One bad pitch blew what would've given the Chicago Cubs something they've rarely achieved this season: a winning streak.
Derek Norris hit a three-run homer with two outs in the eighth inning off reliever James Russell, rallying the Oakland Athletics past the Cubs 8-7 on Tuesday night.
"Just got to get the ball down. It's that simple," Russell said. "It's not that difficult. It's just that one thing. Get the ball down and that won't happen."
The Cubs had taken a 7-5 lead in the sixth and seemingly had control of the game.
Alfonso Soriano hit a three-run homer to highlight a five-run fourth and Welington Castillo drove in three runs for Chicago, which twice blew a two-run lead. The Cubs, who have won three or more games in a row only three times this year, are 35-46 at their season's midpoint after another win evaporated because the bullpen couldn't hold a lead.
"It's almost comical to see this happen every single night we have a lead and getting beat by guys that sometimes hardly even hit home runs," manager Dale Sveum said.
Norris, who entered the game with a .195 batting average as the backup for injured catcher John Jaso, sent a 2-2 changeup from Russell (1-2) to left-center for his fourth home run this season. Josh Donaldson and Chris Young also homered to give the A's a half-game lead over Texas in the AL West after the Rangers lost 9-2 at Seattle.
Five of Norris' 11 career home runs have given Oakland the lead.
"He can't get really (anything) down in the strike zone. His changeup's either short or hung, and can't spot a fastball down and away. Basically, it's just no location," Sveum said of Russell's recent struggles. "The confidence probably isn't too good right now."
Left-hander Stephen Vogt would've started at catcher for the A's against Scott Feldman, but the Cubs traded the right-hander in the morning. When Norris showed up at the ballpark, he learned lefty Chris Rusin had been called up from Triple-A Iowa to take Feldman's place.
"I figured it was probably my turn," Norris said, grinning.
Dan Otero (1-0) tossed one scoreless inning for his first career win, and Grant Balfour finished for his 20th straight save this season and 38th overall.
Oakland can once again thank its on-again, off-again catcher for a comeback. Besides his big home run, Norris threw out Luis Valbuena for a double play in the ninth when Balfour struck out Starlin Castro.
After tossing his first complete game to beat Homer Bailey and the Cincinnati Reds his last time out, A's starter A.J. Griffin gave up 10 hits and tied his career high with seven earned runs in 5 2-3 innings. Bailey threw his second career no-hitter Tuesday night to lead the Reds past the San Francisco Giants 3-0.
"I'm just fortunate enough that I have a team that scores a ton of runs," Griffin said.
Rusin allowed six hits, struck out two and walked none in 3 1-3 innings for a no-decision in his first major league start this season. He was pitching on three days' rest, so Sveum pulled Rusin after 61 pitches.
The A's roughed him up at the outset.
Donaldson hit his 14th home run in the first and Young followed with his eighth of the season in the second to give Oakland a 3-0 lead. The A's missed a chance to pile on — and perhaps run Rusin out of the game even earlier — when Jed Lowrie struck out with the bases loaded to end the second.
While Rusin regrouped in his short stint, so did Chicago's offense.
Soriano started the scoring burst when he sent a tying shot to center for his 10th home run. The Cubs sent 10 batters to the plate in the fourth, with Darwin Barney adding a sacrifice fly and Castillo hitting an RBI single to stretch Chicago's lead to 5-3.
The Cubs collapsed on defense in the bottom half behind Carlos Villanueva, who allowed two unearned runs in 3 1-3 innings of relief. Running back and to his right on Adam Rosales' short fly, shortstop Castro collided with Soriano in left field and the ball dropped. Coco Crisp followed with a tying, two-run single.
Castillo's two-run double over the head of Young in center put the Cubs back ahead, 7-5, and chased Griffin. But as has been the case so often this season, Chicago couldn't protect its lead.
"It's very tough, but we never give up," Soriano said. "The only way we can change is to come back and play a little bit harder and try to win the game (Wednesday)."