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September 2, 2014

What You Need to Know

September 2, 2014

by Chris Mosch

The Labor Day Weekend Takeaway
“Embarrassing” and “pathetic” were just two of the words that Oakland skipper Bob Melvin used to describe his team’s play during the weekend’s critical showdown against the division-rival Angels. The A’s began the four-game series just one game behind the Halos in the American League West, but Oakland’s bats went into hibernation during the weekend series as their chances of claiming a third straight division crown are rapidly slipping away.

After dropping the series opener on Thursday in extra innings, the A’s sent their ace Jon Lester to the mound on Friday in hopes of climbing back to within a game of the division lead. Lester and Jered Weaver were in the midst of a scoreless duel until the fifth inning, when the A’s were dealt a blow both on the scoreboard and to the health of their center fielder Coco Crisp.

Crisp’s extraordinary effort nearly robbed Chris Iannetta of a two-run blast, but the impact that the center fielder made with the outfield wall jarred the ball out of his glove. Crisp left the game and missed the remainder of the series with a neck strain. Oakland’s leadoff hitter is considered day-to-day.

The Angels added a run in the sixth and padded their lead in the seventh when Albert Pujols crushed an Evan Scribner meatball for a solo home run. The quartet of runs was more than enough cushion for Weaver, who twirled seven shutout innings of three-hit ball. Joe Smith and Huston Street did the rest to take game two.

After losing Garrett Richards for the season, the Angels tried out Wade LeBlanc in the team’s no. 5 spot in the rotation, a short-lived experiment. Instead of ponying up for a starting pitcher on the trade market, Anaheim opted to try out the bullpen game approach for Saturday’s matchup against Jeff Samardzija. The strategy worked to perfection.

Cory Rasmus got the ball first for Mike Scioscia’s club in his first start since 2011 at Class-A Lynchburg. Rasmus—the brother of Toronto outfielder Colby—answered the call with three nearly flawless innings, allowing just an infield single to Josh Donaldson in the first inning. The 26-year-old struck out six and delivered 32 of his 49 offerings for strikes before handing the ball over to Michael Roth, who had just been called up from Double-A. Roth walked a pair and allowed an infield single to load the bases, which prompted Scioscia to give him the hook in favor of Yoslan Herrera, who coaxed an inning-ending double play off the bat of pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes.

A pair of singles, an error, and a wild pitch led to two runs for the Angels in the bottom of the fourth, which was all they would get against Samardzija. The right-hander retired the final 14 hitters he faced, finishing the start with nine punchouts and zero free passes in eight innings of work. The Notre Dame product hit 99 and 100 mph with his final two fastballs, but walked off the mound for the final time with the A’s still facing a 2-0 deficit.

After Herrera worked out of the jam in the fourth inning, Fernando Salas, Jason Grilli, Kevin Jepsen, and Joe Smith each pitched a perfect inning of relief. Sam Fuld managed a leadoff single against Huston Street in the ninth, but the veteran closer clinched the series win with his 35th save of the season.

Looking to avoid the series sweep, the A’s turned to Scott Kazmir for the finale, exactly one week after the Angels chased him in the fourth inning of a seven-run shellacking. Kazmir sent the Angels down in order in the opening frame on Sunday, but things quickly went south for the veteran left-hander.

Josh Hamilton led off the second inning with a single and moved into scoring position after Howie Kendrick worked a six-pitch walk. Hamilton came around to score two batters later on a single to left by Erick Aybar to draw first blood. Kazmir proceeded to walk the next three Angels, which was enough for Melvin to give his starter the hook. Dan Otero relieved Kazmir and allowed all three inherited runners to score, which sunk the A’s into a 6-0 hole out of which they couldn’t climb.

The free passes handed out by Kazmir during the inning were the main culprit behind his unraveling, but the 30-year-old wasn’t getting any help from home plate umpire Gerry Davis. Kazmir didn’t miss his spots by much, and his displeasure with Davis’ tight strike zone was apparent; the Oakland starter was visibly frustrated about several calls, particularly on pitches that he felt caught the inside third against right-handed hitters.

After taking Kazmir out of the game, Melvin confronted Davis about his strike zone and was immediately ejected. After the game, Kazmir voiced his displeasure with how Davis called the game and indicated that Davis had been reprimanded for making a “cry baby face” towards Oakland’s dugout during the previous night’s game.

Regardless of Kazmir’s feelings towards Davis, that didn’t stop his counterpart, Matt Shoemaker, from extending his scoreless innings streak with seven shutout frames. Shoemaker fanned seven and walked none while allowing just five singles, finishing the month of August with a 1.31 ERA, a .485 opponent OPS, and a 38:6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 41 1/3 innings. The former undrafted free agent extended his scoreless innings streak to 23 1/3 innings and became the first Angels pitcher to toss three consecutive outings of at least seven innings and zero runs allowed since Nolan Ryan.

Oakland tacked on a run against Mike Morin in the eighth, which was the club’s first run scored since the sixth inning of Thursday’s game. That 29-inning span of futility marked the third longest scoring drought in franchise history and prompted Melvin to hold a closed-door meeting with the team after Sunday’s blowout.

