The Oakland A's dug themselves an early hole on Opening Day thanks to some shaky pitching and sloppy defense, but they sharpened up and showed a lot of fight the rest of the way against an intimidating opponent. Unfortunately, they couldn't quite muster up enough of a comeback to defeat Chris Sale and the White Sox in a 4-3 defeat.
All of the scoring came in the 3rd inning. The White Sox turned a one-out walk into a four-run rally thanks to three hits and a pair of Oakland errors, enough to knock starter Rich Hill out of the game. However, the A's came right back in the bottom of the frame against Sale, using a two-run single by Jed Lowrie and another RBI hit by Danny Valencia to cut the deficit to one. In the end, the two unearned runs were the difference in the game as Oakland suffered an almost-had-it one-run loss that was frustratingly similar to last year.
Rich Hill struggles in debut outing
The game got off on the wrong foot before the gates even opened when Oakland ace Sonny Gray was scratched from his start due to food poisoning. He'll be fine and should pitch later in this series, but after watching a 2015 season in which everything went wrong it was certainly an ominous beginning for the new campaign.
Rich Hill got the nod in Sonny's place, giving A's fans their first look at the enigmatic lefty. Would he resemble the dominant form he showed last September for Boston, or would he continue his struggles from the spring? He didn't wait long to provide an answer to that question, hitting Adam Eaton with the very first pitch of the game, and therefore the very first pitch of the season.
The rest of Hill's 1st inning alternated between great and terrible. After recording the first out, he managed to pick Eaton off of first base with a nifty sidearm move to eliminate the free baserunner he'd issued. However, a few pitches later he hit Jose Abreu with another pitch to put that duck right back on the pond. This time, he managed to strike out reigning Home Run Derby champ Todd Frazier to end the frame.
Hill had a 1-2-3 inning in the 2nd and got a chance to show his mobility covering first base on one play, but just as it seemed like he might be settling down he unraveled once more in the 3rd. After walking the notoriously free-swinging Austin Jackson, the same sidearm pickoff move failed him as he sailed the throw too wide to first baseman Mark Canha's right. Once the ball was done clanking around in the Coliseum's expansive foul territory, Jackson was on third base.
Eaton followed with a blast to the warning track that landed for an RBI triple, but perhaps should have just been a sac fly. The ball was hit directly toward center fielder Billy Burns and he didn't seem to get a great read on it, allowing what may have been a catchable ball to sail over his head and land behind him. Jimmy Rollins followed with a bloop RBI single and Abreu with a ringing double, but Hill bore down to record a huge strikeout of Frazier for the second out to bring up Melky Cabrera.
The next play ended up deciding the game. Melky hit a grounder up the middle, but the A's had him shifted such that shortstop Marcus Semien was there to scoop it up behind the bag at second. However, Semien's throw was just a couple inches too high, and it squirted out the top of Canha's glove and dribbled back behind him. By the time he collected it, both runners had scampered home for a 4-0 lead. The error was charged to Canha, and I agree that the play was mostly his fault -- he needs to come up off the bag and ensure he catches the ball first and foremost. Semien's throw wasn't perfect, but it was close enough that it didn't have to lead to two runs.
All told, Hill's outing was disappointing but probably not as bad as it looked. There's no getting around those two HBPs within the first three hitters, but the 3rd-inning meltdown was not entirely his fault. The "triple" could (should?) have been merely a sac fly, and the final dagger came in the form of two unearned runs on what should have been an inning-ending groundout. Granted, none of his pitches looked consistently sharp, but he could have kept going past the 3rd if his defense hadn't given away extra outs. Let's also remember that he was starting a day earlier than expected, on short notice, making his team debut in front of a home opener crowd that had its heart set on seeing its beloved ace pitcher. The point is, let's give Hill a mulligan on this one and see how he settles in over his next couple games. At the very least, he apparently has Todd Frazier's number.
Oakland's bullpen was season-ruining last year. It was soul-crushing to watch. They moved aggressively to fix it this winter, and the results were immediate in this game.
- Fernando Rodriguez ended that Chicago rally in the 3rd, and then tossed a 1-2-3 frame in the 4th. He touched 95 mph with his fastball and lived in the 93-94 range.
- Ryan Dull faced six batters and retired all of them, including one strikeout. He operated around 90-92 with his fastball.
