It's like clockwork at this point. Every season, the Oakland Athletics suit up on Opening Day, and every season they lose. After tonight's 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, they have now lost 10 consecutive Opening Day games, with their last victory coming in 2004. I was a freshman in college when I watched that game, and I'm now 10 months away from turning 30. The good news is that, of the previous nine campaigns that began with losses, the A's went on to post a .500 record or better in five of them and went to the playoffs thrice. So, losing the first of 162 is not in any way a predictor of how the season is going to go.
But man, this one was hard to swallow. Even with that long-term optimism in the back of your mind, even with the knowledge that this team thrives on making comebacks more than taking early leads, this game had the feeling of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. What's worse, one of the key plays centered around Daric Barton, and Athletics Nation did not need another reason to argue about him.
(Editor's Note: This recap is very, very long. If you'd like the express version, then only read the **paragraphs that are surrounded by asterisks** and skip the others. You may skip several paragraphs at a time, so just bear with me and keep scrolling until you see the asterisks.)
**Before we get to that, though, let's start at the beginning. Sonny Gray drew the Opening Day start for Oakland, despite having 77 major league innings to his name (including the playoffs). Overall, he had a very strong performance. He got himself into a few jams, but he made big pitches and helped his own cause with some solid defense.**
Gray got off to a shaky start, walking the first two hitters of the game on 10 total pitches. However, he settled down quickly, got out of the inning (thanks to an excellent scoop at first by Barton), and ultimately breezed through the first three frames. His next challenge came in the fourth, when the first two batters reached second and third. Gray bore down and got Ryan Raburn to chase a nasty breaking ball for strike three, and then Asdrubal Cabrera tapped a grounder right back to the mound. Gray gobbled it up and ran toward the runner, Carlos Santana, who was caught between third and home. Santana was eventually tagged out, but not before he had initiated a rundown and bought time for the trailing runner to reach third. While this was more or less a good defensive play by the A's, it would have been better if Gray had kept running Santana toward third, rather than throwing the ball to Donaldson so early and allowing the runner to break toward the plate. In this way, the remaining runners would have been held to first and second, rather than first and third. Gray induced an inning-ending groundout a moment later, so the runners were stranded and the point was moot, but it's still a lesson to be learned for next time.
The defense redeemed itself in the fifth. After a leadoff single, Nyjer Morgan laid down a bunt to the right side. Although it was a sacrifice situation, Morgan is a speedster and this felt more like a bunt for a hit. Fortunately, Barton was all over the ball in an instant, and he got it to Eric Sogard covering the bag just in time to retire Morgan. After Gray froze Swisher with an offspeed pitch for the second out, Jason Kipnis ripped a ball down the right-field line that should have been an RBI double. However, Barton got to it and the inning was over. To be completely honest, this inning would probably not have been scoreless if Brandon Moss or Alberto Callaspo had been playing first base.
There was more trouble in the sixth, and more defense (and a bit of luck) to negate it. With one out, Michael Brantley hit a double off of the jagged edge in right-center. If the ball had gone a few more feet toward center, it would have cleared the shorter part of the fence, but the Coliseum's quirky wall kept it in play. Raburn followed with a single to right, but Brantley was held at third. I am 100% sure that he was held out of respect for Josh Reddick's arm, because that hit, in all of its soft, dinky glory, should have scored him. Cabrera then made solid contact back up the middle, but the ball ricocheted off of Gray's leg and dribbled in front of the mound. Gray recovered just in time to pick up the ball and throw it to catcher John Jaso, who tagged out Brantley at the plate. What happened next is Oakland A's history, sort of.
(Link to the video, which MLB.com will inexplicably not let me embed on here because they utterly and completely don't understand the internet.)
In one play, we got to witness both of the big new rules in Major League Baseball. First, umpire crew chief Mike Winters called for a review of the play, making it the first use of replay challenge in Athletics' history; the call on the field was confirmed, Brantley was out, and the entire review took 59 seconds. The fact that it was Winters who called for the challenge, rather than opposing manager Terry Francona, also gave Winters the distinction of being the first umpire to initiate a replay review -- all of the previous ones on Monday were initiated by team managers.
Second, there was the nature of the call being questioned: Jaso's defensive positioning, and whether or not he had violated the new plate-blocking, catcher-collision rules. The main part of the rule pertains to the runner, prohibiting him from deviating from his path to target the catcher and from lowering his shoulder or pushing with his hands; the accepted method is sliding, with sliding basically being defined as hitting the ground before you hit the catcher. Brantley did slide, so the rule states that he cannot be found in violation. On the other hand, the catcher has to be responsible as well. He is prohibited from blocking the runner's pathway without possession of the ball, unless he is making a legitimate attempt to field the ball. He's not specifically prohibited from blocking the plate while he has the ball, but he then opens himself up to potential blame and the rule notes that he can't be found in violation if he just stays out of the way.
