OAKLAND — The last thing the A’s probably wanted to see in Wednesday’s ninth inning was Astros hitter Yordan Alvarez stepping on the plate with loaded bases in a close play. The pressure couldn’t have been higher for Oakland, who had seen Alvarez hitting 913-foot homers at the Coliseum just two days earlier and had nowhere to put him.
The A’s brought in a left-hander to face Alvarez, but the odds were in the slugger’s favor no matter who was on the mound. Alvarez fell 2-0 down the count before tearing a bases-clearing double into the gap in right field to cap a four-run rally in game 9 that took the Astros to a 5-4 win from behind sent a serial sweep.
“The biggest thing is that I just didn’t want to hit anything on the floor,” said Alvarez, who is 8-for-16 in his last four games. “I didn’t want to hit a ball for a doubles game. I wanted to punch it in the air but he threw a pitch and I could get my hands through quickly and was able to do it.
The Astros, down 0-16 after eight innings on Wednesday, improved to 4-2 on their road trip that ends with a three-game set starting Friday in Kansas City. Houston is 18-12 going and improved to their best 15 games of the season over .500 (33-18).
“If you want to be a championship team, you’ve got to have some victories from the past,” said manager Dusty Baker. “I wish we hadn’t waited too late, but a win is a win. The boys made it big. Boy what can I say? These guys didn’t stop.”
It seemed the Astros wouldn’t need late-game heroics, which had to do with the way Justin Verlander threw the ball. After his worst start to the season, Verlander took a no-hitter in the seventh inning for the second time this season — only to lose the no-hit bid and the lead on consecutive pitches in the seventh.
An RBI double by Elvis Andrus on the left field line with two outs was Oakland’s first hit and leveled the game before Christian Bethancourt crushed the next pitch for a two-run homer – his first homer in nearly six years – to jump the A’s front, 3-1. Verlander admitted he felt disheartened to lose the no-no and the lead.
“[Andrus] sneaks the ball into the third baseline and the guy from the first hits randomly because he was placed perfectly — that’s just baseball,” he said. “It happens sometimes. But to make a bad pitch and go from seven innings, one run to seven innings, three runs and put our boys behind – definitely draining. It showed a lot of courage for our boys to still post after that and have some good bats and find a way.
Verlander, who gave up six 10-hit runs, including four home runs, in six innings Friday in Seattle, put down 18 of the first 20 Oakland batters he faced. His slider, which he threw 1.9 mph faster than his season average, was terrific, producing eight puffs from 16 swings. He later said he tinkered with his grip to have some consistency with the pitch.
“We won, had a good game up to a pitch,” said Verlander. “Andrus’ goal doesn’t really bother me, but I’d like to have the homer that followed again. Just a hanging curveball and away.
“Turn the page. We won today and took a lot of positives, especially after my last start, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
The Astros loaded the bases with a ninth-place out on a pair of singles and a walk to Jose Altuve. Alex Bregman pulled another walk and forced a run to cut the lead to 3-2 before Alvarez blasted a Sam Selman fastball into the outfield gap to change the Astros’ mood and kickstart their momentum into Thursday’s day off bring.
“I thought Verlander served so well today and we passed the torch to the next player in the last inning and put Jordan up in a one-run game,” Bregman said. “He put in a great swing. Right after they got all the momentum in the world to take it right back and sweep a series and get us 4-2 on the road trip, that’s really big.