Blanton doomed by slam
Right-hander's mistake pitch to Matsui the difference in finale
OAKLAND -- With runners at second and third base, one out and their 2-3-4 hitters due up in the bottom of the fifth inning Thursday, the A's appeared poised to pad their one-run lead and give Joe Blanton some much-deserved little breathing room.
That's exactly when Yankees starter Andy Pettitte started a suffocating stretch of perfection that ended only when Mariano Rivera took over for the ninth.
A half-inning after Pettitte escaped that jam, Blanton gave up a leadoff single to Derek Jeter and was visibly frustrated with home-plate umpire Paul Nauert's strike zone while walking Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez to load the bases for Hideki Matsui.
Matsui, who turned 34 on Thursday, lined a grand slam over the high wall in right-center field that ultimately pinned Blanton with his ninth loss of the year, 4-1 in the finale of a three-game series at McAfee Coliseum.
"Nice," Blanton (3-9) said dryly when told of Matsui's double cause for celebration. "Happy birthday."
Considering how steamed Blanton seemed after walking Abreu and A-Rod, it was a tad surprising he was in the mood to talk at all. But as A's manager Bob Geren noted, it was far from a poor night for the burly right-hander, who gave up six hits over 6 2/3 innings.
"His last two outings were two of his better performances of the year," Geren said of Blanton, who lost a 3-1 decision to the Angels despite seven strong innings on June 6. "Joe's been great. He's been on his game."
Not that Blanton was all Chatty Cathy in the clubhouse. He was perfectly pleasant in breaking down the mistake he made to Matsui, but when asked about Nauert's work in the sixth, he paused for several seconds before answering with a diplomatic non-answer.
"I'm not really going to talk about that part of the game," he said.
Geren was asked, point-blank, if he thought his starter had been squeezed.
"No," Geren clipped. "There were a couple of pitches that didn't go his way that inning. But with Joe there's always a lot of borderline pitches because his command is so good, he's always right around the plate."
Pettitte was constantly flirting with the corners of the zone as well, and he got sharper as the game wore on. He struck out Bobby Crosby to get the second out of the fifth, and after Jack Cust's deep, opposite-field shot to left died in Johnny Damon's glove just short of the wall, Pettitte finished his night with three 1-2-3 innings.
"We all thought it was going out," Geren said of Cust's drive. "That could have been the big one for us."
Pettitte (6-5) allowed five hits and a walk while striking out six.
"With a guy like that, you've gotta get him early," Crosby said. "You have to capitalize on every opportunity against him, because if you don't, he's going to make you pay."
"He mixed his pitches perfectly," Geren added. "He was pretty good at the beginning, but I guess he did kind of find his groove."
Blanton was in a groove early, retiring nine of 10 during one stretch that bridged the first and fourth innings, while the A's scratched out a lead for him in the second on a leadoff double by Mark Ellis and an RBI single by rookie Carlos Gonzalez.
That and the fifth, though, were Oakland's only innings with more than one baserunner.
"We had five hits, they had six, and they got the big one," Geren said.
The big one came on a 1-1 changeup that caught a little too much of the plate.
"I was looking for a pitch up in the zone, something that I could hit to the outfield," Matsui said through an interpreter. "I got a changeup up in the zone and was able to put a good swing on it."
Said Blanton: "It was a pretty decent pitch. It had been a good pitch to him earlier in the game, but it was almost like he was sitting on it and I went to the well once too often."
Now Oakland goes to San Francisco to open its second round of Interleague Play on Friday with the first of three games against the host Giants. The A's have lost eight of their past 10 series overall.
"I didn't know that stat, but it's definitely not good," Crosby said. "The main goal going into every series is to win it, whether it's with a sweep or winning two out of three. So we need to go to San Francisco and turn that trend around."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.