Altuve, Astros run away from bumbling A’s

What began as a stingy battle of aces was by decided by patience and defense. And the Houston Astros held the advantage in each, as they scooted away late to beat the Oakland Athletics 7-2 Friday night.

Both starters were stellar early, but a mounting pitch count forced Kendall Graveman from the game after just five innings, while Dallas Keuchel continued to coast leading the Astros (7-4) to a third straight win.

Despite entering the game with the American League’s highest error total (11), the A’s (5-6) came in having allowed just two unearned runs — of their 40 overall. Houston made them pay for their mistakes this time around, scratching across five unearned in Game 1 of a three-game weekend set.

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

Manager Bob Melvin is worried about his team’s defense, which now has committed a major league-leading 13 errors:

“We’re always concerned about our defense, and we haven’t been consistent. As a matter of a fact, we’ve been inconsistent here recently. It’s an area of concern — you can’t give away runs and extra outs to a team like that.”

As far as the early removal of his starter — after just 5 innings — Melvin revealed that Graveman (ND, 2-0, 2.00 ERA) was having some difficulty staying loose in the chilly, windy Bay Area weather. While the skipper didn’t think it was an ailment worth serious concern, he took it as an opportunity to lift a starter that had already logged 262 pitches in 16 innings:

“It makes no sense to have him keep pitching if we feel like something could potentially happen, he’s too important to what we’re doing. You just can’t mess around with it.”

Graveman agreed that he had thrown “a good bit of pitches” in each of his first two starts, and that he expects no lingering effects from this issue:

“As the game went on, it was a little bit harder to stay loose. But it’s nothing that should raise any doubts or questions. I feel fine.”

Trouble came early and often for the starter, with Houston runners reaching base in each of his 5 innings — five hits, two walks and a hit batsman. Over and over, though, the ace was able to avoid the back-breaker, stranding five through four innings. Three of those came in the fourth, as Graveman responded to a bases-loaded, one-out situation with consecutive infield pop-outs.

A melancholy Graveman allowed a hint of a grin speaking about dodging the mess:

“I told Sonny (Gray), when I came out, I said, ‘I’ve never gotten out of a jam with two pop ups to the infield.'”

The jam escaped preserved a slim one run lead for the A’s. The run came on something less surprising than the sinker-baller Graveman coaxing just five ground-ball outs.

Leading off the second frame Oakland slugger Khris Davis got the scoring started, crushing a 3-2 homer (5) off the camera well in straight away center field.

A less-likely big fly candidate in away grays matched the feat one inning after the Oakland starter slithered unscathed from the bases-loaded situation.

Norichika Aoki, leading off the fifth, turned on a sinker up and in sending a solo bomb (1) onto the stairwell beyond the wall in left. The A’s hurler settled in, however, keeping the Astros from making it a multi-run inning, though he did serve up a two-out double to Jose Altuve.

Houston took the lead one inning later when Aoki legged out an infield single, beating a flip from second baseman Adam Rosales on a chopper hit straight down into the gravel in front of the plate. The run was credited to Ryan Madson (L, 0-1, 2.25 ERA).

Said Melvin:

“Ryan makes a great pitch right there, (it was) just one of those instances where it wasn’t hit hard enough. Rosey came and got it as quickly as he could, got it to first. … Some times you make a pitch and it ends up not working out for you.”

The Astros broke through in the seventh, capitalizing on a throwing error from third baseman Trevor Plouffe. With one run scoring on the error, and two more on a double off the bat of McCann, they handed Keuchel (W, 2-0, 0.86 ERA) more than he would need.

The 2015 Cy Young Award winner finished tossing 7 complete, allowing four hits and one run while walking two and striking out seven. It was the worst of the lefty’s first three starting assignments thus far in 2017.

Plouffe added another error then a solo home run (1) in the ninth, but it was too little, too late for the first-year Athletic.

Leading the otherwise subdued attack of the Oakland offense was lead-off man Marcus Semien, who tallied a double and two walks in four trips. The All-Star Astro Altuve finished 3-for-3, with two doubles, two walks and a run scored.

In his seven seasons, Altuve boasts a career average of .311. Facing the A’s, that number shoot up to .330. When batting in Oakland, that number rises further to .361. While Melvin pointed to the fact that every team struggles to get the Houston second baseman out, Graveman tried to explain what makes him so tough — saying he has a good eye, can pull the inside pitch and hit with power. He added:

“I threw a ball four foot off the plate and he gets a double, so that’s one reason. … I can’t make a better pitch than that cutter away. Nobody else in the league gets a hit off that.”

On deck

Sean Manaea (0-1, 7.15 ERA) will look to get his season on track against the Astros, against whom he has allowed just four earned runs over 21-1/3 innings (1.69) in four starts. The “Throwin’ Samoan” will be opposed by Lance McCullers (1-0, 2.77 ERA) in the Saturday matinee.

Notes

Kendall Graveman finished without striking out a Houston Astros hitter. It is the first start in his career in which he finished without at least one strikeout, and the first major league appearance since throwing 1 inning of relief on Sept. 28, 2014 — his first as a major leaguer. … With two walks, a single and two doubles in his five trips to the plate Astros second baseman Jose Altuve has now reached base safely in 11 consecutive plate appearances. The MLB record, shared by Earl Averill and Piggy Ward, is 17 straight. … Oakland Athletics third baseman Trevor Plouffe was charged with a throwing error in the seventh. The A’s have now commit at least one error in eight consecutive games. Plouffe added a second error in the ninth.


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