The A’s are the first Major League team to hit the 30-win mark this season, and No. 30 couldn’t have come in more unique fashion Wednesday night.
They managed just one hit –- a home run. They were victimized by a routine pop-up that hit a catwalk in the baseball funhouse known as Tropicana Field. Then in the bottom of the eighth, disaster loomed as the Tampa Bay Rays loaded the bases with one out, trailing by just a run.
But the A’s prevailed, 3-2, and they did so largely thanks to a bullpen that came up huge when it had no margin for error. Victory No. 30 was an important one given the context of where the A’s stand right now with their relief corps.
They’ve committed to Sean Doolittle as their closer. Before the game, A’s manager Bob Melvin laid out his plan for who will get the ball to Doolittle when Oakland has a lead: Dan Otero will be the main guy in the seventh, Luke Gregerson is the eighth-inning setup guy and Fernando Abad and Jim Johnson will be used as needed, with Abad being a particular weapon against left-handed hitters.
For the relief corps to come out and play an instrumental role in nailing down a one-run victory has got to be big for the collective confidence of the group. That it came with last year’s closer, Grant Balfour, in the opposing dugout wearing a Rays uniform seemed to make the night carry extra weight as well.
Now the A’s find themselves at 30-16, owner of the best record in the majors for the first time since Sept. 23, 2002 –- the year they ripped off their legendary 20-game winning streak.
The A’s also lead the American League West by at least four games before the All-Star break for the first time since 1992. They’re rolling, and when one facet of the team (the offense) broke down Wednesday, other areas (pitching and defense) were there to pick up the pieces.
The A’s, so erratic with the glove early in the season, made several nice plays to back starter Tommy Milone and four relievers. Milone was steady, delivering 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball and providing another piece of evidence that he’s a guy Melvin can count on in the fifth starter’s spot.
But it was the bullpen that carried No. 30 home.
With Otero being held out after throwing two innings Tuesday, Fernando Rodriguez came through with 1 1/3 innings, allowing Yunel Escobar’s RBI single after he relieved Milone in the sixth with runners on.
Gregerson gave up two singles in the eighth and left runners on the corners with one out for Abad. Abad entered and got squeezed on a couple pitches to pinch-hitter David DeJesus. DeJesus walked to load the bases, but Abad coaxed a 6-4-3 double play from Escobar to end the threat.
Doolittle entered in the ninth and allowed a “single” to Logan Forsythe on a pop-up that struck a catwalk in the Rays’ indoor ballpark and fell for a hit. But he struck out two and notched his second save in as many nights.
Doolittle threw 25 pitches – 24 fastballs and one change-up according to MLB.com’s game tracker. He’s been working to improve his slider so he feels more comfortable using it in crucial situations. But he was pumping his fastball as high as 96 miles per hour Wednesday, and sticking with the heat worked.
Some of the A’s 30 victories have stood out more than others. Wednesday’s felt like one of them, and it starred a bullpen that can benefit from every bit of success it experiences right now.