A’s bats wither under pressure in Houston loss

A persistent inability to produce in the clutch once again bit the Oakland Athletics in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to the last-place Houston Astros.

Picking up a lone hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position, and leaving eight on base, the A’s offense was unable to back a strong Rich Hill start. Despite tossing six strong, allowing just two runs on two hits, the lefty was handed a loss. Houston starter Doug Fister (W, 2-3, 4.60 ERA) enjoyed his best start of 2016, lasting 6-2/3 innings to grab the the win.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the A’s clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum.

After the game, manager Bob Melvin admitted that the loss was frustrating:

“We had some opportunities, if someone gets a big hit. You’re only giving up two runs, you’ve got an opportunity to get back in the game, eventually go ahead, and we just weren’t able to do it.”

Hill (L, 3-3, 2.53 ERA) entered the games tied for third in strike outs among AL pitchers (41), relying heavily on a befuddling curveball. But the very first hook he threw in this game was crushed by Houston lead-off man Jose Altuve off the camera well beyond the center field wall.

Aside from the early mistake Hill kept his reliable Uncle Charlie down, using it as the deciding pitch in 17 at-bats after the lead-off homer. With it, the veteran hurler induced six ground-ball outs and picked up three of his four strikeouts. The problem with the curve, and overall, for Hill was strike-zone command as the curve also accounted for four free passes and a hit batsman.

Of the control issues, Melvin said:

“With his track record, he’ll walk some guys, but he seems to be able to pitch around them. What looked to be a little bit of a shaky start early on, he ends up just giving up two (hits) in six (innings). If we swing the bats better, a lot of times that’s enough.”

Hill suffered only one pressure inning, allowing a single and three walks in the third. In the midst of the rally, center fielder Colby Rasmus gave his Astros (8-17) their second and deciding run on a sacrifice fly. The single, a broken bat grounder from catcher Jason Castro, would be the second and final hit for Houston.

Said Hill of his outing:

“We fought hard. That’s the key there, the silver lining, just the way we went out there and competed, and stayed in the game. If we do that, we’re going to come out on top a lot more.”

Making the meager run support stand up, Fister kept A’s hitters off balance with a solid fastball-curveball combination of his own. Unable to find any gaps, Oakland hitters combined for eight hits, seven of which were for a single base.

Picking up two of those singles, coupled with a Yonder Alonso walk, the A’s (13-13) seemed poised to tie the game in the bottom of the second. A Marcus Semien flare, though, was turned into a smooth out by Carlos Correa, who made a hand-cuffed pick and flip to second for a fielder’s choice to end the inning.

Working just one walk, the A’s were relegated to a station-to-station attack, needing three hits to score a run. That third hit came just once.

With successive one-out singles from the bottom third of the order, Semien drove in Chris Coghlan for the RBI (No. 11) behind an Alonso base hit. After Billy Burns beat out the back end of an attempted double play, the A’s sent there most successful run producer Jed Lowrie to the dish.

But a weak fly out ended Oakland’s final threat.

After knocking in his team’s lone run, Semien still finished the game with discontent:

“As an offense you want to score more than one run. I had an at-bat with the bases loaded early, if we get a hit there we win the game, possibly. If we get more hits, timely hits, and we’ll be good.”

The bullpen continued its strong season as Liam Hendriks, Fernando Rodriguez and Marc Rzepczynski combined for three zeroes on the board to give the bats an opportunity. It wasn’t to be, however, as former A’s reliever Luke Gregerson caught Semien looking to end a perfect ninth for the save (5).

Up next, the A’s welcome the Seattle Mariners into town for three games, starting with Kendall Graveman (1-2, 4.03 ERA) taking on Nate Karns (2-1, 3.63 ERA) Monday night.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.