Sharp A’s follow Sonny’s lead, roll past White Sox

Wednesday was all about breaking the norms for the Oakland Athletics.

Their offense, which had compiled the fifth-fewest stolen bases in baseball, swiped six. The defense, which had committed the most errors in the league, played flawlessly. The team with the American League’s highest loss-total won.

Sonny Gray, the recipient said those adaptations of regularity, posted his third consecutive strong start, holding the Chicago White Sox (37-47) to three hits and two runs over 6 innings claiming a 7-4 win.

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

Gray (W, 4-4, 4.00 ERA), manager Bob Melvin said, was suffering from illness but battled through a solid 6-inning outing:

“To get 6 out of him like we did, he stepped up because he was not feeling too good before the game — he’s not feeling great right now.”

The starter downplayed the ailment, calling it “just a little stomach issue.” He also downplayed his outing:

“I thought my stuff was just OK. … It was nice, you get a six-run lead early in the game you want to try attack the guys as much as possible.”

By the normal standards of the 2017 A’s (37-48), a six-run lead heading into the fifth inning would require at least two home runs.

Not only does Oakland own the worst team batting average with runners in scoring position (.222) and fewest runs in those situations (213) in the AL, they had done little of anything to create runs outside of the long ball.

Entering Wednesday afternoon’s tilt, the A’s had successfully stolen 27 bases in 84 games — about one per every three games. Part of the reason for the low total has been the struggles of Opening Day leadoff man Rajai Davis.

Rajai acknowledged that stealing bases is something he needs to do to maximize his production:

“That’s something I would like to do, ideally, every time. You just don’t get that opportunity most of the time, so you try to recognize when they’re giving it to me and take advantage.”

Oakland brought Rajai, who led the AL with 43 a season ago, aboard via free agency in the offseason to remedy its speed shortage of the past two seasons. But his .263 on-base percentage this season has done what catchers were unable to in 2016: stymie those wheels.

For the ninth time this season — first since June 7 — he collected multiple hits. Through his speed, Rajai maximized singles in the fourth and sixth, stealing second and third both times — with both takes of third coming without throws from the catcher Kevan Smith. The four steal matched a career-high for Rajai, matching his performance on July 28, 2013.

Said Melvin:

“We’re not going to run into outs just to run, we had a guy on the mound we felt like we could run on — had a couple guys in the game we felt like we could run on.”

The skipper added:

“It gets them on their toes a little bit, and the pitcher has got to be quicker to the plate. … When Raj gets on, he’s one of the premiere guys in the league. That’s what he can do.”

While his second effort had little practical effect on the game, as he was left stranded at third, his first offered Gray some insurance.

With Rajai at third and the A’s up 4-0, the White Sox were forced to pull the infield in. And both he and Matt Joyce, who had swiped second behind him, were allowed to scamper home on a seeing-eye grounder past a diving Yolmer Sanchez at second base. The two-run single was Jed Lowrie‘s third hit of the day, all singles.

Chicago answered the Lowrie knock, getting a two-run homer (18) from Matt Davidson. But Gray gave his club shutdown innings in the second and fourth, finishing his 6 innings of work allowing three hits and two runs.

This makes three strong starts in a row for the A’s top trade piece. Gray has now allowed four earned runs in 21 innings of work (1.71 ERA).

He said:

“When I’m at my best, I’m not necessarily going to strike a lot of people out but I’m going to get a lot of ground balls, and I’ve been getting that lately.”

While the A’s have not flashed much speed this season, they have shown the power. In 84 games played prior to Wednesday, Oakland had slugged 120 homers. So, one dinger, a solo homer (2) from Jaycob Brugman in the fourth, was below the season average — around 1-1/5 per game, especially considering White Sox start Mike Pelfrey‘s command issues. Only Bruce Maxwell could make those walks hurt when he doubled off the wall in left-center cashing in on a two-out walk of Yonder Alonso with a two-run double in the third.

Pelfrey (L, 3-7, 4.46 ERA) walked three in 3-1/3, surrendering five hits and four runs while striking out five. The Oakland bats continued to add on after his early departure, hanging three runs on the Chicago bullpen.

The White Sox did their best to match the feat, with Todd Frazier hammering an 0-2 fastball from Sean Doolittle for a two-run homer (16) in the ninth. But it was too little, too late as the Gray and the A’s ended their last home stand of the first half with a series win.

On deck

The A’s finish their first-half schedule with a trip north for four games against the Mariners (41-44). Oakland is 4-3 against the M’s this season, including dropping two of three in Seattle. Paul Blackburn (0-0, 0.00 ERA) makes the second start of his major league career opening the series Thursday.

Notes

The A’s placed catcher Josh Phegley on the paternity list. The leave allows Phegley leave for as many as three games for the birth of his child. Ryan Lavarnway was recalled from Triple-A Nashville to replace him. Lavarnway owns a .198/.258/.316 slash in 134 games in the major leagues. In 61 games this season with the Sounds, he had been slashing .274/.362/.378. … The A’s hired Chris Giles as Chief Operating Officer. Giles had been the head of sales and marketing for the NFL’s On Location Experiences, and was a part of the team responsible for the opening of the San Francisco 49ers’ Levis’s Stadium. Team president Dave Kaval said in a press release:

“His leadership and experience in that project will be a tremendous asset to our team.”

In his new role, Giles will oversee the organization’s daily revenue-generating functions.


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.