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OAK@CIN: Norris gets A's on board with solo shot

CINCINNATI -- For the last week, the A's haven't been playing like the first-place team the standings say they are.

Going back to July 30, an eight-day, six-game span, Oakland's pitching has been inconsistent. So has its defense. The only thing consistent about this club has been its hitting -- consistently bad, that is.

A sputtering A's lineup was nearly shut out a second straight game on Tuesday night, before Derek Norris hit one out of the park with two outs in the ninth in a 3-1 series-opening Interleague loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

As for that first-place standing, the A's are quickly letting it slip away, having watched a six-game lead over the Rangers narrow to one game in just eight days. Since the break, they're 8-9.

"I think we know we're not playing very well right now," said Josh Donaldson, hitting .189 since the break. "Some days it's our defense, some days it's the pitching, some days it's our offense. We haven't been able to click in the second half yet, and I think when that happens, we'll go on a nice little run like we normally do."

"You just gotta play your way through it, fight your way through it," said manager Bob Melvin. "Have better at-bats, get grittier, find a way to get someone home. We're not swinging our best, there's no doubt about that. You go through these periods, and yet you try to minimize it so they don't go on too long.

"You just have to grind through it. You have to have some awareness, which I believe we do, and sometimes you just don't get it done."

Might it be time for Melvin to gather the troops for a team meeting? Not quite, but that doesn't mean he's going to sit idle during this skid, either.

"We're one game under .500 in the second half," Melvin said. "I don't know that it calls for a team meeting, but we could see a couple different guys in there tomorrow."

Before Norris' homer, his eighth of the year, Oakland hadn't scored a run since Saturday, a disheartening stretch of 18 innings without one, their longest such streak of the season.

And since July 30? Well, only 10 runs have crossed home plate.

All the while, they've left 45 men on base and are 4-for-42 with runners in scoring position. That includes an 0-for-8 showing on Tuesday, with eight left on base, while starter Dan Straily struggled to gain any sort of rhythm in yet another short outing.

Oakland's right-hander gave up two runs on six hits, including Jay Bruce's second-inning solo shot, with one walk and three strikeouts in four innings, marking not only the third straight start he hasn't completed five frames but also the fifth time in his last eight tries.

Straily didn't put up a clean inning until his last, and by the time it ended, he was already at 75 pitches, influencing Melvin to pull him in favor of pinch-hitter Seth Smith in the fifth with a runner on base and a chance to score.

That never happened, leading to lefty Jerry Blevins' entrance at the start of the fifth.

"You never want to stop pitching," Straily said. "My job is to keep the team in the game as long as possible, and tonight it was four innings that was all they needed."

Blevins proceeded to allow a leadoff double to Shin-Soo Choo, his issues with first batters -- a staggering 44 percent of them have reached base this season -- continuing. Only more trouble awaited the lefty, who threw Derrick Robinson's sacrifice bunt into right field, allowing Choo to score and Robinson to safely reach first.

Blevins stranded Robinson and the Reds didn't score another run, but the A's failed to break through against righty Mat Latos, who tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings.

"I think they're all trying to do what they do at the plate," said hitting coach Chili Davis. "Right now, sometimes it gets a little contagious. You're trying to pick each other up, and at some point you maybe try to do more than you can, but the effort's there. They all work hard at what they do and try to take it up there and use it."

"It's definitely tough," Donaldson said. "We're in a little funk, and it seems like even though we do hit a ball hard, it ends up being caught, run down. But we gotta do a better job when guys are on third base with less than two outs. We have to get him in. That's just not tonight. That's happened over the last two weeks.

"Everyone wants to go up there and do their job, be the one to get it done. I think sometimes that can be your biggest enemy. Sometimes you have to let it go and just focus on getting that one pitch you can get the job done."

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