HOUSTON -- The A's entered Thursday with an opportunity to take over the top spot in the American League Wild Card race, but it was going to require the conquering of longtime nemesis Justin Verlander.
The A’s have struggled for years to find an answer to the Verlander riddle, but on the strength of Matt Olson's two-run blast and clutch performance in the late innings by the bullpen, they found a way to hand the Astros’ ace a loss for the first time since Aug. 27, 2013, with a 3-2 win at Minute Maid Park.
The victory snapped Verlander’s 10-game unbeaten streak against the A’s and leapfrogged Oakland past Tampa Bay and into a half-game lead for the first AL Wild Card spot with 15 games remaining. The A’s control their destiny with a favorable schedule that currently includes no clubs with a winning record the rest of the way.
“We’ve had a little tough time with him on the mound. I think that’s pretty well documented,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Verlander, who was 8-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his past 10 starts against Oakland. “We got to him early before he settled down and scored just enough off him to get him out of there when we had a lead.”
A two-out RBI double by Seth Brown opened up the scoring for the A’s in the first inning before Olson made it a 3-0 game in the third. Verlander’s 0-1 fastball was laced 105.5 mph off Olson’s bat and sent into the second deck beyond right field, estimated at 388 feet by Statcast.
“He has such good velocity, and it comes out a deceptive 98 mph, if that’s even a thing,” Olson said. “You have to get his fastball down, and luckily he left one down in the zone and I was able to connect.”
The homer was Olson’s team-leading 32nd of the year, and it was needed after things tightened up in the game’s final few frames.
After a homer by Jose Altuve cut the A’s lead to one run in the eighth, Blake Treinen and Liam Hendriks both made the big pitch when they needed it with the potential tying run 90 feet away. Treinen fooled Kyle Tucker on a slider to strand the bases loaded in the eighth, and Hendriks froze Michael Brantley with a fastball in the ninth with runners on the corners to cap off his 21st save of the year.
“The relievers were put in some jams tonight and were able to work out of it,” Olson said. “Every guy came in and did what they needed to do.”
“It’s tough to hold these guys down here, especially two days in a row in the last couple of innings,” Melvin said. “Everybody got involved.”
If the A’s go to and win the AL Wild Card Game, they would face either the Astros or Yankees in an AL Division Series, whichever club finishes the season with the best record. Should it be Houston, Oakland has made a statement, taking three of four games at Minute Maid after also taking three of four against the Astros back at the Coliseum last month.
“It’s no secret, the talent that they have,” Olson said of the Astros. “Coming here is always tough, and it’s that time of year where every game matters. We’re not necessarily in a division hunt right now, but this is the caliber of team we’re going to have to compete with.”
Homer bounces back
The last time Homer Bailey took the mound in Houston, he was blitzed for season-high nine earned runs and chased after just two innings in his ugliest start as a member of the A’s. Bailey went toe to toe with one of the game’s best pitchers on Thursday night, and though he didn’t match Verlander’s six innings, the right-hander limited the Astros to one run over 5 1/3 and notched his career-high 13th win.
“He was great. They made him work there toward the end a little bit, but this is a place where he had a tough time last time here,” Melvin said. “He came out and right away had good command, a good split to have them off balance, and left with the lead.”
Since getting traded to Oakland in July, Bailey’s splitter has been essential to his success. The pitch was operating at full strength Thursday, as he threw it 27 times and generated nine swinging strikes with it. He also recorded three of his four strikeouts with the split.
“The first time I faced them, I didn’t know a lot of guys in their lineup. To see them a second time was a big benefit for me,” Bailey said. “Split was pretty good. Fastball command wasn’t great, but I made just enough pitches to keep them off balance and make them put it in play softly.”