So, now that you know the rule, here's what happened. Jaso was set up in front of the plate, with his back foot on or around the basepath. If he had stayed in that exact position, I think that Brantley could have gotten around him easily. However, Jaso received the ball a split-second ahead of the runner, and in one motion he went after Brantley to apply the tag. Since he already had the ball when he blocked Brantley's path, and the runner was just straight-up beaten by the throw/tag, there was no violation of the rule. Jaso cut it kind of close, but this was clearly a clean play and I think it's really cool that they were willing to take one extra minute to make sure of that. This is honest, serious progress in baseball. (The main photo on this recap shows the play; you can see Brantley's slide being blocked by Jaso's back leg, but not his whole body, and that seems fair enough.)
**All told, Gray's outing was pretty good. He did end up issuing three walks, but two of those were early-game jitters and I'll take six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts every day of the week. He had his fastball working, his breaking ball looked filthy at times, and he was agile and athletic on defense. Every time he needed a big pitch, he came through. To abuse a cliche, he pitched like an ace.**
**Meanwhile, the A's lineup was doing absolutely nothing against Indians' starter Justin Masterson. All they had to show for their first seven innings was a double by Jaso, singles by Coco Crisp and Josh Donaldson, and a walk by Sogard. It was looking like the same old Opening Day story. The only real threat against Masterson came in the sixth inning, when runners reached second and third with one out; unfortunately, Jed Lowrie and Moss were unable to capitalize.**
With Gray finished, it was time for Bob Melvin to call on the bullpen that is supposed to be the pride and joy of his club. Luke Gregerson was the first to emerge in the seventh, and, uh ... we're going to like this guy. He threw nine pitches, all for strikes, and recorded two strikeouts. Yep, that's about what I'm looking for in a late-inning reliever. Sean Doolittle came in next and pitched a clean eighth, allowing a hit but striking out two. And then, in the bottom of the eighth, 1500 words into the recap, the game really began.
The A's were playing their game. They'd outlasted the opposing starter, and they were now in a game of bullpens in their home park. Oakland should win that battle nine times out of ten. Mark Rzepczynski (zep-CHIN-ski, no matter what Glen said on the broadcast) started the inning, with Barton and Sogard leading off. This fascinated me. Are platoon splits really this difficult to figure out? Barton's numbers, medium-sample-sized as they may be, clearly favor his performance against lefties. However, his own manager started him against a right-hander because that's the side of the platoon he will play this year. Then, the opposing manager brought in a lefty to face him. It's like both managers were daring each other to see who could ignore Barton's numbers more blatantly. I guess Francona won that battle, because Barton singled off the lefty, probably because he hits lefties better.
Nick Punto came in to hit for Sogard, marking his first appearance in an A's uniform. This was a proper use of the second-base platoon, though I would have preferred Callaspo. However, I disagreed with the next play call. I don't normally like sacrifice bunts, but this was the one rare exception in which I would have liked to have seen one. Punto is not a good hitter, there was nobody out in the eighth inning of a 0-0 game, the ball wasn't likely to carry for big hits in the muggy air, and slap-hitting-clutchster Coco was on deck with Donaldson to follow. I would have loved to have seen Barton at second with one out for Coco. Instead, Punto popped out on the first pitch. Wasted opportunity, in my opinion.
With the lefties out of the way, Rzepczynski was lifted for Cody Allen, even though Coco has been way better from the left side than the right side the last few years (seriously, do MLB teams even have Baseball-Reference?). On his very first pitch, Allen bounced a breaking ball that catcher Yan Gomes couldn't handle. Barton advanced to second on a very heads-up hustle play; this was not an easy stroll to second on a ball to the screen. Coco eventually walked, and what happened next will haunt our dreams tonight.
