Lester pushes A's back on top of Wild Card standings

Lefty allows a run in seven innings; Oakland takes half-game lead on KC

Lester pushes A's back on top of Wild Card standings

OAKLAND -- The A's are back on top again, at least in the American League Wild Card standings, and they have Jon Lester to thank.

The lefty twirled seven innings of one-run ball, lifting the A's out of the loss column with a 3-1 series-opening victory over the Phillies in front of a sellout crowd of 35,067 at the Coliseum on Friday evening. The win gave the A's a half-game lead on the Royals with nine to play.

"Every win right now is big for this team. Every win is important," said Josh Donaldson. "It gets the momentum going on the right track, and hopefully we can build on this thing tomorrow and the rest of the year."

"We know we're going to be in a better mood tomorrow than we were today," said manager Bob Melvin.

That's because it was a win the A's desperately needed, following a three-game sweep at the hands of the last-place Rangers, amid an already destructive 11-25 stretch since Aug. 10, when they had a four-game lead in the AL West. The Angels have since clinched outright, but the top Wild Card spot is the A's to lose.

Oakland will play two more against the Phillies before welcoming the Halos for three in advance of a four-game road set in Texas to close out the regular season. Lester, who improved to 6-3 with as 2.20 ERA with the A's, is only scheduled for one more outing, on Wednesday, though he's perfectly lined up to start either a potential Game 163 or a Wild Card game.

This is no coincidence.

"He's been terrific. Every time out there," said Melvin. "You feel like you don't have to score many runs for him because he's going to do a good job, and you'd like to make it easy on him every once in a while, but every time out there, he's deep in the games, 110-plus pitches and comes out with the lead. That's all you can ask for."

"The fire that he has on the mound … he pitches with a lot of emotion, and I think guys pick up on that, feed off that," added Sean Doolittle. "They want to make the play behind him. They see how committed to his job he is out there."

Lester needed 24 pitches to get through the first, striking out the side to strand a pair of baserunners. But he faced just three over the minimum in his final six frames, his lone mistake crushed to dead center by Ryan Howard for a fourth-inning solo shot. Lester exited at 114 pitches, having allowed just four other hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.

By then, though, the A's had already posted three runs on three consecutive two-out singles from Derek Norris, Eric Sogard and Coco Crisp in the second against right-hander David Buchanan. It was an encouraging sign from a club that's struggled to do much of anything with runners in scoring position.

The A's, though, returned to their old ways in the seventh and eighth innings, failing to get a run across despite loading the bases both times. Luke Gregerson kept them afloat with a scoreless eighth, and Sean Doolittle locked down his 22nd save, his first appearance since Tuesday's meltdown, to secure Oakland's first victory since Sunday in Seattle.

"It's huge," said Lester. "We all know how good Doo is, and we're all human, we're all going to have bad outings, bad innings, bad at-bats, and what happened the other day is obviously an anomaly, and for him to go out there tonight and do what he did was him getting back to being him."

For Lester, it was his 16th victory overall, tying him with five others for second most in the AL. His 2.42 ERA ranks third, and he has a 1.68 mark over a stretch of 18 consecutive quality starts.

"He's had, what, 10 starts with us now? We haven't been playing our best baseball, and he hasn't let any of that affect him," said Doolittle. "He still goes out there every fifth day and you know he's going to battle and pitch deep into the game. He's been every bit as advertised, probably better, and been that rock for us."

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.