BalfourThe Oakland Athletics opened a big series against the first place Pittsburgh Pirates with a 2-1 win on Monday night at PNC Park.

The pitching matchup between All-Stars Bartolo Colon and Jeff Locke did not disappoint. Both were sharp in their seven innings of work.

Oakland broke through first against Locke in the fourth inning when Jed Lowrie smashed his 23rd double of the season to right center field. Locke followed that by uncorking a wild pitch that allowed Lowrie to get to third just ahead of the throw from Russell Martin. Once Lowrie was at third Josh Donaldson did what he’s done all year and drove him in. Donaldson flied a pitch to centerfield for the sacrifice fly to give the A’s a 1-0 lead.

The A’s pushed across what turned out to be the winning run in the seventh. Lowrie and Donaldson ripped back-to-back singles to open the inning. After Yoenis Cespedes grounded into a fielder’s choice and Nate Freiman flied out, Chris Young drew a walk to load the bases for Derek Norris.

Norris worked a full count against Locke who went with a four-seam fastball that missed off the inner half to walk Norris. The walk allowed Donaldson to score and make it a 2-0 advantage for the Green and Gold.

Colon couldn’t come through with a shutdown inning and would have given up the lead if not for some stellar defense by Coco Crisp. Clint Barmes doubled and Travis Snider singled to put runners at the corners. Jose Tabata then rolled an infield single to short to score Barmes and pull the Pirates to 2-1.

That brought up Andrew McCutchen who roped one to left center field. The ball looked like it would get down for extra bases and allow the Pirates to take the lead. Then, out of nowhere, Crisp came streaking into the screen and went into a full extension dive to pull the ball down and rob McCutchen of extra bases and a go-ahead hit.

Colon was finished after seven innings, surrendering the one run on seven hits while striking out five. Ryan Cook took over in the eighth and gave up a only couple of singles before giving way to Grant Balfour in the ninth.

Balfour took the hill looking to set the A’s record for consecutive saves. Dennis Eckersley’s record of 40 had stood for more than 20 years prior to Wednesday night. The raging Aussie didn’t get through a perfect ninth without a bit of a scare.

Starling Marte came to the plate with one out and nobody on. Balfour hung a breaking ball out over the plate, which Marte crushed it to left center field. The long fly ball sent Cespedes back to the warning track just shy of the fence where the left fielder set his feet and made the catch for the out.

Colon picked up his 12th win of the year while Jeff Locke had his eight game winning streak snapped. Balfour converted his 22nd save of the season and the A’s locked up their 53rd win.

There’s a feeling that this series against the Pirates and the following series against the Red Sox could set the tone for the rest of the season. For the A’s to go about this first game like any other was a great sign of things to come. The confidence level this team has right now is incredible, and they’re winning games in so many different ways. They got a stellar pitching performance and couldn’t get a lot of offense going, but found ways to push enough runs across to win the ball game. They’re not only beating bad teams, but they’ve beat up on the beasts of the NL Central too.

The A’s are back at it Tuesday night and will send Dan Straily to the mound against the hard-throwing right hander, Gerrit Cole.

Walk-Offs

Grant Green made his Major League debut for the Athletics on Monday after he was called up and Adam Rosales was designated for assignment. Green went 0-3 with a pair of strikeouts, but did make a couple of nice defensive plays at second base. He made one deep in the hole to his left, and another nice backhanded play moving to his right. While he did fail to turn a double play that may have loomed large, we’ll chalk that up to first game jitters and move on. The defensive effort was good to see, as that’s the aspect of Green’s game that had people skeptical of his ability to play in the Bigs.

– Per @ESPNStatsInfo: Bartolo Colon has gone six or more innings while giving up three or fewer runs in 11 consecutive starts. That streak is the second longest of its kind by an A’s pitcher since 1920.

– Jed Lowrie had two hits tonight and has now hit safely in 11 of his 15 games.

– The A’s are 12-4 in interleague play, including 5-1 against the top three teams in the NL Central. They’re also 17-11 in one run games, and improved their record to 5-7 when scoring two runs. When the pitching staff gives up just one run, Oakland’s record is 8-2.

– Since being on the Jim Rome Show with Grant Napear on June 26, Josh Donaldson is hitting .412 with an on-base percentage of .500. He’s smacked four home runs and driven in 10 in that span.

– With Bartolo Colon pitching the Sunday before the All-Star game, he’ll be ineligible to pitch, so somebody will take his spot on the active All-Star roster. Here’s to hoping that replacement is Grant Balfour. He certainly deserves it.