**For in that eighth inning, Donaldson got ahold of one. He destroyed it. It didn't look like much off the bat on TV because it went directly to dead center, but man, he killed it. In May, that ball would go out. In July, that ball would go out. Heck, that ball might have gone out today if it hadn't been raining a few hours earlier. Instead, it hit off the tippy-top of the wall. Not just that, it somehow bounced directly back into Morgan's glove. It didn't ricochet off in another direction, it didn't bounce back up, it didn't fall to the ground. It went right freaking into his glove. Morgan got the ball back in so quickly that Barton was held at third and nobody scored. On a towering 399¾-foot drive that hit the wall with a runner in scoring position, nobody crossed the plate. And now we get to the controversy.**
**Barton had gone back to tag up. Conventional wisdom would state that, with one out (and especially in a tie game), you should go halfway on a fly ball. Instead, Barton seemed somewhat confused and sort of wandered slowly back toward second while he gauged where the ball was going. When Morgan grabbed it, Barton was standing on second; if he'd been halfway to third, there's a good chance that he could have scored. Of course, the ball came in so quickly that there's also a good chance he could have been thrown out at the plate -- the real reason he had to hold up was the unbelievably favorable carom, not solely the hesitant baserunning. And if Donaldson's hit had been caught for an out, then Barton could have tagged and gone to third in a game in which two different Indians pitchers (including the current one) had thrown wild pitches past their catcher. And furthermore, from where Barton was standing and with Morgan all the way to the wall, it probably looked like that was either a homer or a flyout; there was less reason to expect it play out like it did and thus less incentive to go halfway. I'd probably still favor the side that says Barton messed up, but I think it's really close and I would not blame the busted rally on him. If anything, I'd blame it on Lowrie for failing to get the runner home from third with one out (struck out on a nasty 56-foot breaking ball), or on Moss for failing with two outs (routine groundout to first).**
Before we get too crazy picking this play apart, let me say one thing. The A's would not have been in this game without Barton. His defense early in the contest absolutely saved at least a couple of runs. His scoop on Lowrie's throw in the first ended the inning; failure to make that scoop would have resulted in a run and an extended inning. His play on Morgan's bunt in the fifth kept the rally from forming, and his play to end that inning saved a run and stopped the rally from progressing. In the Game Thread, Nico commented that those plays may have saved as many as four or five runs; between the runs directly saved and the rallies indirectly cut short, that is a liberal-but-believable estimation. Furthermore, he was the one who started Oakland's eighth-inning rally in the first place, and his excellent baserunning just a couple of minutes earlier had gotten him in scoring position. If you're going to choose the side of this debate that blames Barton for not scoring, then you have to also credit him for keeping the team in the game to begin with.
**In fact ... oh man, this is gonna start some shit. But it's true. Barton was the best position player on the A's tonight. He reached base twice, a number which nobody else exceeded, and he did so in the eighth and ninth innings of a tie game, when baserunners seem most valuable. He made several excellent defensive plays in a game in which no other plays really stood out, other than one nice assist by Sogard early on (of Gray's two plays at the plate, one was routine and one was luck). You could maybe make an argument for Jaso, who reached base twice, made the nice tag at the plate, and apparently called the right pitches. But Barton was the team's best defensive player tonight and one of its best offensive players. He is definitely prone to boneheaded mistakes, and sometimes those are particularly ill-timed, but he was the cream of the crop this evening. Note: If Donaldson's hit had gone out, then he would obviously have been the top performer, but it didn't.**
**So, the eighth inning passed and somehow the A's had nothing to show for it. Oakland's new closer, Jim Johnson, came in to keep things scoreless and give the A's a chance to earn some pie. He did not get the job done. We knew that Johnson was prone to meltdowns, and he had one tonight. He walked the leadoff man, gave up a groundball single, and hit a batter to load the bases with nobody out. Morgan hit a sac fly to center to plate one run, and Swisher singled to drive in another. Fernando Abad came in to put out the fire, and he looked downright nasty in doing so, but the damage was done and the Tribe had a 2-0 lead. Let's not jump on Johnson too quickly, though; this was one game, the meltdown included only two hits (both singles), and we all know that the A's are cursed in their season openers. He did not become a bad pitcher in one day, and he will still do good things for the A's this year.**
**Oakland had one more chance against John Axford. Jaso and Barton each walked, but it came down to Nick Punto with one last chance to make something happen. Punto has a career .650 OPS, and Alberto Callaspo has a .716 mark. They are both switch-hitters. Punto has a career .645 OPS from the left side, and Callaspo has a .697 mark. The difference isn't huge, but if Callaspo isn't pinch-hitting for Punto in this exact situation right here, then I just don't understand why he is on this roster. Heck, if Stephen Vogt were here in his place, then I would have preferred Vogt over Punto as well. Instead, Shredder hit for himself and struck out to end the game. Blame Barton all you want, but in two of the biggest at-bats of the night, Nick Punto was in the box while Callaspo and Derek Norris sat on the bench. I think that was a huge mistake. And if you want a goat to blame, look at either Johnson or Lowrie before you look at Barton -- Lowrie got the team's only two at-bats with a runner on third and one out, and he failed both times.**
**So, there we are. Another Opening Day, another loss, this time 2-0 to someone other than Felix Hernandez. It's not the result we were hoping for, but it's the one that we probably should have expected. The good news is that Sonny was good, Barton showed signs of life, Donaldson swung the bat well, Gregerson looked dominant, and nobody got hurt. The bad news is that Johnson sucked, the heart of the order went 0-for-12, and the team's run for an undefeated season ended prematurely. But look at it this way: The A's lost on Opening Day last year, and then went on to win 95 of their next 161 contests. It's just one game, and everything is going to be fine.**
The A's and Indians square off again on Tuesday, at 7:05 p.m. Scott Kazmir faces Corey Kluber, which Glen also pronounced wrong (CLUE-burr, not CLUB-urr). Lev will have your thread.