The normally solid Oakland A's bullpen — a main reason for the team's success this season — suffered a massive meltdown in the eighth inning on Tuesday night, giving up five runs and allowing the Mariners to escape O.co Coliseum with a 7-4 win.
"We know that they have an outstanding bullpen, but we kept grinding it out and made the best of some opportunities," acting manager Robby Thompson said.
It all started off pretty innocently. The A's had a somewhat comfortable 4-2 lead going into the top of the eighth inning.
Lefty Sean Doolittle, who came into the game with a 2.32 ERA pitching at home, gave up a lead-off single to Michael Saunders. Henry Blanco then lined ball to left that Yoenis Cespedes tried to catch on the run and dropped. It was ruled a double for Blanco.
With runners on second and third and no outs, Brad Miller dumped a single into center to score Saunders and cut Oakland's lead to 4-3.
Nick Franklin, who hit a two-run homer early in the game, lined a hard single to left to score pinch-runner Brendan Ryan to tie the game at 4-4
At this point, the small but boisterous crowd of 13,041 showered Doolittle and manager Bob Melvin with boos when Melvin came out to remove Doolittle from the game.
And the boos would continue as the bullpen mistakes continued and no Mariners were retired. Right-hander Ryan Cook replaced Doolittle and promptly walked Kyle Seager.
With Kendrys Morales at the plate, Cook threw a wild pitch to score Miller from third to give the Mariners a 5-4 lead. The lead grew to 6-4 when Morales hit a chopper to second base and Franklin scored, sliding in just under the tag of catcher Derek Norris.
There was some misfortune for both sides on the play as both players came up limping. Franklin suffered a nasty gash on his knee that required five stitches. Norris left the game as well with a fractured toe.
Cook walked Raul Ibanez before finally getting the first out of the inning, striking out Justin Smoak. But he threw a second wild pitch to Michael Morse, allowing Seager to score from third.
Melvin had seen enough and yanked Cook with a 2-0 count on Morse for Jesse Chavez, who got Morse to fly out and then later struck out Ryan to end the inning.
But the damage had been done, and it was extensive.
"That's what we've seen against us a few times," Thompson said. "They are learning, that, 'Hey, once we get this thing going, let's not stop. Let's put as much pressure as we can on them.'"
But before the Mariners could make a mess of the A's bullpen, they needed to be in the game. Starting pitcher Joe Saunders managed to do that after enduring a brutal first inning in which he faced all nine A's hitters, giving up four runs, including homers to Josh Donaldson and Nate Freiman, while throwing 41 pitches.
It wasn't an ideal way to start.
"There's a lot of things that go through your mind at that point," Saunders said. "You are making good pitches and they are putting balls in play and finding holes. I only made one bad pitch and that was to Freiman. Donaldson hit a good pitch. You just tip your cap and try to limit damage."
Saunders didn't limit damage, he ended it. He kept the A's to only those four runs, working five scoreless innings and leaving the game after the sixth.
"If I can take a good thing from this start ... it was keeping us in the game and keeping it at four runs and giving our offense a chance to do its thing," Saunders said.
The offense started doing its thing immediately. Franklin, who came into the game fighting to find his way out of his first extended big league slump, jumped all over a hanging changeup from A's starter Sonny Gray, ripping it into the right field stands for a two-run homer in the third inning. It was Franklin's first homer since July 28.
"It's been grind," Franklin said. "I know have not been the greatest. I'm just working through it and grinding through it every day."
Curve balls and changeups have been Franklin's biggest enemy during the slump.
"The thing about Nick is, if you leave that changeup up, he's going to hurt you," Thompson said. "He's been a little overly aggressive with the changeup and breaking balls that are down and out of the zone. But he's making the adjustments."
Cutting the lead in half that quickly certainly helped matters.
"It gives you new life in the dugout and some confidence," Thompson said.
The Mariners bullpen didn't suffer any late-inning letdowns once given the lead. Yoervis Medina pitched a scoreless eighth, despite walking two. And Danny Farquhar worked a 1-2-3 ninth to get his eighth save. Brandon Maurer (4-7) picked up the win after pitching a scoreless seventh.
Franklin's knee had a nasty gash as Norris' spikes ripped through his pants. He asked for a new pair of pants to stay in the game. But the laceration was too deep. He is likely to be out four to five days because of the stitches.
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