Bartolo Colon last started for the Oakland A's on August 18 of last year. He missed the rest of the season after testing positive for testosterone, but Oakland re-signed him anyway. Since then, there has been a lot of debate about how the nearly-40-year-old Colon would fare in 2013 without chemical assistance.
The early returns are in, and they suggest that Colon is exactly the same guy he was last year. It only took him 83 pitches to eat up 6 innings against the Houston Astros. He allowed a homer, but he didn't walk anybody. Of his 83 pitches, 58 went for strikes, and 77 of them were fastballs (along with five sliders and one change-up). According to the play-by-play on MLB's website, he spent most of the game in the 88-91mph range, but ramped it up to 93 a handful of times when he needed to (and even 94 twice). The only thing that was different was that the home run which Colon allowed came with runners on base. Last year, 16 of the 17 homers he served up were of the solo variety, but tonight, Jason Castro's jack went for three runs.
Colon's opponent tonight was Bud Norris. The two ample pitchers combined to retire 18 of the game's first 19 batters, with only J.D. Martinez reaching on an infield single (which Josh Donaldson nearly turned into a web gem putout). Oakland broke the stalemate in the top of the 4th, though, when Coco Crisp led off with a "home run" to left. I put that in quotes because the homer could be charitably described as a "cheap one," landing down the line in the short porch in left field.
In an unexpected twist, Houston struck back in the bottom of the 4th. Colon retired the first two batters of the inning, but then the Astros strung together some things which they later found out were called "hits." Carlos Pena ripped a single to right, and Justin Maxwell followed him with a grounder to left. Then, at the worst possible moment, catcher Jason Castro (or, as "4-6-3" referred to him, "Castro the Astro from Castro Valley") ran into a 92mph fastball and found the Crawford Boxes in left field for a 3-run dinger. D'oh! On the bright side, Astros fans got to be happy for, like, half an hour or so, so you could consider your brief anguish to be sort of a charitable contribution. There's even a place to write it off on your taxes.*
It was not very surprising to see Colon hit a bit of a rough patch in the 4th. In fact (and I totally didn't go check this to make sure), that's something that seemed to happen to him a lot last year. He'd motor through a few innings, have a rough one somewhere between the 3rd-5th (usually involving one or two homers), and then settle back down for a couple more frames. Since he throws almost exclusively strikes, opponents' rallies have to come via hits and homers because Colon doesn't help them along with walks. He's bound to hang a fastball or two now and then, but the mistakes are few and far between. Overall, he looked like exactly the same guy as last year. If that trend continues, he could be one of the best 5th starters in baseball.
The score was still 3-1 after five innings, but there was a major difference in the box score. Colon, being his usual efficient self, had thrown only 59 pitches. Norris, however, had been working deep counts on practically every Oakland hitter all game; he was already at 95 pitches for the night.
Things started to unravel for Norris in the 6th. Jed Lowrie homered to lead off, and then Josh Reddick hit a routine grounder which was booted by shortstop Ronny Cedeno. It's a little bit unclear why Cedeno is in a Major League lineup (much less batting 2nd), considering his career OPS+ of 71 in 2500 plate appearances and his negative defensive metrics at short. I guess he's supposed to be the steady veteran presence who makes the routine plays and demonstrates good fundamentals. Whoops.
Norris was able to retire Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith, but at this point his pitch count had risen over 100. Left-hander Wesley Wright was ready in the bullpen, and left-handed hitter Brandon Moss was coming to the plate. It could be argued that manager Bo Porter should have pulled his pitcher at that moment, but I think it was OK let him face Moss. The mistake was warming up only a LOOGY in a situation in which Porter planned to let Norris face all of the lefty hitters, without getting a right-hander ready to face the subsequent righties. Moss ended up drawing an 8-pitch walk, and Porter took the long walk out to the mound to make the call to the bullpen.
Well, that last sentence is what should have happened. Porter did indeed walk out to the mound, but he left Norris in the game to face Josh Donaldson. But...why, Bo Porter? Norris is clearly gassed, he's just walked his first hitter of the night shortly after allowing his second homer, and you're going to keep him in with two runners on base in a one-run game? Is that only because you forgot to warm up a right-hander alongside your LOOGY? And if so, why are you still not warming up a right-hander? I understand that Houston's bullpen isn't that hot, and that Norris is probably a better bet than they are in general, but I thought this was pretty clearly a mistake at the time.
It did indeed turn out to be a mistake. Donaldson worked a full count, and then slapped a single through the hole on the right side of the infield to drive in Reddick with an unearned, game-tying run. Porter finally pulled Norris, having let him throw 122 pitches without anything to show for it, and brought in the left-handed Wesley Wright to face the right-handed Derek Norris. Oakland's Norris knocked an RBI single to right-center, and Eric Sogard followed with an RBI single of his own, capping a 4-run rally and giving Oakland a 5-3 lead which they wouldn't surrender.
Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour combined to retire the final 9 Astros in order, Seth Smith added an insurance run with an opposite-field homer in the 8th, and that was all she wrote. The A's wrapped up the 6-3 victory, improved their winning streak to four and their overall record to 4-2, and climbed to a totally-meaningful 1st place in the AL West. Man, I love having the Astros in our division.
In addition to the solid pitching and the powerful offense, Oakland's defense continued to shine as well. Eric Sogard is starting to vaguely resemble Mark Ellis at 2nd base with the consistently excellent plays he's been making, Jed Lowrie has been solid at shortstop, and Josh Donaldson continues to impress at the hot corner. Brandon Moss came off the bag for a high throw and made an excellent swipe tag at one point as well. We already knew that the outfield defense would be superb, but it's starting to look like the infield may be pretty good as well.
There was one bit of bad news, though. Yoenis Cespedes continued his early-season struggles at the plate, finishing 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, and in his last at-bat he seemed to tweak something on a particularly hard swing. He played the rest of the game, but after the hand and wrist problems that he had in the 1st half last year, A's fans would be right to worry just a little bit at the sight of Cespy dropping the bat in pain after a swing. Susan Slusser reports that Cespedes' elbow was the problem, but that there is no reason to worry yet. Still, I agree with her that BoMel will probably hold Cespedes out of the lineup tomorrow as a precaution. For his part, La Potencia promised to "hit (us) a lot of home runs this year" after the game. I'm not worried about his bat, just his health.
All in all, it was a good, complete victory. The A's were firing on all cylinders, and that's something that I'm not used to seeing in early April. In Trade Watch 2013, Jed Lowrie went 3-for-5 with zero injuries to raise his average to .476, while Chris Carter went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Colon made a solid return to the rotation, everybody contributed on offense, and the defense didn't make any errors. There's really nothing else you could ask for.
Oakland goes for the sweep tomorrow, with Brett Anderson facing right-hander Lucas Harrell. Game time is 11:10am, and Nico will have the goods for you.
* no there’s not