Pennington lifts A's for third straight game

Pennington lifts A's for third straight game

OAKLAND -- He did it again. Again.

Cliff Pennington has had himself quite the homestand. First came the walk-off single in Wednesday's 5-4 win over the Blue Jays. Then came his game-winning two-run single in Thursday's 4-3 victory over the Rays.

On Friday, Pennington helped take down one of baseball's top teams again, this time busting down the first-base line to reach on an error and drive in the game-winning run to lift Oakland to a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay.

"We're not a team that hits a lot of home runs," Pennington said. "We're not all scrappy guys, but we're not going to hit a three-run homer every night. We're going to get our hits and make our way around the bases. That's what's working for us right now."

With two outs in the bottom of the eighth and runners on first and third, Pennington hit a hard ground ball to Tampa Bay second baseman Ben Zobrist, who fumbled his initial attempt at the ball. As a result, Zobrist rushed his throw and he one-hopped it to first base, but not before Pennington lunged in safely.

"Once the ball was hit, I was just trying to get down the line as fast as I could," Pennington said. "I was maybe two feet out of the batter's box when I saw him bobble it. I could see him the whole time I was running, and I figured I had a good chance to beat him."

Pennington certainly made good on his chance. Since his average bottomed out at the Mendoza line on June 9, Pennington has been the team's most consistent hitter. Over his past 58 games, Pennington is batting .333.

But it wasn't just about Pennington's bat on Friday night, he flashed some leather, too.

With one out in the ninth inning, Pennington made a nice ranging play to his left, picked up the ball, spun and fired a one-hop strike to first, just in time to nab B.J. Upton. He also made a nice play in the seventh inning to get the speedy Carl Crawford out at first.

"That's one of those plays when you get spoiled as Major League manager ... and you just kind of chalk it up like, 'That's a Major League play,'" Oakland manager Bob Geren said of Pennington's ninth-inning twirl and throw. "But that one was so special I'm actually looking forward to seeing that one again."

If it weren't for a stellar at-bat by pinch-hitter Mark Ellis, Pennington may have never reached the batter's box for the game's crucial sequence.

Ellis, who replaced second baseman Steve Tolleson, faced a 1-2 count after three pitches from reliever Joaquin Benoit. Slowly but surely, Ellis worked himself back into the count and eventually drew a nine-pitch walk. Pennington delivered the game-winner four pitches later.

"That was an unbelievable at-bat, a huge at-bat," Pennington said. "Coming into a pinch-hit role isn't easy, and for him to foul off ball after ball and then draw a walk, that was huge for this team."

For a moment, it looked as if Jerry Blevins would go from savior to goat in the span of 24 hours. A day after he notched a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his first big league save, Blevins surrendered a go-ahead solo shot to Zobrist in the seventh inning which gave the Rays a 4-3 lead.

But Rajai Davis bailed out Blevins with a sacrifice fly in the eighth, two batters before Pennington delivered the dagger.

Once again, Oakland starter Vin Mazzaro's worst inning was the first inning, as Tampa Bay took advantage of two A's errors and jumped out to an early 2-0 lead.

The first error was committed by Tolleson, who couldn't cleanly field a Zobrist grounder to allow him to reach first base. Mazzaro then had an unsuccessful pickoff attempt and the ball rolled into foul territory, as Zobrist moved to second.

After Crawford singled and Carlos Pena walked to load the bases, Rays right fielder Matt Joyce singled up the middle to score Zobrist and Crawford. Though both runs were unearned, Mazzaro now has an ERA of 6.60 in the first inning this season, his highest for any frame.

While Mazzaro has certainly noticed the trend, he still doesn't understand it.

"I really don't know," Mazzaro said. "I'm still trying to figure that out myself. It don't know, it happens. Something that will hopefully pass soon, just got to keep battling."

Mazzaro's ineffectiveness carried into the second inning, as he issued a leadoff walk to Upton, who eventually scored on a John Jaso sacrifice fly to make it 3-0 Rays.

From that point on, though, Mazzaro was locked in. He retired 15 of 17 batters to finish out his evening, issuing two walks while allowing no hits in that span.

Mazzaro used 104 pitches to get through six innings, but was pulled after getting one out on one pitch in the seventh. In his 6 1/3 innings, Mazzaro allowed three runs (one earned) on three hits and four walks while striking out five.

"We just didn't hit as well as we can tonight," Zobrist said. "But give credit to their pitcher over there. He threw a good game. He worked off his fastball well. And threw that changeup and two-seamer well and spotted it up pretty well. You've got to give him credit."

Oakland's lineup, meanwhile, got its first up-and-close look at Tampa Bay's impressive rookie Jeremy Hellickson. The 23-year-old righty, who won his first three big league starts since being promoted on Aug. 2, looked sharp in his first two frames before the A's finally broke through in the third.

Hellickson surrendered a double to Pennington and a single to Coco Crisp and the pair proceeded to pull off a double steal. The next pitch, Daric Barton drilled a single up the middle to score Pennington and Crisp.

Jack Cust evened the score at 3 in the sixth with a solo shot off Hellickson, who allowed three earned runs on seven hits and a walk over 6 1/3 innings while striking out seven.

"He looked good," Barton said. "He spotted his fastball and threw his offspeed well down in the zone."

A's reliever Henry Rodriguez pitched a perfect eighth, before Craig Breslow notched a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his second save of the season. The Rays had just one hit after the second inning on Friday, Zobrist's home run in the seventh.

"They outplayed us tonight," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They just played better than we did. They made plays, they ran the bases well. They pitched better. They beat us tonight. They deserved to win that game."

With Mazzaro's effort, Oakland has received 13 straight starts of at least six innings without giving up more than three runs, tying the Oakland record set in 1980. The A's starting rotation has a 1.67 ERA in that span.

Alex Espinoza is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.