Staggering A’s swagger again with walk-off win

O.CO COLISEUM — After a miserable five weeks since the now-notorious Yoenis Cespedes trade, the A’s gave 28,668 fans a flash of their past glory Saturday with a 4-3 walk-off win.

Oakland’s first walk-off win since Aug. 4 — came after a frustrating battle with the work-in-progress Houston Astros, who’d already won the opener of the series on Friday night and seemed poised to continue confounding Oakland.

Josh Donaldson, mired in a 1-for-19 slump, sliced a ball the opposite way into right for a single to lead off the last of the ninth, but Adam Dunn popped to center.

Derek Norris drove a single into center, though, sending Donaldson to third, and they both scored when Josh Reddick launched reliever Chad Qualls’ second pitch off the center-field wall, sending home both runners.

With the game tied at 3-3, Jed Lowrie slapped a single into short left and third-base coach Mike Gallego sent Reddick speeding home from second.

Reddick slid under Alex Presley’s throw to score the A’s third run of the ninth, earning Lowrie some pies in the face from Reddick and a bucket of punch poured over his head courtesy of Derek Norris.

In each hitter’s case, manager Bob Melvin said after the game:

“It was their best at bat of the day, without a doubt.”

For a team that caught national attention on the strength of its walk-off wins in 2012, Melvin said Saturday afternoon was a welcome relief:

“We’ve won many games like that this year, so hopefully they remember the feeling. … We haven’t been playing that inspired lately.”

Reliever Luke Gregerson (W 4-3, 2.32 ERA) got the win for his scoreless ninth, while Qualls (L, 1-5, 3.59 ERA) earned a blown save after Astros starter Scott Feldman pitched into the ninth having given up only five hits and no walks when the inning began.

The A’s started the day further from first place than they’d been since May 2013. With the victory, Oakland gained a half-game in the standings to sit at 5-1/2 back of the Angels, who play Saturday evening game in Minnesota.

Scott Kazmir, who has turned in a major league-worst earned-run average (7.80) in August after being one of the key tales of the A’s storybook first half, held the Astros hitless through the first five innings.

Kazmir walked Chris Carter to start the second but was otherwise perfect, with seven strikeouts before giving up Carlos Corporan’s clean single to left leading off the sixth.

He had to be just about perfect, given Oakland’s struggling offense.

The A’s scored first, in the third, after an error, Eric Sogard’s single to left and Coco Crisp’s splendid bunt loaded the bases with none out, but came away with only a single run, on Brandon Moss’ fly to left, as Donaldson hit into a double play to end the threat, mirroring his previous night’s out, bases-loaded missed opportunity.

Once Kazmir lost his no-hitter in the sixth, the game quickly went south, as in, toward Houston.

Donaldson couldn’t make a play on Jonathan Villar’s infield hit, and after Robbie Grossman’s sacrifice bunt, Corporan and Villar both scored easily when speedster Jose Altuve drove Kazmir’s first offering into the left-field corner for a standup double and a 2-1 Astros edge.

When Kazmir walked the bases loaded in the seventh — retiring only Corporan thanks to catcher Derek Norris’ nice snare of a fouled bunt attempt — his day was done.

Grossman drove home a run with a long fly to the warning track in right off reliever Dan Otero, giving the Astros a 3-1 lead. But Altuve grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the threat with two men left on base.

Melvin said, praising Otero for limiting the damage:

“Another run there is pretty significant. … Those (bullpen) guys have been so good for us. They’re always focused.”

Melvin added:

“More than anything, getting a good, feel-good win under your belt. … Hopefully, doing it can lift that little cloud we’ve had over ourselves lately.”

The A’s came into Saturday’s game in freefall, tied with Cincinnati for the majors’ worst record over the past month.

It’s been a long season in a short time since the morning of July 31, when Yoenis Cespedes was traded to Boston for lefty pitcher Jon Lester and veteran outfielder Jonny Gomes.

At the time, the A’s owned the best record in baseball and sat 2 games ahead of the next-most winning team in the game, their division archrivals, the Angels.

Flash forward to the first weekend of September, and Oakland was six games back of Anaheim as play began Saturday, clinging to a two-game lead over Seattle, also playing Saturday night, for the first wild card slot, with Detroit a game back after losing to the Giants 5-4 this afternoon.

After it looked to all the world like 2014 might be their year, the A’s are in real danger of watching the playoffs and World Series from home.

Say what you want about All-Stars Kazmir or Moss, the latter of whom turned in the majors’ second-worst batting average (.169) in August, injuries to everyday starters Crisp and Lowrie and closer Sean Doolittle, or the generally disappointing work of Jason Hammel since he arrived with Jeff Samardzija on July 5 in another stunning trade.

All of those things have had an impact.

But for those who see baseball as more than the sum of its statistics — no matter how intricately crunched by Billy Beane and his legendarily overachieving “BillyBall” methodology — Cespedes put the A’s on the map, a star player whose presence made the bit-part contributions of his lesser teammates more valuable.

In 2012, his memorable first year with the team, the underdog Oaklanders pursued the defending AL champion Texas Rangers and caught them on the last day of the season. In 2013, Oakland followed a slightly easier path to the playoffs.

This year, the team attained new heights with their flashy left fielder winning the home run derby at the All-Star game and showing off his rocket arm to lead the league in throwing out runners who dared challenge or discount him on the basepaths.

Cespedes was an electrifying player to watch, and despite statisticians’ denying claims of certain players’ clutch performances and other “intangibles,” he thrived in the spotlight and stepped up his game when the team needed a lift.

Veteran grinders like Crisp, Gomes and Brandon Inge helped wake the team up to its potential back in 2012. But neither Gomes, reacquired in the Cespedes trade to hopefully make up for the loss of charisma, nor one-dimensional 6-foot-6 Dunn, picked up last weekend from the going-nowhere White Sox in hopes of restoring some punch to the listless lineup, can lift all boats the way Cespy, who, of course, arrived from Cuba on a speedboat, did in his time wearing the green and gold in California.

Signing Cespedes in the first place, when he was coveted by the big-budget boys of the East, was one of Beane’s greatest coups.

Trading him to one of those same big-money teams for the sort of player the A’s had always admired from the sidelines, and just when things seemed to be finally going Oakland’s way, may prove to be Beane’s most ignominious legacy.