OAKLAND -- Before the A's left for their recent seven-game road trip to Baltimore and Detroit, they lost a 5-3 game to Seattle in which manager Bob Melvin said: "Everything we did today is what is wrong with us." At the time, the A's were 8-10 in August, with a serious possibility of finishing the month with a losing record for the first time all season.
With a 2-1 win over the Rays on Saturday, the A's closed August by winning six of nine to finish 14-13. Five of those wins have come in their last six games against Detroit and Tampa Bay, two teams also battling for a playoff spot. This one came with another strong outing by rookie Sonny Gray -- 6 2/3 shutout innings, seven strikeouts -- and two RBIs from Coco Crisp, whom Melvin always refers to as the "igniter" of the offense.
"It was a good night for us," Melvin said this time.
A Rangers loss is the only thing that would have made it better for the A's, but Texas slipped by the Twins, 2-1, to maintain a two-game lead in the West. The A's did add a game to their wild-card lead over the Rays, which is now 1 ½ games, and will go for a sweep tomorrow behind A.J. Griffin.
He'll have a tough act to follow. Gray didn't allow a runner past second base until the fifth inning and came within a James Loney two-out single of completing seven. As it is, Gray has now pitched 21 2/3 innings at the Coliseum in his young A's career and allowed two runs with 23 strikeouts.
"The fans are great here," Gray said. "I love pitching at home. I think in the fourth inning I had two men on, they really get behind you and really help you get that last hitter. It's nice to have that little kick."
Gray was coming off the worst of his seven big-league outings -- 3 1/3 innings, eight hits and six runs against the Orioles -- and said his fastball command was much better against the Rays on Saturday. He was able to keep it down to induce ground ball outs, helping to make his off-speed pitches -- particularly his biting curveball -- more effective.
Gray struck out five of the first six hitters he faced, including the side in the second. Evan Longoria went down looking at a fastball, Matt Joyce looking at a backdoor curve and Wil Myers waving at a curveball away.
"Sonny's fun to watch," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "I don't care who you are.
"Take an average 23-year-old and to have a start like he did in Baltimore and then bounce back like he did tonight, that shows his maturity and his composure, his ability to make adjustments and just to pitch."
Gray was at 102 pitches after Loney's single with two outs in the seventh and Melvin said he "couldn't let him get back potentially over 110 again." As Melvin took the ball from Gray, he appeared to shrug as if to say, "What more could you do?" It was enough for his second major-league win -- and to send the A's into September on a high note.
* While Gray's outing was strong, Vogt's night is the subject of tomorrow's print story. After Gray and Rays starter Alex Cobb traded zeroes for the first five innings, Vogt hit a triple leading off the sixth inning and scored on Crisp's single past the Rays' pulled-in infield. At the time, Melvin said, the triple "felt like a three-run homer."
Vogt also handled the first eight scoreless innings for the A's before being replaced by Kurt Suzuki in the ninth. That's a sentence that you probably did not expect to read two months ago, when the A's were still able to use their intended platoon of Derek Norris and John Jaso behind the plate.
Jaso is still out with concussion symptoms and Norris is rehabbing from a fractured toe. In the 10 games since both have been on the disabled list, the A's are 6-4, with Vogt and Suzuki contributing key offensive plays in the last two wins (Suzuki hit a three-run home run off David Price in the A's 4-3 win on Friday night).
It speaks to the A's ability to plug in pieces without much drop-off -- something that was key to their surprising season in 2012. Vogt has been very reliable since being called up to replace Jaso, particularly defensively and with his throwing arm, though he also batted .268 in 20 games in August to raise his season average from .200 to .244.
Saturday, his first major-league triple was key for an offense that struggled to figure out Cobb. Both Melvin and Gray called the hit "huge." Vogt said he was thinking triple as soon as he realized the ball didn't have a chance to clear the wall.
"Right off the bat I thought, 'Ooh maybe,'" he said. "And then I thought, 'Oh no, he's going to catch it.' And then as soon as I kind of saw the way he was going back to the wall, I was thinking three right away. I was not stopping."
Crisp said he lost the ball in the night sky and "was hoping it would just drop." He said he wasn't surprised to see Vogt slide into third well ahead of center fielder Desmond Jennings' throw, despite Vogt's being a catcher.
"We have a lot of guys that move well," Crisp said. "D-No moves well, he moves well, Zuk. There's a lot of guys in the league that are pretty slow at that position, but we have some agile guys."
* Crisp's home run in the eighth was his fifth in his last 10 games. He also singled twice and stole his first base in his last 26 games, snapping a streak of 25 without one that tied his career high.
As previously stated, Melvin is a firm believer that the A's take a lot of their confidence on offense from Crisp when he's going well. As he's their leadoff hitter, that might seem as obvious as this stat, but here it is anyway, because it's pretty striking:
When Crisp scores a run this season, the A's are 39-10 as opposed to 38-48 when he does not. When he drives in a run, they're 28-8, as opposed to 48-50 when he doesn't. Crisp was asked Saturday about the belief that he sparks the offense and demurred.
"I think everybody in our lineup brings that spark," he said. "That's the good thing about us. We feed off each other. It's not just one guy. ... I love that about this team."
* Grant Balfour managed to make things interesting again in the ninth, allowing a walk and two hits including Jennings' two-out RBI single to make it a one-run game. But he retired Kelly Johnson on a groundout to strand runners on first and second for his 35th save. It was his 61st career save with the A's, moving him into a tie for seventh-most in Oakland history with Jay Howell. He likely won't be available for the series finale as it was his third day pitching in a row.
Before that, the A's got a couple key outings from Sean Doolittle and Dan Otero. After Gray departed, Doolittle got the final out in the seventh and the first two in the eighth. He also issued a walk in the eighth, but Otero came on to strike out Longoria with a runner on second in what was still a one-run game at that point.
It was a big spot for Otero, who has mostly been used in earlier, low-leverage situations since being called up from Triple-A. Otero got Longoria to swing through a high fastball at 92 mph for the strikeout. That's a spot where you'll normally see Ryan Cook, but after Cook threw 27 pitches Friday night, and with Balfour likely off-limits Sunday, Melvin may have wanted to save him for the finale.
Doolittle, meanwhile, had allowed seven runs in his past six games. But despite allowing two walks he got the three outs to bridge the gap between Gray and Otero.
"We've been a little spotty down there at times in the bullpen for a bullpen where the expectations are to be perfect all the time," Melvin said. "You have to be consistent with those guys and have some faith in them and believe in them that when times aren't great you still know these are your guys. (Going to Doolittle) wasn't a tough call for me."
* Gray's curveball appeared to be particularly deceptive Saturday. Loney almost went to a knee stopping himself from swinging at one that nearly hit him on the back foot in the fifth inning, and I'm still not sure how he managed to hold up.
* Also not sure if there's a more name-inappropriate mound visit in baseball than when pitching coach Curt Young comes out to talk to Sonny Gray.
* It's A.J. Griffin (11-9, 3.94) for the A's in the finale against Rays right-hander Jamey Wright, who will be making his first start of the season -- and first in the majors since 2007. You may remember Wright from -- any number of previous stops. The Rays, for whom he has a 2.97 ERA in 54 relief outings, are his 10th major-league team.
Wright is 38 years old. Put another way, when the Rockies drafted him in 1993, Sonny Gray was three. On that note, we'll call it a night with a 1:05 p.m. first pitch tomorrow.
-- Matt Kawahara