The sights are set much higher in Oakland, but Sunday’s victory secured a huge benchmark for the Athletics: their first winning season in four years.
Win No. 82, like so many of Oakland’s first 81, came on the strength of pitching and late-inning offense.
Like a coiled cobra menacing its prey, the A’s (82-56) feigned early attacks but were turned away twice by inning-ending double plays. Once Stephen Piscotty broke the seal with a fifth-inning homer, though, Félix Hernández and the Mariners (76-61) couldn’t put the lid back on the snake basket as Oakland nipped them to a 8-2 demise following a dominant outing by Edwin Jackson.
Piscotty added his 21st homer, a three-run shot in the eighth, for the third two-homer game in his career and matched a career high with five RBIs. He called the win, a two-game swing against their closest competitor for the American League’s second Wild Card spot, huge:
“The difference in 5-1/2 to 3-1/2 games is pretty significant, especially now that we’re in to September. That was a huge game. We know every game’s important, but that was a big one.”
Manager Bob Melvin addressed the battle of a four-game split with the Mariners and how different it appears for a team that now boasts a league-best 48-20 since June 16:
“It’s not coming as easy for us as it was during that stretch, but it’s not going to be easy all year long. Today was a bit of a test. … Certain times, a split feels a little bit better than others and this is one of them.”
Hernández (L, 8-13, 5.55 ERA), long an A’s killer, coasted early, facing two base runners through the first four innings and coaxing groundballs from seven of the first 13 batters he faced — also striking out two. And a one-out single in the third, like his one-out walk in the fourth, was followed immediately by a threat-ending twin-killing.
It wasn’t until Piscotty beat one of Hernández’s 91-mph knee-high sinkers in the fifth that the A’s finally erased a 1-0 first-inning deficit with a long solo homer (20) to left.
Melvin called the Piscotty blast a worm-turning swing against a guy that has been historically tough on his A’s — to the tune of a 2.71 career head-to-head ERA:
“We’ve had a tough time with him, especially here. … He’s the kind of guy that oozes confidence anyway but I think, based on his history here, he feels really good. For a while there we weren’t doing anything, then Piscotty homers … now we get some better at-bats.”
The former Cy Young winner would record just one more out, ending the fifth, before a walk and two singles — the second a two-run Marcus Semien knock — would drive him from the game. The A’s, who had mustered just two hits before it, strung together four hits, to go with two walks and a sacrifice fly, putting up four runs and forcing Seattle to use four pitchers in the sixth.
Oakland’s explosion came on the heels Jackson’s last inning of work.
One day after a failed deployment of the “opener” approach, the A’s, at least for the time being, scrapped the new-age idea giving their veteran right-hander rights to the first inning. The opening frame was a battle, though not completely of Jackson’s doing.
Jackson (W, 5-3, 2.91 ERA) was one out from pitching around a lead-off double by Mitch Haniger and appeared to have gotten that out earning a groundball into the teeth of the shift by Nelson Cruz. But with Jed Lowrie re-positioning to make the play near the outfield grass up the middle the chopper caromed off the second base bag and over Lowrie’s head and into center chasing Haniger home.
The veteran hurler said he was happy with the pitch he made to Cruz, an 88-mph cutter at the knees, but called the carom unlucky adding that it’s something he just had to laugh off and move on.
Jackson survived a Denard Span double following the unlucky single and never allowed another hit. Jackson needed just 77 pitches to post Oakland’s second start of six innings or more since Aug. 21.
Melvin said it was important for his starter to get through six and help preserve the bullpen, Jackson called it “imperative” to do so. Piscotty, the man Jackson called the hero Sunday, said:
“That was huge, really important. We’ve been taxing that bullpen a lot, to have him go out and just have a strong outing, let our offense just kinda wake up and take the pressure. Exactly what we needed.”
Seattle pieced together their first threat in seven innings, chasing Fernando Rodney with two outs and two on having already surrendered a run in the eight. Down Jeurys Familia, who pitched Saturday night, Melvin handed the ball to his closer early. Blake Treinen (S, 35, 0.92 ERA) put the rally to bed on one pitch and added a perfect ninth to convert his 11th-straight save opportunity.
Things were made a little easier on the first-time All-Star when his offense, which scored four runs in the eighth Saturday night, added three more eighth-inning runs Sunday pushing their league-leading total to 104 which matches an Oakland franchise record, equaled in 1970 and 2017.
The A’s, who will play the Mariners one final time, a three-game set in Seattle the final week of the season, now head into the final 24 games of their schedule with 5-1/2 games of breathing room between them and their AL West foes. Jackson said the difference between a win and a loss Sunday was massive:
“This was a big win for us. I would say this is probably one of the biggest wins that we’ve had all season. This was definitely a must-win game.”
Trevor Cahill (5-3, 3.60 ERA) and his 0.85 ERA home ERA take the hill at the center of Rickey Henderson Field when the A’s welcome the Yankees into town for a series that could help decide which city would host the American League Wild Card game. Oakland sits just 2-1/2 games out of first in the AL West race. New York trails the Red Sox by eight games in the AL East while leading the A’s by five games for the first Wild Card spot. Vallejo native CC Sabathia (7-5, 3.36 ERA) will take the mound for the Yankees having gone 5-7 in 16 previous starts in the East Bay.
With Stephen Piscotty’s fifth-inning home run the A’s now have five players with 20 or more homers — Khris Davis (40), Matt Olson (24), Matt Chapman (22), Jed Lowrie (21) and Piscotty (20) — tying a franchise record previously reached five times (1996, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2017). Mark Canha is next, following Piscotty, on the A’s team home run leader board with 15. … The Mariners leave Oakland the same way they arrived, 5-1/2 games back of the A’s for the AL’s second Wild Card spot. The Yankees, who lost 11-7 to the Tigers Sunday, drop a game to the A’s and now lead Oakland by 4-1/2 games for the first Wild Card spot and will start a three-game set against the A’s in Oakland Monday afternoon. Houston hosts the Angels Sunday night clinging to a two-game lead over the A’s in the AL West race.