Spring Training came to a close for the Oakland A's in dramatic defeat at Hohokam Stadium, as the Arizona Diamondbacks surged in the 5th inning and scored in every inning thereafter to turn a 7-0 Oakland lead into a 9-12 D'Backs victory. While the game helped assuage fears about #2 starter Rich Hill, the A's seemed haunted by the Ghost of Bullpen Past. Their offense, though strong, was no match for the D'Backs' barrage of extra-base hits and home runs.
Rich Hill delivers
All eyes were on Rich Hill today as he took the mound against Major League hitters for the first time in weeks. The pitcher we saw today looked much more like the wizard guaranteed a starting rotation spot on the strength of his starts for the Red Sox. Hill pitched 4 1/3 innings today, leaving with 2 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, and 2 SO. His strong outing today lowered the horrific 15.26 ERA he brought into the game by a full 4 runs, down to a 11.25 ERA to close out the spring.
Hill began with two 1-2-3 innings. He received excellent defensive help in the first, as Josh Reddick made a spectacular catch to secure the third out. Hill's second inning was even better, as he closed it out with back-to-back strikeouts to Brandon Drury and Yasmany Tomás. He opened the third inning with a walk to Jake Lamb and surrendered another walk to Jean Segura after a protracted battle with two outs. Segura, however, was frozen at the plate as Hill delivered a curveball that could just as easily been called for strike 3. With two men on, Matt Chapman averted the threat with a timely catch.
After cruising through the fourth inning allowing a single hit, Hill finally ran into trouble in the fifth inning, when he walked weak-hitting catcher Tuffy Gosewisch - his third walk - and allowed a second base hit to Socrates Brito. As Hill departed with everyone expecting Ryan Dull to retire the side, it looked as if he would lower his Spring Training ERA to 9.75 over 12 innings. It was not to be, but if Hill retains this form next week, when the stakes are real, the A's have a legitimate second starter. That could not come at a better time.
The bullpen fell far below expectations. When Ryan Dull took the ball with two inherited runners, few could have imagined he would allow not only them to score, but also four more on five hits. Dull had not allowed a single run all month. He began strong, striking out Segura, but things went quickly downhill. First, Dull advanced the runners on a single to Chris Owings, loading the bases. He then surrendered a bases-clearing triple to Gosselin, making the score 7-3. Welington Castillo then homered, bringing the score to 7-5. Drury then doubled, and Tomás hit an RBI single. Suddenly the Diamondbacks trailed by a single run. Dull escaped the inning by striking out Lamb.
The downward spiral continued, however, as Sean Doolittle took the sixth. Doo began strong with back to back strikeouts, but soon found himself in hot water, giving up a single to Segura and a double to Rickie Weeks, both of whom Gosselin then drove home on an RBI double. Down by 7 in the fifth, the D'Backs had taken a 7-8 lead in the sixth. Doolittle struck out Castillo for the third out.
Even after the A's rallied with two runs in the sixth, the bullpen continued to bleed. Tucker Healy gave up a run on an RBI double in the seventh, and Trey Cochran-Gill likewise gave up the go-ahead run in the eighth. Cochran-Gill would take the loss. Closer Andres Avila gave up the final two runs after hitting Sean Jamieson and serving up a homerun for Chad Oberacker. Thus, in a strange reversal of fortunes, Rich Hill proved to be the best pitcher on the mound today, while the A's bullpen - Ryan Dull and Sean Doolittle in particular - struggled for results. Let's hope they leave this unfortunate outing behind them with the dry Arizona air.
Winning offense any other day
On the other side of the ball, the A's offense looked excellent - they were merely not as good as the bullpen was bad. Diamondback's #2 Shelby Miller looked strong in the first inning, but came completely unraveled in the second. He first issued a walk to Stephen Vogt, followed by a single to Khris Davis. Back-to-back RBI doubles by Chris Coghlan and Yonder Alonso expanded the lead to three. Then Chad Pinder hit a two-run home run, raising the tally to five, before a strikeout by Seth Brown finally ended the inning.
The A's piled on two more runs in the fourth inning, as Matt McBride hit a single, Wade Kirkland was hit by a pitch (despite his protestations to the contrary), and Matt Chapman drove them both home with an RBI double. At the end of the fourth, Miller was done. The A's put runners in scoring position yet again in the fifth, but Mark Canha was struck out by reliever and former A Brad Ziegler. The A's were not done yet, though, as Matt Chapman rose to the occasion: he drove in yet another two runs with a two-run homer in the sixth inning off of Enrique Burgos. Chapman finished 2/4 with four RBIs and two strikeouts.
The D'Backs relievers frustrated the A's with six strikeouts from the seventh to the ninth inning, but some hope of a rally was kindled in the bottom of the ninth. With one out, Nick Sarianides gave up a base hit to Oakland's Danny Oh - Oh's first Big League Spring Training hit. Oh then took second on a wild pitch, and Sarianides issued consecutive walks to McBride and Brett Vertigan. The bases were loaded. With tension building, Chad Pinder came to bat. Pinder fought his way to a 3-2 count, but as the runners went on the final pitch, struck out. The game was over. The D'Backs could savor one more meaningless victory, beating the A's 9-12.
Let's go, Oakland! Concluding thoughts
If Rich Hill can maintain the form he showed today and even improve upon it, he will be a formidable second starter for Oakland and go a long way to relieving the anxiety that has plagued the club regarding its starting rotation. While the bullpen performance today of Sean Doolittle and Ryan Dull was particularly disconcerting, Doolittle's three strikeouts show that he still has the formidable ability to overwhelm batters. Let's hope a return home to the concrete confines of the Coliseum give him that extra edge to avoid surrendering so many runs. After a brilliant start last season, Dull similarly, even memorably, imploded when coming to relief. He clearly is capable of delivering shutout innings as a middle reliever, but he will need to improve his consistency and composure going ahead in order to advance from the back of the bullpen. He is still young.
On offense, this team looks very good. The dominant performance in the first two innings against one of the better pitchers in baseball showed that the A's have what it takes to score runs. New acquisitions Khris Davis, Chris Coghlan, and Yonder Alonso have all shown their worth at bat, while mainstay Stephen Vogt set the scoring in motion today with a well-earned walk. Billy Burns, Josh Reddick, and Danny Valencia had only one turn at bat today, but their performance this Spring Training leaves little doubt about their readiness for the season. Only Mark Canha and Marcus Semien could have really used a solid hit heading into the regular season, but they will no doubt have many more chances ahead of them when the results will matter.
Finally, the A's prospects put on a show today. Matt Chapman may start the year in AA
A, but he has the makings of an outstanding contributor in the future. Chad Pinder's homerun in the second inning likewise impressed. In baseball currency, strikeouts might be the price of power, but Pinder will have to cut down on them as he aspires to join the Major League roster sometime in the future. Vertigan, Brown, Maxwell, Kirkland, and McBride all deserve credit for their at bats today. All of them except Kirkland walked today, while Kirkland was hit by a pitch. The immediate future may be uncertain for the A's, but our prospects look bright.