I'm a lot more concerned with the 162nd game of a baseball season than the first. I have to be, as an A's fan, because Oakland's season doesn't really start until Game #2 these days. This year, for the fourth straight year and fifth time in the last seven seasons, the A's faced Felix Hernandez on Opening Night. For the 9th year in a row, they lost the game. That's an American League record for most consecutive losses on Opening Day, and it's tied for the all-time Major League record. To A's fans, tonight was deja vu all over again.
The good news is that Oakland didn't play poorly overall. They didn't lose this game because of a bunch of fielding errors, or a bullpen collapse, or a big home run. They just didn't get anything going off of Felix Hernandez, and Brett Anderson didn't throw a shutout. When you look at it like that, it's not so bad.
Anderson started the game about as well as you could have hoped. He struck out the side in the 1st inning on 13 pitches, getting all three hitters to bite on sliders, and then opened the 2nd by getting Michael Morse to whiff on the same pitch. The Seattle hitters just didn't look ready.
However, that fast start turned out to be something of a mirage. As filthy as Anderson's slider looked, he just couldn't command his fastball tonight. After striking out those first four hitters, he threw five straight fastballs to Justin Smoak (2012 OPS: .654), and four of them weren't even close. His first pitch to the next batter, Kyle Seager, was also a fastball out of the zone. The Opening Night jitters seemed to be getting the best of Anderson early on.
Seager ended up drilling a grounder which would have been an inning-ending double play, except that it ricocheted off of Anderson's foot and landed harmlessly for an infield single. Jesus Montero followed that up with a grounder up the middle which would have been an RBI single, except that Eric Sogard made a fantastic play to retire him. Sogard made a diving stop up the middle and flipped the ball to shortstop Jed Lowrie, who completed the play by throwing out the sluggish Montero at 1st. The BABIP gods giveth, and They taketh away.
Anderson opened the 3rd inning by walking Brendan Ryan. That is just a horrible sentence to write. Anderson's calling card is supposed to be his control, and Ryan's is supposed to be his defense, which is a nice way of saying that Ryan is a terrible hitter. A less nice way of saying that Ryan is a terrible hitter is pointing out that his career OPS+ is 75. He is approximately three-quarters of a Major League hitter. But alas, A's-Mariners games must follow a very specific script, and part of that script is Ryan never, ever getting out. It defies reason.
Oakland's infield defense bailed out Anderson again after the walk to Ryan, as Josh Donaldson grabbed a ball down the line and threw to Sogard for the force at 2nd. Sogard made a tough dig on a high hop on the throw from Donaldson, marking his second impressive play of the game. He then teamed up with Lowrie on a very crisp double play to end the frame.
Meanwhile, Felix retired the A's in order in the first three innings. Ho hum.
The 4th inning opened with an error by Sogard, which was kind of surprising after the defensive clinic he'd been putting on to that point. Kendrys Morales hit a grounder right to him, but Sogard came up too early and the ball went right between his legs. Morse immediately bailed him out, though, by grounding into a routine 6-4-3 double play to eliminate the baserunner. Despite the error by Sogard, he and Lowrie already look really comfortable together.
Anderson opened the 5th by retiring Montero, but then things went pear-shaped. He walked Dustin Ackley on five pitches, and Brendan Ryan came to the plate. Freaking Brendan Ryan. What is with that guy, seriously? His OPS last year was .555; seven different Major Leaguers had a slugging percentage alone which was higher than that. And yet, there he is, blooping another single to right against the A's. Josh Reddick nearly threw out Ackley going from 1st to 3rd, but his perfect throw was just a split-second late; Ryan moved up to 2nd on the play. Franklin Gutierrez followed with a grounder which got a piece of the pitcher's mound on its way up the middle to center field, and both runners scored. That was it. That was all the runs, because, again, this was an A's-Mariners game, which means that scoring is generally frowned upon. The entire rally was basically two soft singles, and it was enough to win the game.
Reddick's decision to throw to 3rd on Ryan's hit probably cost the A's a run, but he's got such an amazing arm and he made the play so close that it's hard to second-guess his choice there. I'd generally like to see him go for it in that situation. Overall, the defense was very impressive tonight, with the exception of Sogard's error and Anderson's failure to cover 1st base on what could otherwise have been a 3-6-1 double play in the 5th.
Meanwhile, Felix retired the A's quietly in the 4th, 5th, and 6th, allowing only a double to his former catcher, John Jaso, and a broken-bat bloop single to Seth Smith. Ho hum.
I was surprised to see Anderson come back out for the 7th inning. He had only thrown 88 pitches, but he'd been falling behind hitters all night and failing to locate his fastball or his curveball. I just didn't think he had it tonight, which makes it all the more impressive that he battled through 7 innings and allowed only 4 hits. The Mariners played a bit of Lawyerball, but they didn't really hit anything very hard. The 7th inning took Anderson 20 pitches to complete, and included another walk to Brendan Ryan (unacceptable). Ryan ended up stealing second, and Jaso's throw wasn't even close. Ryan's final line: 1-for-1, 2 walks, stolen base, run scored. Good grief.
Chris Resop made his Oakland debut in the 8th inning, and looked very impressive. He struck out two hitters and allowed only an infield single to Morse. Resop changed speeds effectively, controlled the strike zone, and went right after each hitter. After the game, Bob Melvin mentioned that he expects Resop to play a big role in the bullpen this year.
Meanwhile, Felix retired the A's in order in the 7th. Ho hum. He started the 8th with two more quick outs, but Smith ripped a double into the right-field corner for Oakland's third hit of the game. Sogard followed that by working the count full and laying off an inside slider to draw a walk, and Felix's night was done. Charlie Furbush came on in relief, and immediately walked Coco Crisp to load the bases.
The next at-bat was probably the most controversial part of an otherwise dull game. Jaso was due up next, but Furbush is a lefty and, according to Melvin's tried-and-true platoon method, that means that Jaso needed to be replaced with a right-handed hitter. Melvin went with the other half of his catching platoon, Derek Norris. You may think that Chris Young would have been a better choice, or that Jaso is always a preferable option to Norris. All I know is that I second-guessed Melvin's platoon-based pinch-hitting choices many times last year, and I turned out to be wrong more often than not. He's earned the benefit of the doubt in that department.
With the right-handed Norris pinch-hitting, Seattle countered with right-handed reliever Stephen Pryor. Norris got ahead 2-0, and the next pitch was a 95mph meatball in the middle of the plate. Norris just missed it, fouling it back harmlessly for strike one. Pryor dialed it up to 97mph on the next pitch, and this time Norris was a bit late; he grounded it softly to 2nd to end the rally.
Jerry Blevins struck out the side in the 9th, and looked pretty filthy doing it. Oakland brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the 9th in the form of Brandon Moss, but he flew out to shallow right off of closer Tom Wilhelmsen to end the game.
In the end, it was hard to be too upset about this one. The A's pitched well, even with Anderson struggling to hit his spots. The bullpen struck out five batters in two innings, and the Mariners didn't collect any extra-base hits all night. In fact, of their five singles, only three left the infield, and only one of those was what I would classify as a "line drive." The defense was strong all night. The only blemish was the team's inability to hit King Felix, and that's not something to beat yourself up about. Yoenis Cespedes failed to hit anything in the air, and the trio of Reddick, Moss and Donaldson couldn't get anything going. Chalk it up to Opening Night jitters, and move on to the next one.
Sure, it would have been nice to start the season off on the right foot, and break the long losing streak, and catch the red-hot Astros in the standings. No matter, though. I'd rather be happy after Game #162 than Game #1.