OAKLAND -- Tony Kemp isn’t exactly the first player on the A’s roster you’d expect to change a game with one swing of the bat. He entered Sunday with just 19 home runs across six Major League seasons.
Given his success against the Yankees, though, Kemp emerging as the hero really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
With the teams engaged in a tight contest for most of the night, Kemp delivered the signature moment in the first Sunday Night Baseball game at the Coliseum in more than seven years. He blasted a tiebreaking two-run home run to right field in the bottom of the eighth inning off Yankees reliever Chad Green, the deciding factor in a 3-1 Oakland victory.
Splitting a four-game series against a hot Yankees squad that just had its 13-game winning streak ended on Saturday, Oakland inched closer in the American League Wild Card standings, now 2 1/2 games back of Boston for the second spot. The A’s also gained ground in the division race, now 5 1/2 games back of Houston for first place in the AL West.
“Just ended up being a big series for us,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “You don’t normally talk about a success when you split a series. But when you’re down 0-2 to a team that won 13 in a row, we’ll take it.”
Of Kemp’s five homers this season, three have come against the Yankees. The latest came on a day he wasn’t even in the starting lineup. Kemp came off the bench in the seventh and delivered a pinch-hit single.
It’s conceivable these clubs could meet in the postseason. Should that happen, Kemp likely has earned a starting role there. In six games against the Bronx Bombers this season, he’s 8-for-16 (.500) with seven RBIs.
“He’s had some really dramatic stuff for us this year,” Melvin said. “He’s settled in nicely here. When he doesn’t start, it’s always a really good option to have off a bench. He plays any number of roles, and today he came up huge.”
Though it was Kemp who got it done with his bat, he was provided a huge assist by another member of his family. After the game, Kemp mentioned a conversation he had with his brother, Corey, the night before. Corey brought up Tony’s stats when swinging at the first pitch. Coming into Sunday, Kemp was batting .423 (11-for-26) with two doubles when he put the first pitch into play.
Kemp said he had that on the mind as he walked to the plate in the eighth inning following Mark Canha’s double with two outs. Sure enough, Kemp unloaded on the first pitch he saw from Green -- a fastball left over the middle of the zone -- and crushed it over the wall in right. The lined drive registered 100.6 mph off the bat, Kemp’s hardest-hit ball put in play this season, according to Statcast.
“I got to give a lot of credit to my brother,” Kemp said. “I don’t look at [advanced] stats during the year. He told me a stat of what my batting average was in 0-0 counts. Going into the last couple of days, I’ve actually been more aggressive, and it’s been paying off.”
Setting up Kemp’s clutch moment was a stellar pitching performance by the A’s that began with right-hander Paul Blackburn. Making just his third start of the season after he was called up earlier this month to fill Chris Bassitt’s rotation spot, Blackburn navigated through a dangerous Yankees lineup with efficiency by twirling five scoreless innings with just five hits allowed.
“We had [Blackburn] going, and he hadn’t pitched here a whole lot,” Melvin said. “A lot going on tonight -- we haven’t had Sunday Night Baseball here in a while. Looked like maybe some nerves early on. He gets out of the first inning and started rolling after that.”
Blackburn began the game by walking DJ LeMahieu on four pitches. Then Giancarlo Stanton followed by roping a 115.2 mph single to left field. Admittedly feeling the nerves that come with the pressures of facing a marquee club in a nationally televised game, Blackburn was helped by his defense, which turned an inning-ending double play on a ground ball by Joey Gallo to end the first.
After that, Blackburn pitched to his strengths. At his best when he’s able to keep his sinker down, he relied on the pitch greatly to keep the ball on the ground. He totaled nine ground-ball outs, two of those leading to double plays.
Though Blackburn is without a Major League win since 2018, he has kept the A’s in good position for victory in each of his 2021 starts. Playoff pushes often require contributions from unlikely sources, and more outings like this from Blackburn would certainly go a long way in Oakland’s quest for a fourth straight postseason berth.
“It doesn’t take just 26 guys when you start a season,” Kemp said. “I’ve been around long enough to know it’s going to take multiple guys to step up in certain situations that they’ve never been called upon. Blackburn stepped up big today.”