On the last day before rosters expanded, we took the drive back up to the O.co Coliseum for a game I had been looking forward to all season. I love the Tampa Bay Rays for how they built their team into a contender and have sustained it since shocking the baseball world by playing in the 2008 World Series.

The A’s are well-known for their Moneyball strategies and competing with the richer clubs with limited resources. The Rays are right there with them, so this was a matchup of contenders as the pennant stretch entered its final month. This Saturday night game couldn’t get here soon enough for me.

Friday night’s pitching matchup was a must-see as Oakland’s Jarrod Parker and Tampa Bay’s David Price went at it in a 4-3 A’s win. But Saturday night’s game took it up a notch with Sonny Gray and Alex Cobb locking horns. They were both on top of their games and it made for a tense duel as the scoreless innings piled up.

Alex Cobb warming on the bullpen mound

Sonny Gray warming up in the outfield

Both hurlers recorded strikeouts on five of their first six outs and it was sure to be a low-scoring affair. The sold-out crowd of 35,067 saw zeroes posted until the A’s broke through in the bottom of the sixth. Catcher Steven Vogt led off the frame with a triple off the RF wall, just out of Wil Myers’ reach, and Coco Crisp brought him home with a single to break the ice.

Crisp has been on a homerun tear lately and he blasted his 15th of the season in the bottom of the eighth inning to stretch the A’s lead to 2-0. That turned out to be a pretty important development.

Sean Doolittle relieved Gray with two outs in the seventh and James Loney on first. Doolittle walked two batters over his one full inning pitched, stretched across the seventh and eighth. He was in turn relieved by Dan Otero, who came on with a runner on first and two outs in the top of the eighth (before Coco’s homerun) with the score still 1-0, Oakland.

Otero’s inherited runner, Sam Fuld, stole second while Evan Longoria was at the plate. Not a problem, however, as Longoria struck out to end the inning, possibly setting a record for how high his helmet bounced when he threw it down angrily, and the full-house crowd went off.

Once again, the Coliseum gets dumped on for its configuration and how old it is, and rightfully so, but when it is full and the A’s are rolling, this is an incredible yard. The A’s have a great fan base with a lot of youth and energy to go along with the die-hard veterans who have been here for all the history. The fans totally buy into the team on the field and they treat the players like rock stars. On nights like this it is electric. There’s a great feel of positive energy and it is……LOUD!

Then Grant Balfour enters the game.

Balfour is a show all by himself and he gets a great intro when he comes in to close things out. Sometimes, however, he has some adventures while trying to finish off the game. This night, with a 2-0 lead, was one of those times.

Some time ago, the RF bleacher folks started the mosh-pit action with Balfour using Metallica for his intro music (as does Doolittle). But their fist-pumping exercises (video from earlier this year, not this game. Thanks John K.) have now spread to the entire park. They show numerous people on the video board getting into it and it’s going on in every section, not unlike the Bernie Lean craze that previously swept Oakland.

Balfour got Matt Joyce to fly out to start the top of the ninth but then Wil Myers doubled. Then James Loney walked. The second out came on a liner by Jose Lobaton to 2B Eric Sogard, but then Balfour threw one to the backstop with Desmond Jennings batting. Myers made it to third but Loney hesitated and went back to first. Hmmmm.

Jennings followed with a single to CF to plate Myers and make it 2-1. But Loney had to stop at second, rather than being on second already and running on contact with two outs to most likely tie the game with Crisp having a weak arm in CF.

So all was well in Oaktown when PH Kelly Johnson swung at the first pitch off the erratic Balfour and grounded out to first base. Game over, 2-1 Oakland.

Cobb and Gray were fantastic, with Cobb going the distance in the loss. The A’s used four pitchers and made two runs and five hits stand up. On Sunday they completed the sweep against the Rays and are now going to face the first-place Rangers in a three game series at home.

On top of the lively crowd and the great baseball, the A’s have added one more nice touch. They have gotten in on the fan-friendly racing phenomenon that probably started with the sausage races in Milwaukee. Now, much like the Presidents in Washington, the A’s have their “legends” run a heat in between innings and the crowd goes crazy.

Oversized heads of Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson and Rollie Fingers bolt out from the LF foul pole area and run on human legs up the 3B line, turning at home plate, and then down the 1B line to the foul pole area. I believe Eck won this one, but the crowd was up for any of them. Another great night at the yard with the pennant race in full-swing.

All Photos: Steve Cummings/HotStoveHeat.com