The Oakland A's played their best game of the young season on Saturday in Seattle. They scored six runs, which was their most in any game so far, and they did so by blasting some extra-base hits and plating runs in four different innings. Their starting pitcher, Rich Hill, struck out 10 batters en route to arguably the best, most dominant outing the rotation has enjoyed to this point. Even the bullpen threw three scoreless frames, retiring nine of the 10 batters they faced. It was a complete effort from a team that has spent the last year-plus often playing only half the game on any given day.
But the thing that stuck out to me the most was the defense. We had a good idea the new-look lineup would score some runs, we knew all along that Hill had massive upside, and we entered the year cautiously optimistic about the revamped bullpen. It was nice to see those things all come to life on the same day, but none of them were particularly unexpected on their own. The defense, though, is a different story. After leading MLB in errors last year, there wasn't a whole lot of reason to expect a big improvement this time around with only a couple players on the current squad who can be accurately labeled as "plus" defenders. And indeed, Oakland already tallied an AL-most six errors through their first five games of the 2016 season. One of those errors probably cost them a win on Opening Day.
On Saturday, though, all of that changed for one evening. That doesn't mean the problem has been fixed, with a weakness becoming a strength overnight. But after witnessing defensive miscues on what has seemed like a daily basis, a performance like the one on Saturday is incredibly refreshing. Let's take a look at the five biggest plays from the game.
Semien & Lowrie turn great double play
The best thing about Saturday's defense is that several of the big plays came from the exact guys we're all worried about. Marcus Semien has looked much better at shortstop this year and has only made one official error, but you still hold your breath when the ball is hit to him, if only out of habit. Jed Lowrie flubbed two routine grounders at second base on Friday, one of them an easy GIDP ball, bringing back memories of his subpar days as Oakand's shortstop a couple years ago. But the two of them combined for this excellent double play:
Semien shows some range by moving up the middle and smothering the ball with a dive, and he shows quick thinking and good hands on that long flip to the bag. Lowrie waits patiently to receive the ball, and then once he has it he turns like lightning and delivers a good throw to first.
Granted, this play doesn't address the main issues. I see Semien's biggest problem as being his throwing arm, which is sometimes errant to first base; he didn't need to make a real throw here. I see Lowrie's biggest problem as fielding grounders, but in this play he just had to receive a throw and make one of his own. But that doesn't change the fact that this was a great play, and on the bright side it showed that these two flawed defenders also have things they're quite good at -- Semien has some range after all, and Lowrie can really turn the deuce.
Lowrie to Zep
This play does include Lowrie fielding a grounder, and it took some range and a dive:
There's not much to say about this play, because so much of it was just instincts. Once Lowrie had the ball, lying on the ground in right field, all he could do was launch it toward first base as best he could. That he got it so close to the bag was a miracle in itself, but the real star of this one is Rzepczynski. The pitcher, covering the base in plenty of time, had to do the splits in order to reach the good-but-not-perfect feed. This isn't really a play you can practice, but rather one that shows you how well and how quickly the defenders can adapt to an unfolding situation. Everyone involved passed with flying colors.
Semien's diving catch
This is another Semien play that doesn't involve a throw, and in fact it might not look that impressive on the video. Semien hits the turf to snare a liner to his right.
That was tougher than it looked. The ball was hit more or less right at him, but it was also tailing away from him. He couldn't just open his glove and grab it; he needed every inch of that dive to reach it, and he had to make his move immediately because it was hit sharply and there wasn't any time to think about. Again, Semien's throws are the next area in which I'd like to see improvement, but that's only because his range and his ability to field the ball cleanly (rather than clank it off the heel of his glove) have become so acceptable.
Alonso lays out
First baseman Yonder Alonso is one of the "plus" defenders I referenced earlier. He has a reputation as a slick fielder, and after only a few days I can already understand why. But this has been his best play so far.
He shows it all here. Mobility, charging in to get the slow bouncer. Fielding, by cleanly picking the ball off the ground while on the run. Decision-making, by immediately recognizing that there wasn't time to feed to the pitcher covering. And finally, cojones, by realizing that the best way to get the out in this early-April game was by launching himself head first toward the object that another athlete was about to run through with his cleated feet. Oh, and upon replay review, he got there in time for the out.
Alonso can do a lot more than this. He's a pickin' machine at first base when his infielders throw low, and he has a good arm himself. But this play showed off a few of the smaller things that he does so well.
Strike 'em out, throw 'em out
Our last play was actually the first in chronological order. In the 1st inning, with one on and one out, Hill got Robinson Cano to go down swinging. Nori Aoki was running on the pitch, though, and Stephen Vogt cut him down with a quick throw. However, the star of this play is ... wait for it ... Semien! The throw was offline by several feet, but the shortstop managed to come off the bag just far enough to grab it, and then reach back behind him to tag out the runner who had already passed him.
View full play: MLB.com
Vogt has now thrown out 3-of-4 would-be basestealers this year, though again, Semien deserves some credit for this one. With the throw going back down the line toward first base, he had to move in two directions at once -- forward to catch the ball, and then back against his momentum to tag Aoki.
What does all this mean? Maybe nothing. Perhaps a shaky group just had a great day. After all, these particular plays didn't test some of the specific weaknesses these guys have. But they were still mighty impressive, in a game in which the team didn't record a single error, and that's a great starting point for a squad trying to show improvement in the early going.