OAKLAND -- The A's, who were last alone in first place on Aug. 6, moved back into the top spot on Sept. 6 with a 7-5 win over the Astros on Friday that saw the Oakland offense diversify and attack Houston pitchers up and down the lineup.
Oakland chipped away at three Astros pitchers for 13 hits, scoring in four of the first six innings to win for the ninth time in the A's last dozen games. At the same time the Rangers, who had been in first place, came up a run short in Anaheim, leaving room for the A's to take a one-half game lead in the American League West.
Almost unnoticed in the box score will be the A's lone stolen base, but it was as important as any hit Oakland had.
Josh Donaldson was at second base with reliever Philip Humber in the game. Humber has one of the slowest deliveries in the game, and Donaldson stole third base, setting up a run-scoring grounder by Yoenis Cespedes that put the A's in front to stay.
"I wanted to steal on the first pitch, but he was looking at me,'' Donaldson said. "I'm not a burner, but he went real high (with his delivery) and that gave me the opportunity.''
Manager Bob Melvin said that steal was "as important at the time as anything we did all night.'' By game's end, the two-run homer Donaldson ripped off Humber in the sixth inning would be every bit as relevant.
It gave the A's a 7-4 lead at the time, and when closer Grant Balfour worked through a little trouble in the ninth, that cushion was a security blanket of the first order. Oakland had to survive a harrowing ninth inning with Balfour on the mound. He gave up two hits, then saw a run score on an error by second baseman Eric Sogard before Matt Dominguez, who had a two-run single in the third inning, struck out with the tying run at second base.
It was another in a series of less than pristine games for Balfour, whose last six games have seen him give up nine hits, five walks and a home run in 5.2 innings. While the numbers are shaky, he has one blown save, also taking the loss in that game in Detroit on the last road trip. He also has five saves in the six games, and 37 saves overall.
"He was a little shaky again,'' Melvin said. "But without the error, things might have been different. His velo (velocity) isn't what he'd like, but he's a competitor and he got it done.
"When you look at him, you have to look at the body of work.''
As for going into first place, the A's took that one in stride. Some of the players said they didn't know they'd done that — although the roar of the 15,502 fans when the Rangers' 6-5 loss in Anaheim was announced should have been noticeable — and all of the players said there was too much season left to celebrate taking a one-half game lead.
"First place? It just feels good to get a win,'' catcher Derek Norris said.
Donaldson said questions about first place can be asked, but this is no time for the team to focus on them.
"First place doesn't matter until the end of the season,'' Donaldson said. "We know that too well.''
Donaldson was referring to the A's surge last year when they were counted out of the division race in July and were five games out with nine to play and still won the West title.
at A's (Dan Straily 8-7),
1:05 p.m. CSNCA
Scan this code with a smartphone to view an A's photo gallery or go to http://photos.mercurynews.com.
A.L. West Race
Team W L GB
A's 81 60 --
Texas* 80 60 1/2
* -- Lead Wild Card standings
A's 7, Astros 5
Angels 6, Rangers 5
Houston (Brett Oberholtzer 4-1)
at A's (Dan Straily 8-7), 1:05 p.m.
Texas (Derek Holland 9-7) at Angels (Garrett Richards 5-6), 6:05 p.m.
Number of games in parenthesis
HOU (2) at LAA (2)
at MIN (3) PIT (3)
at TEX (3) A's (3)
LAA (3) at TB (4)
MIN (4) at KC (3)
at LAA (3) HOU (3)
at SEA (3) LAA (4)