of hesitation giving Norris time to catch the throw and apply a tag.
"It’s a big play," Melvin said. "He’s got to make sure he can get him. You get the out at first and obviously it’s 3-2, but he’s got great instincts and a great clock and he knew he had a shot to get him. It’s a shot in the arm when that run doesn’t score."
Donaldson said that judging from the speed and height of the ball hit to him, he "felt like I had a good chance" going home. On a night when the A’s played solid defense behind Lester and the relievers, Donaldson also made a highlight-type play in the ninth, going to a backhand slide for a sharp Marlon Byrd grounder and throwing Byrd out by a half-step.
* Sogard’s squeeze attempt in the seventh was not a bad idea, especially given how the A’s have hit lately with men in scoring position, but the execution was poor. Sogard’s bunt, on a high pitch, went straight to charging third baseman Maikel Franco on one hop, and because it stayed in the air momentarily, Lowrie was unable to get a good jump from third base.
"It was a safety (squeeze)," Melvin said. "But the ball was popped up, and (Lowrie) has to make sure it’s on the ground."
* Missed scoring chances aside, the A’s opened this series on the right foot in front of a sellout crowd (Star Wars fireworks night). They’ll go for a series win Saturday behind left-hander Drew Pomeranz (5-4, 2.53), while the Phillies will counter with right-hander Jerome Williams (3-2, 2.84). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.