It really wasn’t that long ago that Grant Balfour was emerging as a force in the ninth inning for the Oakland Athletics. In the midst of his 44 consecutive saves streak, Balfour had established a level of dominance few had seen from an Athletics closer in decades. He had his close calls in the process, but he always seemed to find a way out. It all changed on July 23rd against these same Houston Astros. Matt Dominguez drilled a 3-run home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth in Houston, and the Astros would walk off against the A’s shortly thereafter. Since that game, Balfour has been a bit of an adventure on the mound. We all remember the finale in Detroit, where just four pitches into the inning it was clear Balfour had nothing, and Torii Hunter put down the exclamation point with a walk off 3-run shot.
Balfour showed a great deal of that same wildness that put him in trouble against the Tigers, and he was fortunate that the Astros were unable to take advantage of his ineffectiveness. Fittingly, it was Matt Dominguez who came to bat with the tying run at second and struck out chasing a high fastball to end the game and give the A’s the win, and the all important first place standing in the AL West by a half game. Balfour certainly isn’t giving A’s fans much reason to feel confident with him on the mound, and it is coming at the worst time of the year. While the ending was intense, the journey to get there was every bit as uneasy.
The A’s scored early on a well placed push bunt by Chris Young against a pull-shifted infield that scored Yoenis Cespedes in the second inning, but A.J. Griffin would be unable to make that lead stick. A Jose Altuve RBI single, and a Matt Dominguez two run single gave the Astros a 3-1 lead in the top of the third. In keeping with the theme, Astros starter Dallas Keuchel couldn’t hold a lead either as a Jed Lowrie RBI double, and a Nate Freiman RBI infield single tied the game at three. Griffin was again unwilling to keep the Astros off the board, and gave them the lead again when Jonathan Villar bunted home a run. The seesaw battle would end finally when the A’s would take a 5-4 lead on an RBI single by Jed Lowrie, and an RBI groundout from Yoenis Cespedes.
Josh Donaldson would deliver the ultimately decisive blow on his 21st home run of the season, a two run shot in the bottom of the sixth inning.
A.J. Griffin didn’t surrender his customary home run, although he did give up four runs in his six innings of work. This time he scattered seven hits, and just wasn’t able to make the big pitches when he needed them at times, he did strike out nine as well. He did do well enough though to win his 13th game of the season against 9 losses. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook worked the next two innings in scoreless fashion, with Doolittle going 1.1 and Cook going 0.2 innings. Grant Balfour surrendered a run in the ninth on two hits, but escaped with his 37th save of the season.
With the loss by the Texas Rangers, the A’s are indeed in sole possession of first place at 81-60. While they technically aren’t in the wild card race at the moment, they maintain a 5.5 game cushion on a spot in the playoffs with the Baltimore Orioles sitting two games behind the second wild card Tampa Bay Rays. The A’s look to guarantee themselves a split in this series as Dan Straily (8-7, 4.38 ERA) takes on the talented lefty Brett Oberholtzer (4-1, 2.79 ERA) tomorrow afternoon.