OAKLAND -- On Monday, the A's began September by taking a big step forward, as their offense busted out of its slump to win the series opener over the Mariners. On Tuesday, they looked like the punchless A's of August -- that is, until the last two innings, when they cut a six-run deficit to 6-5 but ultimately came up short.
After a three-run eighth, Derek Norris and Brandon Moss hit back-to-back doubles off Fernando Rodney in the ninth to make it 6-4. Sam Fuld added a ground-rule double to pull within one, but Josh Reddick grounded to shortstop to end the game.
Before that, fireballing left-hander James Paxton gave the A's fits at the Coliseum for 7 2/3 innings, while Sonny Gray gave up a career-high six earned runs for the third time in his career. In the middle of three meetings with Seattle, a furious comeback effort was too little, too late.
"I wouldn't focus too much on the negatives, but focus on the positives," said Norris. "We were one swing away from winning the ballgame tonight."
In the eighth, Reddick walked to put runners on the corners and chase Paxton, and pinch-hitter Adam Dunn singled home a run to continue his red-hot start in Oakland. Craig Gentry's double completed the three-run frame.
"When you've got a guy that was as dominant as Paxton was early on, you've got to get into the bullpen," said shortstop Jed Lowrie. "I feel like every time we're able to do that, we've got a chance. That's what this team, at least in the two years I've been here, has done really well."
Gray let in two runs apiece in the third, fourth and fifth. He walked the first two batters to start the third, and after a sacrifice bunt by Jesus Sucre, Austin Jackson knocked in a pair. In the fourth, Endy Chavez chopped a slow grounder through a drawn-in A's infield to score two more, which resulted in a double when Lowrie didn't cover second. Kyle Seager finished the damage with a two-run, fifth-inning blast.
Over his past six starts, Gray is 1-4 with a 5.84 ERA, though manager Bob Melvin thought he pitched better Tuesday than his line would suggest.
"I thought his stuff was terrific tonight, especially early on," Melvin said. "Couple twists and turns and walks, and they took advantage of the opportunities that they had."
While Gray was laboring in the middle innings, the A's offense was putting leadoff men on base -- and was unable to capitalize. The leadoff hitter reached for Oakland in the third, fourth and fifth, but all three were removed from the basepaths via two double plays and a caught-stealing.
Paxton, who was pumping 96 mph fastballs into the late innings, improved to 5-1 on the year, despite the A's tallying five leadoff baserunners against him.
"First of all," Melvin said, "he was getting the low strike, sometimes below the knees. With the downhill plane he creates, there's a lot of balls beaten into the ground because you have to swing at it. On top of that, he had a pretty good slider and a good curveball."
"I was just going right after them with fastballs," said Paxton. "They weren't making me adjust. They were hitting ground balls and hitting right at guys, so I just kept pounding away and they got themselves out."
Paxton was charged with two earned runs, but he limited the A's to four hits and faced the minimum through the first six innings.
"He was working inside, which, for any left-handed pitcher with high velocity and a good breaking ball, when you're consistently working inside and establishing in, it's tough," said Norris. "It allows you to only focus on one side of the plate. Most hitters are one-dimensional, and if you're constantly pounding inside, it just makes that curveball look even better."
Drew Pomeranz, on his first day back from a brief Minors stint, threw three-plus innings of shutout ball in relief of Gray. That helped the A's surge to within one hit of a comeback.
"We always have a chance to pull it out," Pomeranz said. "Kind of what we've been doing all year, just grinding right 'till the end. I know going into the game to try and shut these guys down, because I know we're going to come back at some point."
The A's are now 7-15 over their last 22 games. The Angels fell to the Astros on Tuesday, keeping Oakland 4 1/2 games back in the American League West.
Aaron Leibowitz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.