Wasted early chances cost A’s, Manaea

Sean Manaea struggled through his worst start of the season Tuesday night at the Oakland Coliseum. Still, the Oakland ace gave his Athletics a fighting chance against the reigning champion Astros.

Manaea (L, 4-4, 2.11 ERA) matched season highs in hits (seven) and runs (four) allowed, lasting just 5-2/3 innings, but departed down 4-2 having seen base-running blunders and poor situational hitting cost the A’s (18-18) multiple scoring chances.

The chances, of which Oakland had a plethora in the first five frames, dried out in the late innings, as Houston (23-15) maximized the chances they got to claim a 4-2 win and set up a chance to sweep.

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

Marcus Semien, who extended his modest hitting streak to five games going 2-for-3 with a walk, said his offense, which is averaging 2.6 runs per game in May, isn’t “doing too hot right now”:

“We’ve just got to grind it out, and if it’s a low-scoring game keep the mistakes down. There’s nothing wrong with winning a low-scoring game, you just have to do what it takes to win.”

On Tuesday, Oakland didn’t do the little things it takes to win.

Semien did do some of those things in the first, after Manaea worked a perfect top-half pushing his home hitless streak to 13 innings, drawing a walk to lead things off. He then stole second and advanced to third on a lineout to right field off the bat of Jed Lowrie before scoring on a wild pitch.

The A’s shortstop led off again in the third, reaching on an infield single, and was moved to third before an out was recorded on back-to-back walks. But with the bases loaded, no outs and the middle of the Oakland order due up, the A’s could get just one, thanks to a lunging over-the-shoulder catch by George Springer robbing Khris Davis of extra bases and three RBIs, forcing instead a sacrifice fly and one run. Matt Olson bounced a 3-2 fastball to shortstop for an inning-ending double play.

Manager Bob Melvin said the outcome of the game was decided by his club’s inability to make Houston pay for the golden opportunity in the third:

“It came to down to basically about three or four at-bats and a nice play in the outfield.”

The skipper added:

“We’re not swinging the bats like we were early. It’s going to happen like that during the course of the season, it goes back and forth some, but this stretch right now … our entire group is struggling a little bit offensively.”

The inability of Olson and Davis, Oakland’s 4-5 hitters, to get more than one run from the best scoring chance in baseball was the difference offensively. The difference defensively was the Astros’ ability to conjure something out of what seemed like nothing.

Manaea, who had held the Houston offense to an Alex Bregman solo homer (3) in the second, coaxed routine grounders from the first to batters he faced in the fifth, but he hit Brian McCann,  on the elbow protection with an 0-1 fastball. Jake Marisnick, mired in a tremendous slump having picked up just five hits in his last 21 games played, had tried to lay a bunt down before striking out in his first appearance, but jerked a 1-2 heater away into left-center field for a double.

As cold as Marisnick had been, Springer had been that hot, going 6-for-6 Monday and singling in the third Tuesday. Suddenly in an RBI spot, the Astro lead-off man knocked both runs in with a double of his own into the left-center field gap.

Melvin said that Manaea’s loss came down to his inside fastball that hit the Houston catcher. Manaea, whose most evident growth this season has been in his mental focus, said he didn’t allow himself to slow things down and refocus after the hit batsman:

“That was definitely the turning point. I didn’t do a good job of locking in after that, I just kinda rolled through that.  … I wasn’t mentally locking in, I wasn’t doing things that I should be doing.”

Manaea struck out just three batters, a season-low, and served up another double and run scored in the sixth, but did not issue a walk. Lance McCullers Jr. (W, 5-1, 3.72 ERA) battled command issues, walking four while allowing five hits and two runs. But with some help from the Oakland offense, the Astro starter escaped major harm.

Marcus Semien, who scored both A’s runs pushing his season total to 27 (T-7th in MLB), took a swing at driving in a run in the fifth, following a Bruce Maxwell lead-off double with a ground-ball single through the left side of the infield. But Maxwell, having to pause on the roller in front of him, stood just off of second base until the ball was clear of shortstop Carlos Correa before charging for third when left fielder Marwin González was in the process of picking the ball.

Maxwell violated one of baseball’s golden rules: never make the first out of an inning at third. Melvin defended the decision, though:

“He has to see it go through or he gets thrown out at third. And once it gets through to the outfield your instincts are always going to tell you to go to third.”

All the chances that the A’s allowed to slip through their fingers in the first five innings, while McCullers was on the mound, dried up in the late innings.

The Houston bullpen of Brad Peacock (two innings, three strikeouts), Chris Devenski (one inning) and Ken Giles (one inning, one hits, one strikeout were nearly flawless from the sixth on, allowing just one base runner, on a one-out single in the ninth. It was erased, though, when Giles (S, 4, 4.76 ERA) earned a game-ending double play.

On Deck

After sweeping the Orioles to open the home stand, the A’s go into Wednesday’s matinee in need of a win to prevent a sweep at the hand of Houston and clinch a second-consecutive winning home stand. Daniel Mengden (2-3, 4.30 ERA), who suffered his worst outing of the season two starts ago — six hits and five runs (four earned) allowed in 2-1/3 innings — facing the Astros in Houston on April 28, will get the ball for the A’s. He will face Gerrit Cole (3-1, 1.42 ERA), who is second in MLB in ERA, WHIP (0.69) and strikeouts (77).

Notes

Prior to the game, manager Bob Melvin said Stephen Piscotty, whose mother died Sunday, requested to be in the lineup Tuesday after missing Monday’s game:

“He definitely want to be in the lineup, around his teammates. He knows he’s definitely going to have a lot of support form the guys today. And sometimes just getting out into the field and concentrating on what you do is maybe a little bit of a release from what he’s going through.”

Taking his first at-bat since Sunday in the second inning, Piscotty received an extended ovation from the Coliseum crowd, he responded by nodding to the crowd and patting his chest — then singled the second pitch he saw to right field. Melvin said Piscotty could be placed on bereavement leave while the A’s are in New York to face the Yankees (25-10) this weekend.


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.