DETROIT -- Time is precious. September performance is critical. With 30 games to go, there’s no room for error. Pick a cliché, they’re all true for the A’s as they try to muscle their way into the playoffs.
After a critical four-game series split this weekend against the Yankees -- who currently hold the top American League Wild Card spot -- Oakland outmuscled the Tigers, 9-3, in Tuesday’s opener at Comerica Park to continue to hold firm to its postseason hopes.
“When you’re putting up crooked numbers like we did tonight, it just makes it a lot easier to win ballgames,” Mark Canha said. “It makes our lineup that much more potent when we’re doing it with runners on.
“We’re getting better at hitting with runners in scoring position, and I think we did a lot of good things on offense tonight.”
As the calendar turns toward the final full month of the regular season, the A’s sit only one game behind the Red Sox for the second AL Wild Card spot. Oakland will next face the Blue Jays -- who sit just behind it in the Wild Card race -- then the White Sox, who own the AL Central. The A’s also wrap the season with three road games against the AL West-leading Astros, so success against still-maturing teams such as the Tigers is a must if they want to play past the first weekend of October.
Oakland solved the puzzle pretty early on Tuesday night, using the first two innings to compare notes on talented Tigers rookie Tarik Skubal before taking advantage in the third. The power with which Oakland connected pointed toward good results for the A’s, who also employed solid pitching and stellar defense to overmatch Detroit.
First, the bats. The six balls Oakland put in play during its three-run third inning had an average exit velocity of 101.3 mph. At 108.4 mph, Matt Chapman’s two-run homer was the hardest struck, but Canha’s 107.7 mph groundout wasn’t far behind.
Matt Olson’s double, which plated the first run of the frame, was the softest hit at 85.8 mph. Statcast defines a “hard-hit ball” as one with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, and all but six of Oakland’s 16 balls in play against Skubal came off the bat at 97.6 mph or harder.
Canha pounced again in the fifth, stroking a two-run homer that left his bat at 99.7 mph and pushed Oakland’s lead to 6-1. Chapman added a solo dinger in the ninth to round out his three-RBI day.
“I never had any worry about [Canha] coming back and hitting,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Really, the oddity was that he had a slump that went on a little bit longer than we’d expect from him, with how good of a hitter he is and how he approaches it. I had no doubt that at some point in time, he’d come back around.”
Then, the pitching. Cole Irvin’s last start was cut short due to soreness in his hip, and though he reported no problems after his bullpen session earlier this week, it was anybody’s guess how the lefty would fare in Detroit.
Irvin allowed a two-out solo homer in the first but made quick work of the Tigers early, sitting down eight of the next nine hitters he faced as his teammates built him a comfortable lead. That came in handy when Irvin allowed two more solo home runs in a fifth inning he couldn’t escape.
“I didn’t get through five,” Irvin said, “but my velo was up, and I felt like everything was good today. Just a couple of pitches that got away from me.”
No matter, the A’s bullpen came through in fine fashion, as Deolis Guerra (1 1/3 innings), and Yusmeiro Petit, Andrew Chafin and A.J. Puk (one inning apiece) combined to shut out the Tigers on three hits and no walks the rest of the way.
Finally, the leather. Chad Pinder’s dive in the second inning drew oohs of approval from the home-team crowd, even though he robbed Willi Castro of a potential extra-base hit. Castro’s poke was nearly exactly between center fielder Starling Marte and Pinder in right, and Pinder made up for a late read with a dead sprint that ended in a full Superman layout to end the frame.
Castro was in the victim’s role again with one out and the bases loaded in the fourth. His hard chopper charged up the third-base line and had begun to tail away from the field when Chapman raced over to backhand it, cut back to step on third for the force out, then fired to first base to complete the inning-ending play with no runs allowed.