One factor in the A’s recent struggles on offense has been their handling of their best scoring opportunities. Going into Monday, the A’s were hitless in their past 15 plate appearances with the bases loaded.
It helped that early Monday night that their best recourse in those situations was not to swing.
With Angels starter C.J. Wilson having trouble commanding pitches from the outset, the A’s parlayed a patient approach into a six-run first inning, making a strong first move in their final-week playoff push. Their 8-4 win over Los Angeles gave the A’s a one-game lead over Kansas City for the top American League wild-card spot and a three-game cushion over the Seattle Mariners, who were blown out in Toronto.
Wilson allowed a leadoff single to Coco Crisp and got Sam Fuld to hit into a fielder’s choice before unraveling. He walked the next three batters, including Derek Norris to force in the A’s first run. Jed Lowrie popped out in a 3-1 count for the second out, but Wilson then walked Nate Freiman on four pitches to force in another run.
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That brought up Geovany Soto, who also went to a 3-1 count, took strike two and then shot a single up the middle to score Jonny Gomes and Norris. It was the A’s first bases-loaded hit since the ninth inning of an 11-2 win over Chicago on Sept. 9. They’d batted with the bases loaded in nine different innings in between, going 0 for 11 and scoring only on two walks and two sacrifice flies.
Soto’s hit knocked Wilson out of the game – a minor victory in itself for the A’s, against whom Wilson had been 5-0 with a 2.78 ERA in his last eight starts. Wilson threw just 12 of his 35 pitches for strikes while failing to record three outs in a start for just the second time in his career – the other a rain-shortened outing in May 2012.
Mike Morin relieved Wilson to face Nick Punto, who hit a sharp grounder to Angels third baseman David Freese. Freese fielded it cleanly but made a poor throw that bounced past first baseman Albert Pujols and into the Coliseum’s vast expanses of foul territory, while Freiman and Soto both came around to score and Punto sprinted to third.
The A’s, who had fallen behind 1-0 two batters into the game, quickly had a five-run lead despite having two hits. It was plenty for right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who allowed a run for the first time in three starts – and earned his only win of those outings.
Samardzija had held the White Sox scoreless for seven innings Sept. 10 and the Rangers for eight last Wednesday but received no-decisions both times. The first batter he faced Monday, Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun, doubled over left fielder Jonny Gomes’ head and took third when Gomes bobbled the ball. That made the run unearned when Calhoun scored on Mike Trout’s sacrifice fly to center.
Samardzija allowed just one other runner past second base – Gordon Beckham, who led off the third inning with a double and advanced on Calhoun’s one-out groundout. Trout, though, took a called third strike on a high fastball to end the inning, one of Samardzija’s three strikeouts in his sixth consecutive outing of at least seven innings. The right-hander has not given up an earned run in his past 23 innings.
The A’s, meanwhile, have scored just three fewer runs in their past two games (16) than they did in their previous 10 combined. Recent habits arose in the fourth inning, when they loaded the bases with one out and had Brandon Moss strike out and Adam Dunn fly out, both as pinch hitters.
But after the A’s loaded the bases again with one out in the seventh inning on two walks and a Jed Lowrie infield single, Stephen Vogt lined a single to center off left-hander Michael Roth to extend the A’s lead to 8-1.
Vogt’s hit allowed the A’s to breathe easier when Pujols launched a three-run home run into the left-center field seats against reliever Evan Scribner in the eighth inning. It gave Pujols 1,602 career RBIs –33rd all-time – and 520 home runs, one shy of placing him in a four-way tie for 18th on the career list.
The A’s have a magic number of four – Oakland wins or Seattle losses – to clinch at least a berth in the A.L. wild-card game. In that sense, they control their own playoff destiny – something manager Bob Melvin acknowledged before the game is a preferable position.
“We’re just trying to play well and win games, and I think regardless of any position we’re in, that should be the mindset,” Melvin said. “But it is a little nicer knowing if you take care of business and win your share of games, you don’t have to count on somebody else losing.”