When watching from the dugout, A’s first baseman Nate Freiman said, there several immediate indicators that can help you assess whether your teammate has just hit a game-winning home run. They include the sound of the ball off the bat, the reaction of the hitter and the response of the outfielder closest to where the ball is headed.
With much of the A’s team crowding the top step of the dugout in the 10th inning Sunday, Josh Donaldson’s swing at Phillies reliever Miguel Gonzalez’s 1-0 pitch produced a loud sound. Donaldson’s bat flip and pause to watch the ball’s flight was telling. And center fielder Ben Revere had already turned and started jogging back to the Philadelphia dugout by the time the ball ricocheted off the facade below the suite windows in center, giving the A’s an important 8-6 walk-off win at the O.co Coliseum.
The A’s secured their first series win at home in a month and maintained their hold on the top American League wild-card spot – a half-game ahead of the Kansas City Royals – entering a three game series against the Los Angeles Angels, who have baseball’s best record.
It was Donaldson’s fourth career walk-off home run and third this season, tying him with Reggie Jackson, Dave Kingman and Matt Stairs for the most hit by an A’s player in one season. Judging by his follow-through and stylish discarding of his bat, Donaldson knew he had this one right away.
“I would say it’s kind of a little adrenaline rush,” Donaldson said. “In order to square a pitch up it takes a lot, and when you’re able to do it, it definitely feels good. And it makes you even more excited because it helped your team win a baseball game.”
Freiman singled against Gonzalez with one out in the 10th and been lifted for pinch runner Billy Burns. Donaldson said that had a significant effect – with the speedy Burns on first base, he noticed Gonzalez “was trying to be a lot quicker” to the plate. “Anytime a pitcher has to make that adjustment and speed his delivery up, I feel they’re probably a little more apt to make a mistake,” he said. “And that’s what happened.”
The A’s crowded the plate waiting to greet Donaldson in a celebration that manager Bob Melvin said was “good to see.” Melvin acknowledged he had already indicated the importance of Sunday’s game when he used closer Sean Doolittle for two innings with the score tied. Doolittle pitched the ninth and 10th innings, recording four strikeouts while earning his second win.
“It was huge,” Doolittle said. “One thing we’ve been talking about is we’re still in the driver’s seat. We don’t have to scoreboard-watch as long as we take care of business.”
The win and Donaldson’s big swing helped mask some earlier issues for the A’s, who received another poor outing from starter Scott Kazmir and had put the potential winning run on third base in the ninth inning on Nick Punto’s one-out triple only to strand him – one of 12 runners the A’s left on base in the game.
The A’s did score nearly as many runs Sunday as in their previous five games combined (nine). After being shut out Saturday, Melvin had said the hitters lately have seemed less willing to work deep into counts. Against Philadelphia right-hander A.J. Burnett, who entered Sunday’s start leading the majors in walks, the A’s exercised patience and saw results.
Burnett allowed just three hits in his 4 1/3 innings but issued six walks and also hit two batters. He departed with two on and one out in the fifth having allowed four runs, and saw two more added to his line when A’s catcher Geovany Soto doubled off the base of the wall in right-center against reliever Cesar Jimenez.
The A’s lead at that point, though, was just 6-4. And it vanished in the sixth inning with Kazmir extending his September troubles. The left-hander allowed a season-high 11 hits and gave up six runs for the third time in his past six starts. He is winless over that stretch with an ERA of 8.58.
“I thought his stuff was reasonably good again,” Melvin said. “But with two outs, there were some times they got some key hits off him.”
Kazmir struck out nine but said he had trouble consistently hitting his spots, particularly with his off-speed pitches.
“My body, everything feels great,” Kazmir said. “It just seems like there’s been quite a few pitches that have gotten hit that have been secondary pitches, and I need to be able to bury (them) or get in a situation where I’m not going to be hurt by it.
“It’s been the complete opposite. It’s been those secondary pitches that I leave right over the middle of the plate in counts that I’m ahead. That’s the part that’s really frustrating.”
The A’s bullpen contributed 42/3 scoreless innings in relief of Kazmir that allowed for Donaldson’s heroics in the 10th, magnified by the way it sends Oakland into the final week of the regular season.
“Donny loves the spotlight,” Doolittle said. “He likes being the guy. Great players, they want to be in those pressure situations with the team counting on them. And today he came through huge for us.”