- John Axford had a shaky inning, but it was of the BABIP variety thanks to a pair of infield singles. He eventually engaged Abreu in a tense 11-pitch battle that ended with a popout. Axford reached 97 mph in that at-bat against Abreu and hit 96 several more times, though he sat at 95 for most of the inning.
- Ryan Madson needed only eight pitches for his own 1-2-3 inning, with a fastball that ranged from 91-93 mph.
- Sean Doolittle pitched the 9th and looked most encouraging. The best part was seeing him register a pair of swinging strikes using his changeup, which came in at 83-84 mph (compared with his fastball at 92-94). He also picked off Brett Lawrie at first base.
Overall, the pen pitched 6⅓ shutout innings, allowing just four hits and no walks while striking out three batters. Even in defeat, it was refreshing to see that kind of performance out of the relievers.
Lineup shows signs of life in unexpected places
When you're facing a superstar pitcher like Chris Sale, it's tough to get a good read on your lineup. Amazingly, the best hitter on the night was probably Billy Butler, who hit a hard line drive each of his three times up and wound up with a pair of doubles to show for it. Unfortunately, his teammates stranded him both times. Coco wound up pinch-running for Butler, and when Coco came to the plate in the 9th he drew a leadoff walk but was stranded at 1st. And that is the story of how the Butler/Coco DH tandem put up the biggest fight in the lineup, just as no one expected.
While we're on the topic of baseball always keeping you guessing, the first hit of the season was an infield single by a catcher with a history of foot problems (Stephen Vogt). That hit launched the 3rd-inning rally, with Lowrie serving as the key hero by lining his opposite-field two-run single. The A's only went 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position overall, but for one inning they did a good job of keeping the line moving and cashing in on the runners they managed to put on base.
The worst hitter of the evening was probably Khris Davis. The slugger swung all night like he was trying to hit two homers on the same pitch, and at one point he swung so hard that his helmet fell clean off his head, Bartolo-style. He finished 0-for-4 with three Ks and didn't look any better than that line sounds. However, the worst at-bat was authored by Chris Coghlan, who came in to pinch-hit in the 9th. Coghlan watched three pitches, all clear strikes in roughly the same location, one after the other for an easy strikeout, and then to boot he yelled at the umpire on the way out of the box for reasons I can't imagine. I understand that he's looking for a pitch in his wheelhouse, but at some point you have to expand your zone and protect once you get two strikes. Taking three straight called strikes is not something that should happen often. All that said, I'm zero percent worried about either of those hitters, both of whom I expect big things from this year.
- It was a rough game for Billy Burns. On defense, he had the bad read that led to Eaton's triple. On offense, when he did finally reach base late in the game, he made a horrible baserunning miscue. With two outs he broke for second to attempt a steal, but after a few steps he stopped and tried to scurry back and the catcher threw him out easily at first base. I don't know what he was thinking there, but perhaps the problem was that he was thinking at all. Once he decides to go, he should just keep on going; he's so fast that he might make it even if he got a bad jump. But hesitating between the bases is a great way to virtually guarantee you'll be thrown out.
- Semien looked fine in the field other than his slightly errant throw in the 3rd inning, and even that was only off by a couple inches. ... Lowrie seemed to handle second base much better than he used to do at shortstop. ... Valencia made a couple nice plays at third. In particular, he made a diving stop to his right to save a double, and if anyone slower than Eaton had been running then his throw may have been in time to record the out. He also ranged in to make a diving play on a bunt popup. ,,, Other than Canha's costly error, his fielding was sharp and mobile at first. He made two good throws to complete the pickoff/caught stealing plays, and he too ranged in to catch a popped bunt.
In the end, this game felt a lot like 2015. The scheduled starter got scratched, the defense allowed unearned runs, the offense's rally fell just short, and the result was a one-run loss. But on the bright side, the bullpen looked excellent and the lineup didn't lay down against an elite lefty. I know the result was not in Oakland's favor, but this still felt like a positive game for some reason. We waited six long months to see something new after last year's trainwreck, so let's wait one more day to see how this new group does against someone other than Chris Sale.
The A's and White Sox play again on Tuesday, with Chris Bassitt facing Jose Quintana. Tim Eckert-Fong will have your thread.