OAKLAND -- The question surrounding the A’s entering their current nine-game homestand was about how they would be able to hold up in the playoff race with such a daunting stretch of games. Surely they’d be glad just to stay afloat against the Astros and Yankees, who hold the top
OAKLAND -- The question surrounding the A’s entering their current nine-game homestand was about how they would be able to hold up in the playoff race with such a daunting stretch of games. Surely they’d be glad just to stay afloat against the Astros and Yankees, who hold the top two records in the American League. But the A’s made a statement: They can hang with baseball’s elite.
The A’s jumped on Masahiro Tanaka early to provide a nice cushion for Tanner Roark, who continued his strong run since joining the A’s before the Trade Deadline by limiting the Yankees to just two runs over 6 1/3 innings in a 5-3 victory Thursday at the Coliseum. After taking three of four from the Astros over the weekend, Oakland secured a three-game sweep of New York and moved into a tie with the Rays atop the American League Wild Card standings.
• Box score
“You keep looking at the scoreboard, and the Rays keep winning. It just tells you that we know we have to play well for five more weeks,” A’s outfielder Mark Canha said. “There’s no letting up. This is going to be a fight. We have to keep doing this for five weeks. We’re not in this to slip into the Wild Card and play a Wild Card Game. We’re in this to win the World Series.”
“What we’ve done this homestand so far is very impressive,” Roark said. “It shows what these guys in the clubhouse and the coaches are all about. We’re fighters, and we’re not going to give in. We’re going to have fun and play together, do the small things right.”
The A’s are now a season-best 21 games over .500, and they haven’t done it by beating up on the lesser teams. Their win over the Yankees now puts them at 26-19 against teams currently holding at least a share of a playoff spot.
Though the A’s have been dependent on the long ball for most of the year, Thursday’s performance showed they can win in a variety of ways. For just the fourth time this season, the A’s won a game without hitting a home run. The offensive outburst instead came from their ability to string together quality at-bats against Tanaka in the first, beginning with a leadoff double by Marcus Semien that sparked a three-run inning capped by a two-run single by Canha, who extended his hitting streak to seven games and is batting .354 this month.
“Once you let him settle in, he is tough to deal with,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Tanaka, who threw 33 pitches in the first. “You know you’re not going to get predictable fastballs from him. He’s probably throwing 30% fastballs, tops. In 2-1 counts, sometimes 20%. Marcus is up there looking to hit the ball the other way. That set the tone, and other guys made him work. Next thing you know, we have a big inning.”
The early scoring allowed Roark to pitch with more confidence as he often got ahead in the count and pounded the strike zone, with 60 of his 95 pitches thrown for strikes. It wasn’t hard to figure out Roark’s plan of attack -- he threw 65 fastballs -- but the ability to work it up and down the zone led to seven strikeouts, all coming on the heater. His only real mistake came in the seventh, when Gleyber Torres’ solo blast to center knocked Roark out of the game with one out.
With the Yankees entering the night leading the Majors with 6.36 runs per game on the road, Melvin and the coaching staff delivered a clear message before the start of the series: “Don’t walk people.”
The starters responded, combining to allow just three free passes over 17 1/3 innings, including none by Roark on Thursday.
“It’s important against these guys,” Melvin said. “[If] they hit solo home runs, they hit solo home runs. But when you start walking people and they start making you throw multiple pitches and wear you out, that’s when you make the mistake and it’s three runs.”
The message was music to Roark’s ears. He considers himself an aggressive pitcher, and with good command of his offerings, he was able to focus his two-seam fastball with sinking action to pound the inside against lefties while elevating the four-seam in the zone to righties, which produced most of his strikeouts.
“Walks will kill you. You limit those and challenge guys, which is what I think I do well,” Roark said. “Just challenge and attack, move in and out, up and down, keep them on their toes.”
Roark continued what has been a strong run by A’s starters for the better part of a month, posting a 3.11 ERA over the past 22 games.
With a 2.63 ERA over four starts with his new club, Roark has acclimated himself rather quickly. He was even the recipient of the celebratory free throw: The challenge awarded to the A’s player of the game after every win, which involves attempting a shot into a miniature basketball hoop set up above one of the lockers.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Roark said. “All these guys love to mess around and I’m right there with them, trash-talking them back. No matter what it is, there’s always some type of game or competition going on in here to keep it loose. It’s a tight clubhouse that makes you get to know each other and become better teammates.”
Bullpen locks it down
Roark’s quality work was finished off by Jake Diekman, Lou Trivino and Joakim Soria over the final 2 2/3 innings.
The A’s bullpen has been much maligned this season, entering the night with an AL-leading 22 blown saves. But over these three games against the Yankees, Oakland’s relievers consistently slammed the door in the late innings, with Liam Hendriks recording saves the previous two nights.
“That’s what we envisioned,” Melvin said. “We’re starting to pitch a lot better throughout the bullpen. Lou has been terrific last three times out. We really have the ability to have a really deep bullpen. Blake Treinen and Trivino pitching a lot better and we have [A.J.] Puk here now. In a series where you’re leaning on a couple of guys like we did [Yusmeiro] Petit and Hendriks, it’s going to take some other guys. They came through for us.”
Martin Gallegos covers the A's for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MartinJGallegos.