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September 7, 2013
A's alone in first place after 7-5 win over Astros

OAKLAND -- The A's had spent nine days either tied for first place or within a half-game of the Texas Rangers since they were last alone atop the West on Aug. 6. They finally got over that hump again Friday with their 7-5 win over the Astros and Texas losing 6-5 to the Angels -- and they couldn't have sounded less excited about it.

"You know what? I hadn't really thought about that," manager Bob Melvin said in his post-game press conference. "I'll tell you tomorrow."

"Are we alone?" said third baseman Josh Donaldson. "It doesn't matter 'til the end of the season. We know that too well. So we're really not trying to focus on it right now."

Still, it bears repeating that the A's are in a much better position at this point than they were last season, when they still had some serious ground to make up in late September. Friday, they had the offensive performance most people were probably expecting when the series started -- the Astros came in with the highest staff ERA in baseball by more than half a run, and the A's had 10 hits in the first four innings.

They spread them out as well, scoring in four of the first six innings. Josh Donaldson's two-run homer in the sixth made it a 7-4 game, which turned out to be crucial when the Astros scored once in the ninth off Grant Balfour and put the tying run on second base by the time Balfour recorded the final out.

"We've always talked about the ability and the need to be able to add on," Melvin said. "I think at times we get spoiled, certainly this season, by how good the pitching is. It's almost like you feel you don't have to.

"Sometimes when the pitching isn't as good, now you have to kind of rethink that a little bit and try to tack on runs. Recently we have been very good about that, and in a case like today, that was important."

A.J. Griffin wasn't sharp in the third and fourth innings but still came out with his 13th win thanks in part to the early support. Griffin also settled down after Jonathan Villar's RBI single in the fourth gave the Astros a 4-3 lead, retiring the next and final eight he faced, including five via strikeout.

"That's huge," Griffin said of the early run support. "It's real disappointing to go back and give back runs after we put up runs -- it's one of the most frustrating things for a pitcher, I'm sure. It's really comforting, though, having an offense like we have here just grinding out at-bats."

Griffin's counterpart, the Astros' left-hander Dallas Keuchel, had thrown 80 pitches by the end of the third inning and left with one out in the fourth having thrown 95 and given up as many hits (10) as he recorded outs. The A's began Friday with the most homers in baseball since Aug. 9 (40) but aside from Donaldson's homer scored by stringing hits together against Keuchel.

"That's what it takes," Donaldson said. "If you're going to score seven, eight runs, it's not all the time going to come by the long ball. It's going to come from guys manufacturing."

As a result, the A's wake up Saturday morning alone in first place. Not that they'll feel any different when they do.

* Donaldson came within a triple of the cycle, and his home run looked like the game's pivotal play by the end. But early on that title may have belonged to his stolen base in the fourth.

After Coco Crisp walked with one out in the fourth, Donaldson singled. Jed Lowrie then singled to drive in Crisp, send Donaldson to third with one out and knock Keuchel out of the game.

The Astros brought in Philip Humber, who is not quick to the plate out of the stretch, and Donaldson swiped third on the second pitch of Yoenis Cespedes' at-bat for just his fourth steal of the season. It allowed him to score when Cespedes hit a slow chopper to third.

Donaldson said he typically has the green light unless instructed otherwise and, "I wanted to do it the first pitch, but (Humber) kind of looked at me a little longer.

"I saw he still went real high (on his delivery). Obviously I'm not really a burner, I'm going to need some time, and when he went high he allowed me the opportunity to try to take off. So I did it the second pitch."

Donaldson said he had already gone over Humber's times to the plate with third-base coach Mike Gallego, "so I felt pretty comfortable doing it." His run gave the A's a 5-4 lead at the time in a back-and-forth game.

"When you look at the outcome, certainly the home run was paramount," Melvin said. "But at the time, the way the game was, the stolen base was huge."

* Griffin's outing carried on an odd trend -- before Friday, he had the lowest opponents' batting average (.172) the first time through the order of any pitcher in baseball with at least 130 innings. That average, though, rose to .264 after the lineup turned over.

Friday, that's right where his trouble started. The Astros' first three hitters all reached in their second at-bats on a double and two singles, and all three scored in the third, two on Matt Dominguez's two-out single.

"They just stayed on some good pitches I felt tonight," Griffin said. "The one Dominguez hit, I felt like that was a good pitch. It was down, an off-speed pitch, and he just stayed on it real well."

Griffin did recover to give the A's six innings and strike out five of the final six hitters he faced to finish with a season-high nine. Melvin was appreciative of not having to dive too deep into his bullpen -- Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour finished the win.

"Early on he was a little bit spotty, the fastball at times was up again," Melvin said. "But really in the last couple innings he did his best work, no question."

* Balfour made it interesting again in the ninth, though an error by Eric Sogard on a potential double-play ball with one out contributed to the inning. It allowed Jonathan Villar to score and left runners on first and second with one out. Balfour got Jason Castro to hit into a fielder's choice and struck out Dominguez to end the game.

Balfour fell behind in most counts, threw 35 pitches in the inning and allowed a run for the fourth time in his last six outings. Only once, though, has he failed to secure the save, and for that reason, Melvin offered his closer support Friday.

"You've got to look at the body of work too," Melvin said. "We'll continue to go accordingly. This isn't his best stretch right now, and we'll monitor that."

Balfour has acknowledged recently he hasn't been pitching with his best stuff. Melvin said it's not a matter of velocity with Balfour -- "It's more about the command, and a lot of times when he's missing by wide margins with his fastball, that's kind of the telltale for me." Of the 35 pitches he threw Friday, only 20 were strikes.

"But he competes," Melvin said. "He got it done today. It wasn't pretty, but that's the case sometimes."

* Derek Norris made his first start since breaking his left big toe and in his first at-bat -- he beat out an infield single.

"That was the last thing I expected," Norris said.

A little uncertain how the toe would respond to running full-speed -- he hadn't done so in order to help with recovery -- Norris said he was pleasantly surprised. He caught the first seven innings and said that didn't bother him either.

"I feel fine," Norris said. "Don't even feel the need to ice it."

The A's see another left-hander Saturday in Brett Oberholtzer. Melvin said before the game that Kurt Suzuki could get the start but, after using all three catchers Friday night, didn't bite when asked who he's planning on playing Saturday.

"One of the three," Melvin said.

* Chris Young, who drove in the A's first run with a well-placed bunt single, has had some of the worst luck of any A's hitter this season.

There were, of course, the back-to-back nights he came within inches of hitting walk-off home runs, only to have one hook foul and another robbed. Another example came in the fifth inning Friday. Young hit a sinking liner to left that Chris Carter gloved inches above the ground on a dive to take away a hit. The very next batter, Brandon Moss, hit a routine fly ball to left, and Carter dropped it for a two-base error.

* If Suzuki does get the start today, it'll be three different catchers in three days for the A's. The pitching matchup is Oberholtzer (4-1, 2.79) and Dan Straily (8-7, 4.38). First pitch at 1:05 p.m.

-- Matt Kawahara

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Email: mkawahara@sacbee.com.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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