Barber: A's have Astros just where they want them

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OAKLAND — The A’s lost 4-2 to the Texas Rangers at the Coliseum on Wednesday afternoon. Less than an hour after the final out here, the Astros wrapped up a 10-7 win at Seattle to bump Oakland out of a first-place tie in the American League Western Division.

In other words, the underdog A’s have ’em right where they want ’em.

I’ve covered a lot of baseball, and there aren’t many neutral clubhouses after a game. Winning teams blare music, shoot Nerf basketballs and toss around zingers. Losing teams set their jaws, glare and offer clipped answers to awkward questions. It’s a high-contrast landscape. Not a lot of grayscale.

The A’s clubhouse wasn’t a happy place after Wednesday’s loss, but it didn’t resemble a funeral service, either. Losing pitcher Edwin Jackson managed some smiles, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy had a memorable quip when he said of the Oakland Coliseum, “We have a built-in home-field advantage here, because it’s a graveyard.”

In general, the mood wasn’t particularly up or down. It was business casual, for a lot of good reasons.

For one thing, the A’s had taken two of three games from the Rangers, just as they had taken two of three from the Astros before that, and two of three from the Mariners before that, and two of three from the Angels before that.

“If we win two of three the rest of the year, we’re winning the World Series,” said Lucroy, the noted backstop and mathematician.

The A’s just conquered the entire AL West. In their most recent 19 series, dating back to June 15, they are 16-1-2. It’s a number that defies reason. And despite Wednesday’s setback, Oakland has the best record in the majors since June 16, at 42-15. No reason to get bent out of shape, then, by one loss to the Rangers.

Another reason the A’s avoided a post-defeat winter is that they didn’t go quietly in this one. They fought back and made things highly interesting, as they’ve been doing all season.

Jackson didn’t have good stuff Wednesday. His slider hung high for most of the day, and he had trouble locating pitches. When Jackson left the game following Adrian Beltre’s RBI single in the fifth inning, Oakland was down 4-0.

But not out. The bullpen buckled down, cumulatively going 4⅔ scoreless innings and striking out eight Rangers while surrendering just two hits and one walk.

That allowed the A’s to creep back into the game, and they loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth before Nick Martini’s check-swing strikeout ended the effort. It’s hard to be sad when you go down battling like that.

“We were one big hit away,” A’s shortstop Marcus Semien said. “(If) we hit a ball in the gap, three runs could score, game over. We’ve done it before. Even when E-Jax was pulled, still felt like we were gonna win the game.”

But here’s the real reason the A’s were entitled to feel buoyant after a loss: They were accepting their natural place in the order of the MLB universe.

This team has powerful bats and powerful arms, but the A’s aren’t front-runners. They’re classic upstarts.

For the second time in a week, these Athletics had pulled into a dead heat with the defending World Series-champion Astros, only to lose and fall one game out of first place. Good. Perfect. The A’s thrive when they’re the team to watch, not the team to beat.

Everything about the A’s screams underdog. It always has, really. The Bash Brothers teams of the late 1980s swaggered and crushed people with an All-Star lineup, but they were the exception. Even when Oakland was winning three World Series from 1972-74, it was a shoestring operation that made you scratch your head and wonder how. And the Moneyball A’s of the early 2000s were such dramatic overachievers that Michael Lewis wrote a book about them.

While the Astros, Mariners and Rangers play in newer stadiums with state-of-the-art amenities like concession-stand fried grasshoppers, moving choo-choo trains and operable plumbing, the A’s plug away in Lucroy’s Graveyard, on a diamond that was reverting to a football field when I wrote this. Wednesday’s paid attendance was 13,139; hundreds of fans must have been crammed into the food trucks like clown cars, because they certainly weren’t visible in the stands.

The A’s are such dyed-in-the-wool underdogs that they have created the ethos of a “small-market team” despite playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, which happens to be the sixth-largest television market in the United States. According to Kiplinger, Oakland is the sixth-most expensive city in America in which to live. And yet the A’s have a history of selling off their best players for minor-league prospects and spare subway tokens, claiming poverty. It’s what underdogs do.

Not everyone buys this idea, I should point out.

“I don’t really know,” Semien said. “We go out there thinking we’re gonna win every day. … Pretty sure that if you’re an underdog, that means you don’t think you’re better than the other team. We think we are.”

But from outside the clubhouse, we can see that the A’s best position for now is a game or two back of the Astros. Let them hound the champions, stay on their pant legs like vicious Chihuahuas until making a move at the end of the season. It’s another thing that underdogs do.

“We’re all human here,” Lucroy said. “And we all make emotional decisions, where we try to do too much. You know, we’re looking at the scoreboard, looking at all the other games.”

That includes Melvin, occasionally. The manager noted before Wednesday’s game that from his perch in the home dugout here, he has a clear view of the National League out-of-town scoreboard in left field, but has to adjust position and crane his neck to see the AL scoreboard.

“But couldn’t help but take a peek (Tuesday) night when Houston and Seattle are playing each other,” Melvin said. “You don’t have to go far to find that score.”

There will be a lot of scoreboard watching over the final 7½ weeks of the regular season. If the natural order holds, it’s the Astros who will be checking it again and again, nervously taking note of the team in Oakland that refuses to go away.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at (707) 521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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