Bullpen missteps costly to A's

Bullpen missteps costly to A's

SEATTLE -- The Oakland A's have been racked with injuries and inconsistency early in the season, but the one area of their team that has shined has been their bullpen. On Tuesday night, the team called on six relievers who almost did the job one more time.

They just couldn't get one more strike.

With two out in the bottom of the ninth and the A's leading by a run, closer Ryan Madson hung a 1-2 changeup to Leonys Martin, the ball ended up in the right-field bleachers, and just like that, Oakland had suffered a stunning 6-5  defeat.

The clubhouse was understandably quiet, but the veteran pitchers who make up the back end of the bullpen accepted responsibility and the desire to move forward. The A's manager, Bob Melvin, echoed those sentiments.

"We feel like when we get through six innings and we have [our best] three guys coming in the game, we're going to win the game," Melvin said. "We just had two guys give up two runs today, and it's going to happen."

Things started off well for the A's and their bullpen, which, in fact, was given a tall task and set about it in proper fashion.

Starter Kendall Graveman battled through 4 1/3 innings, giving up two runs on seven hits and two walks and throwing 78 pitches, but Melvin called on left-hander Daniel Coulumbe first, and he delivered with 1 2/3 perfect innings. Those frames looked spectacular once the Oakland offense erupted for four runs in the top of the sixth inning to take what appeared to be a commanding 5-2 lead, especially with Melvin's hard-throwing trio of Sean Doolittle, John Axford and Madson all lined up for innings 7-8-9.

Doolittle did his part, too, throwing a perfect seventh with one strikeout, but the problems began with Axford in the eighth.

Pinch-hitter Franklin Gutierrez doubled off the wall in center field, and after Axford fell behind Robinson Cano with a first-pitch fastball and grooved a curveball to get the count to 1-1, he hung another curve that Cano plastered into the seats in right center.

The Mariners had cut the lead to 5-4, and after Axford walked the next batter, Nelson Cruz, he was replaced by lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski. The southpaw got a huge double-play ball off the bat of Kyle Seager and departed for righty Fernando Rodriguez, who escaped further damage with a crucial strikeout of Dae-Ho Lee.

A's turn double play in the 8th

But Madson couldn't escape the ninth.

The veteran late-inning reliever had not allowed an earned run in 14 of his last 15 games and had not allowed an earned run in 10 games and 9 2/3 innings on the road, but he couldn't get the one strike he needed. After getting Chris Iannetta to pop out and Sean O'Malley to ground out, he gave up a double to Norichika Aoki and then faced Martin.

His first pitch was an 85 mph changeup out of the strike zone, and Martin waved at it for strike one. The second pitch was an 85 mph changeup for a ball. The third pitch was another change, this one at 87 mph and this one fouled off by Martin.

And then the last pitch, which was right down the middle and belted out of the park.

"Fourth changeup in a row," Madson said. "You don't want to make that the strike one. I slowed him down three pitches before that and never really sped him up. He was sped up at first, I slowed him down with four changeups in a row, and the last one was pretty much right down the middle.

"So that's the frustrating part -- the location of the last one. I've thrown four in a row before, but you make the fourth one the best one. That's not what happened tonight."

After the game, Axford said he felt more at fault than Madson.

"That eighth inning, for me personally, because I was out there, those two runs were big," Axford said.

"Madson can give up two runs in the ninth if I just get somebody out, if I do my job in the eighth inning. We'd have a three-run lead, we'd still have a cushion, and you're able to do a lot more at the end of the game like that. I just didn't do my job. I didn't get anybody out. I didn't do anything right, and that is what ultimately cost us there."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.