On Monday, Jason Hammel turned in eight innings of one-run ball, arguably his best start since joining the A’s, and the newly acquired Adam Dunn went yard in his first at-bat donning the Oakland green and yellow. Oakland ended up thumping the Mariners by a 6-1 final to pull back within 4 1/2 games of the Angels, who were idle on Labor Day. However, the A’s entered Monday’s game with less than a one in ten chance of winning the American League West, a percentage that shouldn’t drastically change even after their win. The A’s will have a chance to make up ground on the Angels when the clubs square off for a three-game series during the final week of the season, but it’s becoming more and more likely that Oakland’s season could come down to a one-game playoff.

Quick Hits from the Labor Day Weekend
The Giants had their way with the Brewers over the weekend, sandwiching Jake Peavy’s near–no hitter between a 13-2 blowout on Friday and Sunday’s 15-5 pummeling. With Milwaukee scuffling, all the Cardinals needed to earn a share of the National League Central lead was to split their four-game series with the Cubs. However, with Chicago’s bright young sluggers taking their hacks, that’s a task easier said than done.

Shelby Miller took the hill for the Cardinals in Friday’s series opener and was spotted an early 2-0 lead. Leading off the second inning for the Cubs was Luis Valbuena, and Miller got away with a first-pitch fastball down the middle to the Chicago third baseman. The pitch had missed its intended target, low and away.

On the next pitch, Yadier Molina—back from his nearly two-month stint on the DL—set up low and away again. Miller's 92 mph fastball missed in the exact same location, but this time, Valbuena was ready and deposited the pitch in the right field seats to put the Cubs on the board.

The two clubs exchanged zeroes for the next four innings, but in the top of the seventh, Miller made another crucial mistake over the middle of the plate. This time, he left a 94 mph fastball—intended to be low and away—up at the letters to Jorge Soler. Tie game.

Aside from the mistakes made to Valbuena and Soler, Miller pitched admirably for the Cardinals, allowing just the two runs on four hits over seven innings. With the game still even heading into the eighth, Mike Matheny lifted the 23-year-old after 93 pitches in favor of Pat Neshek, who entered the weekend series the proud owner of a 0.83 ERA.

By the end of the appearance, Neshek's runs allowed had nearly doubled.

Pinch-hitter Logan Watkins started things off with a grounder through the right side for a leadoff single. Chris Coghlan yanked a ground-rule double to right field moments later to move the go-ahead run 90 feet from home. Next up was Javier Baez, who ripped an elevated fastball from Neshek into the left center gap to put the Cubs up 4-2. After retiring Starlin Castro and Valbuena, it looked like Neshek would escape with just a two-run deficit. But with Soler up to bat, the St. Louis reliever committed the same sin that Miller had made earlier in the game: missing up in the zone. The crack of the bat left little doubt as to where the ball was heading.

The Cubs went on to win 7-2 and took the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader behind seven outstanding innings from Felix Doubront. The 26-year-old southpaw gave up one run on seven hits and struck out four in his Cubs debut, while Justin Masterson hit the showers before the end of the fifth inning. On Monday, the Cardinals announced that Masterson—who has a 7.90 ERA and .927 opponents’ OPS in six starts since being acquired at the trade deadline—would be heading to the bullpen.

In the nightcap, Matt Holliday’s three-run home run in the fifth inning off Tsuyoshi Wada was the difference heading into the eighth inning. The Cardinals held a 4-1 lead behind six innings of quality work by Marco Gonzales, but the game quickly got out of hand in the eighth.

Holliday smoked his second dinger of the night, this one off Kyuji Fujikawa, to lead off the inning. The Cardinals proceeded to collect five singles, three walks and a hit by pitch before Carlos Villanueva—the third Cubs reliever of the inning—got Matt Adams to hit a sacrifice fly for the inning’s first out. By that point, the Cardinals had scored eight runs in the frame and the score stood at 12-1. St. Louis tacked on one more run before Oscar Taveras hit into an inning-ending double play.

St. Louis’ chances at earning a series split got off to a bleak start during Sunday’s finale when the Cubs hung a five-spot on John Lackey in the second inning. Holliday continued his hot hitting for the Cardinals with yet another home run to get the Redbirds on the board in the fourth. The next inning, Holliday capped a three-run frame with an RBI double that plated Matt Carpenter, who had reached earlier in the inning on a very catchable fly ball to the warning track that bounced off Arismendy Alcantara’s glove for a double.

Alcantara made up for his miscue in the seventh with a solo jack that gave the Cubs a 6-4 lead, but the Cardinals stormed back in the home half to even the score. The next inning, Holliday stepped to the plate against Villanueva with two outs and the bases loaded:

Holliday’s hot shot up the middle ricocheted off Villanueva and into left field, which brought two runs around to score. The Cardinals added one final run to their comeback tally to take the Sunday matinee by a 9-6 final.

The Cardinals finished the weekend tied with the Brewers for the National League Central lead and had the opportunity to stand alone atop the standings after Milwaukee dropped their sixth straight contest on Monday. All they needed to do was beat Pittsburgh.

The Labor Day matchup saw the Pirates hold a 4-2 advantage over the Cardinals heading into the seventh. Kolten Wong had sustained a scary head injury on Sunday that required him to undergo concussion tests after the game (he passed), so it was of little surprise that the rookie second baseman wasn’t in Monday’s starting lineup. However, with his club down two and in search of some spark against Gerrit Cole, Mike Matheny called upon Wong in a pinch-hit situation. The Hilo, Hawaii native delivered:

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Related Content:  Los Angeles Angels,  No-hitter,  Oakland A\'s

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