No pitcher has exacted more punishment on the Athletics in this decade than Justin Verlander. Two of the three times the A’s have made the playoffs since 2011, Verlander has been the one who eliminated them with overwhelming performances in Oakland.
That postseason success has spilled over into the regular season, where Verlander carried a 2.55 ERA in 19 previous meetings with the A’s (74-50) into the series finale.
Sunday though, the Houston ace wasn’t impermeable, serving up three homers, including two by Khris Davis, in the first three innings.
But Sean Manaea responded with his worst outing since May, surrendering six runs and retiring without recording an out in the fifth, as the Astros (75-49) stole the final game of the weekend set, 9-4, to depart Oakland back at the top of the American League West standings.
Manager Bob Melvin said the home dugout was surging with positive energy after taking a 2-0 lead in the first, staring down a chance to take an outright lead in the AL West race:
“We got (Verlander) on the run early, and it was a great feeling in the first inning … boy, we had a lot of energy in our dugout. … There are going to be some games like that from time to time, unfortunately.”
Davis came in with the most career success against Verlander (W, 12-8, 2.65 ERA) of any active Athletic, having gone 3-for-8 with two homers in previous meetings. His .375 average against the future Hall of Famer got a nitro boost Sunday, behind a 3-for-3 performance. And the first of those hits looked to be a big one.
Oakland answered a 1-2-3 first posted by Manaea (L, 11-9, 3.70 ERA), the third perfect opening frame of the series for A’s starters, with a pair of solo dingers, first by Matt Chapman (17) then Davis (35).
Giving up two runs in the first must have something of a surprise for Verlander who averaged less than two runs allowed per starts in 11 previous starts at the Oakland Coliseum. Even more surprising, however, was the fact that they came on the long ball — he had served up just eight in 75 career innings in Oakland.
Davis kept it going in the third, this time answering an Astros four-spot, with a two-run jack (36) to right-center.
Now with four career homers against one of the best pitchers of this generation, Melvin said, was a big feather in the cap of the A’s designated hitter:
“When you have multiple home runs off guys it stands out on my card, but as I look down my card he has multiple home runs off just about anybody. … Guys in the middle of the order, you want them to be able to handle good pitching and hit good pitching, not everybody can do that, he can and that’s why he is who he is.”
Apparently unimpressed by the Verlander fastball, Davis saw two pitches, a combined 193.2 miles per hour-worth of fastball, and scorched them for a combined 785 feet of home runs. Behind the crushing blows thrown by Davis, the A’s knocked Verlander out after 5-1/3 having surrendered seven hits and four runs — he struck out six.
The problem was, Davis only batted four times and Oakland pitching couldn’t keep the Astros in the ballpark.
Houston hammered five homers, including the three-run shot (8) by Yuli Gurriel and a solo (24) by A’s killer Evan Gattis served up by Manaea. But the lefty’s struggles didn’t start he had recorded two outs in the third.
Manaea held the Astros to a single through the first two, but with the help of an inning-ending double play to end the second he had faced the minimum through 2-2/3. That’s where Martín Maldonado who doubled to start a career afternoon. The 2017 Gold Glove winner for AL catchers has struggled since being dealt from the Angels to Houston, getting four hits in his first 28 at-bats. He enjoyed his best game as an Astro Sunday, finishing 3-for-4 with one RBI, three runs scored and a single shy of the cycle.
Maldonado’s double seemed innocent enough with tow down, but followed by a pair of singles and a Gurriel homer it started an uprising that gave Houston a lead it would never relinquish.
Melvin wasn’t prepared for things to go sideways on his starter so quickly, especially with how well he had looked early in the game:
“The first couple innings I thought it was as good of stuff as we’ve seen. … Next thing you know it’s four runs, it happened pretty quickly and surprisingly, for me, with the way he was pitching.”
Manaea called the eruption unbelievable and shocking:
“That was just a bad job of gathering myself. … I wasn’t getting outs, just kept giving up runs. My job is to put the team a (position) to win and I just didn’t do that today.”
For veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who had the best vantage point, it was a bit less surprising:
“It’s just one of those things, when your starting pitcher doesn’t have his best stuff against a lineup like that it’s going to be a tough day.”
Lou Trivino and Shawn Kelley were the first two out of the bullpen after Manaea departed and held the deficit at 6-4. But a wasted bases-loaded opportunity in the Oakland sixth set the stage for their official undoing.
One batter after Mark Canha went down flailing at a Brad Peacock slider well out of the zone to end the sixth, Maldonado started the seventh with a solo homer (7) the first of three against Emilio Pagán — hit by Alex Bregman (24) and Marwin González (11).
For the A’s, who lead baseball in runs scored in the seventh or later (221), a five-run disadvantage proved to be too much.
While Melvin said he came into the game greedy, looking for a sweep and first place, taking two of three from the Astros on the heels of doing the same to the third-place Mariners is a positive. Lucroy stuck to the same frame of mind, saying that he told the youngsters on his club that winning two of every three makes a team the world champions, calling victorious series’ a good goal for his A’s:
“Looking at the big picture, two out of three from a really good team, four out of six so far on the homestand, that’s pretty good against two of the teams in this division that are really good teams.”
The A’s, who have seen their last day off for nearly three weeks, will welcome the Rangers (56-70) into town for the first of three games Monday. Mike Fiers (8-6, 3.38 ERA) will look to get Oakland back into the win column to open the series.
Matt Joyce (lower back) will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Nashville Tuesday, according to manager Bob Melvin. The A’s are hopeful that Joyce, who has received two epidural shots since last appearing in a game on July 4, will be game-ready by the time rosters expand on September 1. … With his win, No. 12 of the season, Justin Verlander, 35, recorded the 200th win of his big league career. … The six runs and and nine hits allowed each match season highs for Sean Manaea. … With his two home runs, Khris Davis tied Reggie Jackson (1974) with six multi-homer games in a season for third-most in Oakland A’s history. Jackson holds the franchise record with eight such games in 1969.