TORONTO – Friday’s game began as an eagerly anticipated matchup of Sonny Gray vs. former A’s teammate Josh Donaldson.
The most important battle wound up being Sonny Gray vs. the sixth-inning adversity that threatened to unravel all that had gone so good for the A’s up to that point.
Gray faced a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the sixth, with the heart of the Blue Jays’ dangerous batting order due up and a Rogers Center crowd waiting to burst into delirium. Instead, Gray held the damage to one run, order was restored, and the A’s steered their way to an 8-5 victory that ran their winning streak to six games, their longest since a six-gamer from July 3-8, 2014.
“The key to the game was probably that sixth inning,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
The fact of the matter is it’s not quite as easy as the A’s are making it look right now. The hits are coming in bunches, and the confidence flowing through the batting order, one through nine, can nearly be felt through your flat-screen TV.
But it takes just one or two ill-advised pitches to completely shift the complexion of a game. Particularly against an offense as dangerous as Toronto’s, and particularly with Donaldson as the focal point of it. The former A’s star said with sincerity before the game that he’ll always cherish his years in green and gold.
“Ten years from now, I’ll still remember that time, “ he said. “It was pretty special for me.”
But the reigning American League MVP also admitted there’s a little extra kick of adrenaline facing the A’s, especially with their ace on the mound.
Gray struck him out in the first, as Donaldson’s bat went flying out toward shortstop when he swung through a curve. He singled in the fourth and drew a walk that loaded the bases in the sixth with no outs. Suddenly, Gray found himself falling behind in counts. The A’s led 6-1, but with Jose Bautista batting, the Jays were one swing away from getting right back in the game.
Instead, Gray buckled down. He retired Bautista on a sacrifice fly that let steam out of the rally. Cleanup man Edwin Encarnacion flied out to center, and after Justin Smoak walked to load the bases again, Gray got Josh Thole on a groundout and the A’s returned to the dugout still leading 6-2.
“I dug myself in a hole and kind of was able to dig myself out of it,” Gray said.
Similar to the New York Yankees, whom the A’s just swept, the Blue Jays are scuffling offensively more than their star-studded lineup would suggest they should. Compounding matters for Toronto was Friday’s news of first baseman Chris Colabello’s 80-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
But Toronto battled back Friday, pulling to within 6-5 before the resurgent Khris Davis delivered a two-out, two-run double for the A’s to add some important insurance runs. “There’s never a comfy lead against that offense,” Davis said. “But scoring after they score is kind of deflating (for the opponent).”
And there to close it out in the ninth for the A’s, once again, was Ryan Madson. His seven saves are tied with the Royals’ Wade Davis for most in the American League, but Melvin still isn’t anointing Madson his official closer.
Matchups dictate who he goes with, Melvin said, adding that he was planning to use Doolittle for the ninth until Ryan Dull found trouble in the eighth and Melvin instead called on Doolittle then (the lefty allowed a walk and Kevin Pillar’s two-run single to make it a 6-5 game at that time).
Job titles — or lack thereof — hardly matter to the A’s right now. Their 7-0 road start is third-best in Oakland history behind the 11-0 start of the 1981 club and an 8-0 run by the 1990 squad.
They’re beating opponents with grand gestures — like Chris Coghlan’s three-run homer Friday. They’re also doing it with subtle victories within the game, as Gray demonstrated in a sixth inning that could have taken an ugly turn but didn’t.