OAKLAND -- It did not appear early on Sunday like this would be a game the A's would win with pitching and defense. Tommy Milone gave up a career-high tying three home runs all in the first three innings. The Cardinals took a 5-2 lead in the third when Josh Donaldson lost a Carlos Beltran pop-up in the sun and Jed Lowrie let Matt Holliday's two-out grounder roll through his legs, allowing Beltran to come in from second base.
But the A's tightened things up from there, and after they came back to beat the Cardinals 7-5, much of the talk was about pitching -- a gutty effort by Milone to give the A's three more shutout innings and turn it over to the bullpen -- and defense -- notably two plays in the seventh inning that helped preserve what was then a one-run lead.
Both Lowrie and reliever Sean Doolittle said they thought the key play was Eric Sogard's full-extension catch of a Yadier Molina flare in the seventh. The Cardinals had a runner on second and nobody out, and had the ball fallen it likely would have tied the game.
"Off the top of my head that's one of the better (plays) of the year," said Doolittle, who was pitching. "Battling the sun like that, in no-man's land, full speed on the run -- that was awesome."
"That changes the whole inning," Lowrie said. "I think it's the biggest play of the game."
Doolittle retired Carlos Beltran on a pop-up. Allen Craig then hit a sharp grounder that third baseman Josh Donaldson stopped on a dive to his left. Donaldson's throw was low but scooped out of the dirt by Brandon Moss.
It was the second highlight-reel play of the day by Donaldson, who also went toppling over the tarp in foul ground behind third base catching a Matt Carpenter pop-up in the fourth. That got Milone out of a two-on, two-out jam with the A's still trailing by a run.
"Defense can give you as much of a momentum swing," manager Bob Melvin said. "Just as important was the (play on Craig). That's a run, now it's a tie game. More theatrics to the one on the tarp, which is a tough play, but the play in the hole is a game-saver."
* Center fielder Coco Crisp contributed his own defensive gem with a diving catch to rob Holliday of hit in the first inning -- but it came with consequences. Crisp left the game two innings later with back spasms and was replaced in center by Chris Young. Melvin said Crisp is day-to-day.
Melvin said Crisp actually started feeling some discomfort after a dive in Saturday's 7-1 loss. "And then he dove again today on that one and it acted up again a little bit," Melvin said. Crisp played two more innings but Young was on deck to pinch hit for him when Sogard made the final out in the third, and then replaced him in the field in the fourth.
* Despite earning the win Sunday, Milone will be glad to say farewell to June. He has a 5.96 ERA in his last four starts and was up in the zone too often early Sunday to the Cardinals, who made him pay. The three home runs allowed brought his season total to 19. He allowed 24 homers all of last season.
What Milone did do was keep the bottom of the Cardinals order in check and get the A's into the sixth with a lead, allowing Melvin to run out the Sean Doolittle-Ryan Cook-Grant Balfour progression for the final nine outs. The bottom four hitters in the St. Louis order were a combined 0-for-8 against Milone with a walk, and the two 1-2-3 innings he did have -- which kept his pitch count from escalating too much -- were against the Cardinals' 7-8-9 hitters.
"He was able to keep his wits about him," Melvin said.
Milone said it helped that in both innings the Cardinals scored, the A's came back with runs of their own in the bottom half.
"I felt like anything that was going on, they had my back," Milone said. "It gives you that confidence even when you're not feeling that well when you're out there."
It was a warm day at the Coliseum and the ball was carrying around the yard, but the home runs are something to keep an eye on with Milone going forward. He entered Sunday leading the majors in home runs allowed to right-handed hitters (14) and added two more on the first-inning homers by Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.
According to the analytics website FanGraphs, the rate of fly balls being hit off Milone that are going for home runs is relatively close this season (10.8 percent) to last (10.7). But hitters are lifting Milone's pitches much more often -- 46.5 percent of batted balls against him this season have been fly balls, compared to 37.3 percent last year.
Milone got a total of two ground-ball outs Sunday. On his best days he'll draw a lot of weak contact by keeping hitters off-balance, but as long as opponents keep lifting his pitches, he'll be at a risk of seeing that home run total increase.
* Tomorrow's print story focuses on the back end of the A's bullpen. After Doolittle, Cook and Balfour shut the door Sunday, the A's are now 36-3 on the season when they have a lead going into the seventh inning. That was the second-fewest losses in the A.L. going into Sunday, as three teams had two -- the Rangers (35-2), Yankees (31-2) and Mariners (27-2).
For a series that featured two of the better bullpens in baseball, we didn't get to see very much of either. Bartolo Colon pitched eight innings Friday night before turning it over to Dan Otero. The Cardinals' Adam Wainwright went all nine Saturday. Sunday was the first appearance of the series for all three of the A's regular late-game relievers, and the only closer in baseball besides Balfour who hasn't blown a save this season -- St. Louis' Edward Mujica -- didn't get into a game.
The A's did get a look at hard-throwing right-hander Trevor Rosenthal on Sunday, who struck out Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss on mid-90s fastballs before giving up a solo home run to Josh Donaldson, who drove a 97 mph fastball the other way over the 362-foot marker in right-center field.
For fun, we asked Balfour after the game how he thinks the A's late-game relief stacks up to that of the Cardinals, and other teams around the league.
"There's some great bullpens out there, I'm not going to sit here and say who I like and don't like," Balfour said. "But you could see today they've got some great arms in that bullpen and throughout.
"They're a strong pen, but I think we have a tight-knit bullpen and good bunch of guys that enjoy the competition together and we get along well. We can joke and mess around and at the same time go out and compete at a high level and feed off each other. I like what we've got and I wouldn't change it."
Lowrie was more assertive about the Doolittle-Cook-Balfour progression.
"I'd put those three up against anybody in the league," Lowrie said.
* The A's finished June with a 16-11 record, the seventh month in a row with a winning mark. Their overall record of 48-35 is also the franchise's best since 1992, when they had an identical one.
"It means we've been pretty consistent," Melvin said. "We haven't hit on all facets and no team does at all times. But it means we've found ways, whether it was defensively, offensively or pitching, to be consistent. So I think you probably take 16 every month."
A new one starts tomorrow, but the A's are off until Tuesday, when the Chicago Cubs arrive for a three-game series. The projected pitching matchups, with Thursday subject to the results of Jarrod Parker's Tuesday bullpen session:
Tuesday: RHP A.J. Griffin (6-6, 3.56) vs. RHP Scott Feldman (7-6, 3.46)
Wednesday: RHP Bartolo Colon (11-2, 2.79) vs. RHP Matt Garza (3-1, 3.82)
Thursday: RHP Jarrod Parker (6-6, 4.11) vs. LHP Travis Wood (5-6, 2.85)
-- Matt Kawahara