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Ryan Cook got the final out of the A's 5-1 win over the Rangers Monday in Oakland. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
OAKLAND – The stakes weren’t nearly the same Monday night as they were last time the A’s and Texas Rangers got together.
Neither was the atmosphere.
The Oakland Coliseum was a sold-out sea of green and gold last October when the A’s routed the Rangers and clinched the A.L. West championship on the final day of the 2012 season.
On Monday? Oakland and Texas opened up a three-game series before a not-so-rollicking crowd of 11,030, and both managers went out of their way before the game to downplay the importance of this single series.
Don’t be fooled.
The calendar may only read May, but the A’s needed to come out and look sharp after a 3-7 road trip. Their 5-1 victory was a step in the right direction.
“You don’t want to put too much importance on a particular game,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “But there are certain games during the course of the season that are a little more important than the others. And this is a good game for us to play well.”
It included so many elements of what must go right for the A’s if they’re to repeat as division champs. A.J. Griffin delivered what he called the best start of his major league career from a command standpoint. He spotted his fastball – and got an assist from umpire Lance Barksdale’s generous strike zone – and dropped his slow curve in just enough to keep the Rangers off-balance.
Oakland’s rotation entered the night with a 5.17 ERA, fourth-highest in the A.L., so Griffin’s effort was much needed – 7 innings, 6 hits, 1 run, a season-high tying 8 strikeouts and zero walks.
Griffin started last year’s division-clinching victory over the Rangers. He only lasted 2 2/3 innings in the A’s 12-5 rout, but he enjoyed the euphoric celebration after. He said a key for him Monday was keeping those thoughts of October out of his mind.
“Anytime you see a highlight reel of that game, it gets the hair on your neck standing up a little bit,” Griffin said. “ But I pitch better when I’m cool, calm and collected, and not worried about trying to do too much. That’s when I’m at my best.”
The A’s also showed the power stroke that was so important last year, as Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss drilled back-to-back homers in the third to give the A’s a 4-1 lead and provide Griffin some breathing room.
The bullpen wrapped it up with a 2012-like effort, as Sean Doolittle struck out the side in the eighth and Ryan Cook closed it out in the ninth.
But it wasn’t all rosy for the home team.
Cespedes left after the fourth inning with what Melvin labeled a “stomach ailment.” He pointed out that the training staff didn’t think it was a virus, and Cespedes is expected to be ready Tuesday night.
If not, it leaves a dicey center field situation. Coco Crisp and Chris Young are both on the disabled list, leaving Moss seemingly as the only choice to handle the position if Cespedes can’t go. Moss shifted over to center when Cespedes left but has played just one other game there in his major league career.
That’s a temporary concern. In the bigger picture, the A’s needed to get back to pitching well and flashing their home run power. They did it for one night, and it got them back to .500 and shaved Texas’ division lead to five games.
“We wanted to put that road trip behind us,” Doolittle said, “kind of press reset and get back to the way we played last year. I think you saw that with Griffin’s start, (Eric) Sogard’s big hit early in the game. You had a couple long balls that we saw so much of last year. You saw guys playing with passion and energy, and it was a really important win for us.”