Despite losses of key players, team's trademark resiliency continues
BOSTON -- When circumstances become more difficult for the Athletics, they respond in a very interesting way: They play better.
This quality was on display on Sunday on a windy afternoon at Fenway Park, as the A's defeated the Red Sox, 3-2, in 10 innings. But this quality has basically been on display with the Oakland club for the last two-plus seasons.
You take this resolve and combine it with the best pitching in the American League, by the numbers, and you have a team that has won two straight AL West titles and is back in business this season and in first place with a 19-12 record.
Life looked brighter still for the Athletics when they played dominant baseball in sweeping the Rangers in Texas. But the first two games against the Red Sox resulted in dispiriting losses, by a 13-4 cumulative score. The A's were stopped cold on Saturday by Jon Lester's 15-strikeout, one-hit performance. But on that day, Lester was going to beat anybody and everybody.
The degree of difficulty wasn't getting any lower on Sunday. A's right fielder Josh Reddick went out with a left ankle sprain. Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes was playing after recovering from a recent hamstring injury. Naturally, Cespedes beat out an infield hit that brought in what proved to be the winning run in the 10th.
But adversity has been a relatively constant companion for the Athletics this year. They lost two front-line starting pitchers, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, to Tommy John surgery. How many teams can withstand those kinds of losses? Very few, but this is one of them.
Oakland's projected closer, Jim Johnson, lost his role after early ineffectiveness. But Johnson pitched his way back into late-inning usage -- and on Sunday, he was invaluable, entering a tie game in the ninth and pitching 1 2/3 scoreless innings
"He ended up being not only the setup guy, but also the closer," A's manager Bob Melvin said of Johnson.
Daric Barton, in at first base late in the game after Brandon Moss moved to right to take over for Reddick, made a game-saving play. With a runner on second in the 10th and nobody out, Jackie Bradley Jr. hit a grounder to first. That generally means the runner moves to third, but Barton's quick and accurate throw to Josh Donaldson at third nailed the runner. It was an intelligent play that required a dose of courage, as well.
But that's part of the mix with the A's. They don't give in on any level. When Melvin was asked if this was a "character win," he was more than happy to respond.
"No question about it," the manager said. "We've played a few of these games with this group over the years. We get it handed to us a couple of times, and now we've got to fight as hard as we can with basically nobody on the bench, a left fielder who's limping around a little bit. But everybody contributed. This team has been shown to be very resilient, at times."
And this club is generally going to be in the games because its pitching will keep it there. Sonny Gray started for the A's on Sunday. He gave up two runs over six-plus innings, and thus his ERA rose to 1.91. Two other Oakland starters are in the same nifty neighborhood: Jesse Chavez with a 1.89 ERA and Scott Kazmir at 2.11. This is how a team can compensate for the loss of two starters as good as Parker and Griffin. More help may be needed, but these three have given the A's a major boost.
Gray was disappointed that he gave up a tying home run to A.J. Pierzynski in the seventh. But Gray has pitched exceptionally well for the A's -- and he was very good again against a tough Boston lineup. He minimized the damage superbly when faced with a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the fifth. Gray got Bradley to hit into a 1-2-3 double play. Gray had an edge here. He had already lived through this moment with this hitter.
"I said this to someone in the dugout after that," Gray said. "I faced Jackie Bradley in college [Gray was at Vanderbilt, Bradley was at South Carolina]. With the bases loaded with one out, he hit a ground ball back to me and we turned a 1-2-3 double play. I was just picturing that in my head over and over -- and then I saw the ball coming to me and the same thing happened. That was a huge turning point in the game."
Gray was asked if that happened in "a big game or just a game in the middle of the year."
"Every game is big," Gray said with a small smile.
That is a 24-year-old who completely comprehends his situation.
Of this total team victory, Gray said: "It was awesome. It was a battle. And you know, coming here into this park, against this team, it is always going to be."
The same thing could be said about playing the Athletics.