Astros escape Oakland with a win in their final try

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Not a statement game. A statement series.

The A’s won the series from the World Series champs. They took two out of three games, and have taken two consecutive series from the Houston Astros with one more to go. They have shown the Astros and the American League they are for real and can contend with the best. If they don’t win the AL West – don’t count them out – they are a ferocious Wild Card contender. These teams will play a three-game series against each other in Houston starting Aug. 27.

The A’s lost the game 9-4 Sunday afternoon and fell one game behind the Astros for first place in the division, which with a month and a half to go seems a mere footnote. A’s starting pitcher Sean Manaea was the loser – his record is 11-9 — and Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander the winner – his record is 12-8.

“Granted, they were handing it to us earlier in the season,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said during his postgame press conference. “But, here recently, we have played the Astros pretty well. Before, we would hope to win those games against them. Now, we expect to win.”

The A’s didn’t have much hope earlier in the season — they lost eight of their first nine games against Houston. At their lowest point, the A’s trailed the Astros by 12 games and were in fourth place in the division. That was June 18.

Since then, Oakland’s record is 38-14, while Houston’s is 26-24. Both teams have 38 games remaining in the regular season. The A’s will face seven teams above .500. The Astros will face eight.

The A’s currently have a 3½-game lead over the Seattle Mariners for the second Wild Card spot. If the A’s make the playoffs, it will be the first time since 2014. That year, they lost in the Wild Card game to the Kansas City Royals.

“The other teams know we’re good,” A’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy said at his locker after the game. “We’re a legit team. They know they have to have their best stuff to beat us. Verlander was really good today. We got on him early, but their lineup battled back.”

The A’s got to Verlander with one out in the bottom of the first. The batter was third baseman Matt Chapman, the hottest hitter on the team. He has a 15-game hitting streak.

Chapman fell behind Verlander 0-2, then took the next three pitches, two of which may have been borderline strikes. Home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn called all three balls.

“Chapman’s not chasing,” Melvin said. “That has been THE difference. He’s making them throw it over the plate.”

Verlander threw Chapman a fastball over the plate on a 3-2 count, and Chapman crushed it to center field for home run No. 17. Two batters later, designated hitter Khris Davis hit his 35th home run of the season, and the A’s took a 2-0 lead.

That was the score with two outs in the top of the third. Manaea had retired seven of the first eight hitters he faced. He was cruising, but then he gave up four hits in a row. The fourth hit was a home run by Astros second baseman Yuli Gurriel, who hooked the ball around the left-field foul pole, and gave Houston a 4-2 lead.

As Gurriel rounded the bases, Manaea stood on the mound and stared at the foul pole. “Unbelievable,” he told himself. “I can’t believe I just let this happen.”

The A’s let Manaea off the hook in the bottom of the third, when Khris Davis hit a two-run shot and tied the game at four. The home run was his second of the game, 37th of the season and fourth against Verlander in just 11 career at-bats.

“Davis has multiple home runs against just about anybody,” Melvin said. “Your guys in the middle of the order, you want to be able to hit good pitching. Not everybody can do that. He can, and that’s why he is what he is.”

Davis has hit a major league-leading 15 home runs since the All Star break, and has six multihomer games this season. The only players in franchise history with more multihomer games in a season are Mark McGwire (7), Jose Canseco (7) and Reggie Jackson (8).

But, Davis’ two homers weren’t enough. In the top of the fourth, Manaea gave up a solo homer to Astros DH Evan Gattis. And in the top of the fifth, Manaea gave up an RBI single to Astros leadoff hitter George Springer. Melvin removed Manaea from the game two batters later. The A’s trailed 6-4.

“He didn’t have his best stuff today,” Lucroy said. “Made some mistakes, and we got beat because of it.”

The A’s had a chance to take the lead in the bottom of the sixth with two outs, the bases loaded and center fielder Mark Canha at bat. But on a 3-2 count, he lunged at a slider 4 inches off the plate and struck out swinging.

The A’s hitters never threatened again. And their bullpen gave up more runs. Reliever Emilio Pagan pitched the seventh, eighth and ninth innings and surrendered three homers.

“On the bright side, I was able to finish the game and save guys for tomorrow going into the next series,” Pagan said. “Nobody wants to lose, but we’re not going to win every game. No team is perfect. They’re the champs for a reason. They’re going to win games. They’re really good. But, we made a statement coming out and taking the series against them. We feel good going forward.”

Right fielder Stephen Piscotty agreed with Pagan. “We wanted to take sole possession of first today, but you don’t get to the postseason today or tomorrow. There’s a month and half more to go.”

A month and a half of drama remains between Oakland and Houston. To be continued.

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