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A’s and their scuffling rotation back to work quickly after tough loss

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Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Daniel Mengden (33) walks to the dugout after striking out Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado (13) in the third inning as the Baltimore Orioles face the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, May 4, 2018.

The Athletics have no time to lick the wounds of their first series loss in more than a month.

After dropping Wednesday’s series rubber match with the division-leading Astros (82-51) in heart-breaking walk-off fashion, the A’s (80-54) are right back to work Thursday night in Oakland. Not only will they be on the field just over 24 hours after watching Houston celebrate, Oakland will host the two teams against which it is battling for the American League Wild Card.

Over the next seven days, the A’s and the Oakland Coliseum will welcome the Mariners (74-59), 5-1/2 games behind them for the second Wild Card spot, and the Yankees (84-49), 4-1/2 games ahead of them for the first Wild Card spot for seven games. On the line is a chance for the A’s to take a step toward clinching their first playoff berth in four years, but more than that to improve their hopes of hosting a potential one-game playoff rather than traveling across the country to play it in New York.

This story has been updated with quotes and information from the A’s clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum.

Manager Bob Melvin admitted that the upcoming four-game set with Seattle is the biggest series of the season, adding an important caveat:

“Houston series was the biggest one, this one’s the biggest one, that’s the way it’s going to be the rest of the way. … You look at where we are right now, this will be the biggest series of the year but we’ll be saying the same thing about the Yankee series. That’s a good thing, it means we’re in a pennant race and we’re playing meaningful games at this point.”

Frankie Montas (5-3, 3.75 ERA) will make his first big league start in a month to get the monster homestand started Thursday against Seattle’s Wade LeBlanc (7-3, 3.92 ERA).

At a time when their hopes of an improved 2018 were in the balance, Montas was something of a savior kick-starting what at the time was a struggling rotation with four dominant outings in his first five starts of the season — from May 27 to June 20. Following the promising start though, the 25-year-old flame thrower fell victim to command struggles, and after a five-start stretch in which he allowed 15 earned runs in 24 innings (5.63 ERA) he found himself in the minors.

If the A’s are to continue competing for the AL West division title with locking down a Wild Card slot as the backup plan, they will need improved performances from Montas, along with Daniel Mengden (6-6, 4.28 ERA) and possibly Chris Bassitt (2-3, 3.19 ERA).

Of Montas and Mengden, each already penciled into the rotation going forward, Melvin said:

“Both these guys, Mengden and Montas, at certain times during the season had pitched as well as anyone in our rotation. … To have these guys in our pocket, and know they’ve performed well here … we expect big things out of them.”

They have been thrust into action by the injury bug which, in the past four days, has sidelined lefties Brett Anderson (3-4, 4.02 ERA) and Sean Manaea (12-9, 3.59 ERA).

Anderson was originally expected to need a little rest and recuperation from what was originally diagnosed as a forearm strain. As Melvin revealed Thursday though, the veteran is suffering from an irritated ulnar nerve. Team doctors will layout a gameplan moving forward.

The news revolving around Manaea is much more devastating from the start as the youngster who has grown into the ace of the staff could be done for the season with rotator cuff tendinitis.

Said Melvin:

“The longer this goes on, and the more we hear about him and how he feels, I think it’s going to be tough for him to make it (back). I’m not going to say 100-percent sure that he won’t be able to but, at this point, it’s probably less than 50/50.”

Manaea said the pain seemed like nothing more than what he has experienced the day after every previous start, but he knew there was something wrong when the pain lasted into his second day post-start. Still, he holds out hope that he can return to the rotation at some point:

“It’s super-frustrating; I feel like I’m letting everyone down. It really, really sucks that it has to happen right now, but there’s nothing I can do about it except try to get healthy and hopefully help the team at the end of the season.”

Melvin added:

“You expect some injuries — maybe not as many as we’ve had. Obviously the Manaea situation, with a guy that’s been basically our ace the entire season, it stings a little bit more. … But if you sit around and feel sorry for yourself, think you’re snake-bit, that’s a distraction that you don’t need.”

The latest in a litany of rotation injuries only makes matters worse for a team that had ridden a solid, and somewhat surprising, rotation to baseball’s best record over the span of two months. Much of that momentum has ceased and Oakland starters have lasted long enough to qualify for a win just once in the last five games, and the man responsible for that lone outing of five or more, Mike Fiers (10-6, 3.15 ERA), is also the only standing starter to have finished the sixth more than once since Aug. 5.

Mengden, who carried the A’s in May posting a 5-1 record and 1.51 ERA for the month, offered a promising glimpse in a four-inning scoreless relief appearance Monday in Houston. He will make his first big league start since June 23 Saturday night against Seattle ace James Paxton.

The mustached right-hander will be the key to the A’s rotation over the final month, especially if Manaea is unable to return, and he has proven to be a guy that can be a driving force of the Oakland pitching staff, having already done it for a month.

Offensively, the A’s can say they did their job in Houston, scoring four runs in each game against the tough Astros pitching staff. But Khris Davis, who was followed out of Oakland eight days ago by a vapor trail, has fallen cold, going 2-for-29 (.069) with one RBI and 14 strikeouts on the 4-3 road trip.

In order to deliver on the expectations of gaining ground on both Wild Card competitors over the next, the A’s will need production from Davis. While Matt Chapman (.344/.412/.702 slash in the second half) and Jed Lowrie (.289/.385/.500 slash in August) kept the attack afloat during the road trip, no single bat in the Oakland lineup is as influential as Davis’.

The A’s have made a habit of sealing series victories, having lost just two since mid-June, taking five of the next seven — two series wins — will put Oakland in a very comfortable position moving forward where they can make a move with a schedule that can be described as soft waiting.


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.

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