The A's made it interesting at the end. In the bottom of the tenth, Josh Reddick and Khris Davis knocked solid singles off of one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game and Stephen Vogt worked a deep count, but at the end of it all, the very familiar sense of disappointment was all that remained as Vogt struck out on a curveball in the dirt. The extra innings loss brings the A's record to 35-46 and officially closes out the first half of their season.
The fact that already half of all the games the A's will be playing this season are officially in the books (their inevitable playoff run notwithstanding) is indicative of just how quickly this season went awry for the A's. It feels as if it was just mere moments ago that it was spring and the A's, if everything went right, had a legitimate shot at being a contending team. But in a flash, it has become summer and the A's had just about everything go wrong. The entire season, to date, has been wrought with countless frustrations and inconsistencies and disappointments, so much so, that it can be easy to forget the fun and joy that surround this team.
There has been no bigger, brighter, shinier addition to the roster than Rich Hill. Specifically coming to the A's on a discount because they were the one team that truly believed in his comeback and his ability to start, Rich Hill has done nothing but wow fans with his majestic curveballs and sweeping sliders since the season started, and is likely to be an All Star and the harbinger of new and exciting young prospects now that he has proven to the rest of the league what he had proven to himself and the A's long ago. He must be treasured while he remains with the team, and whichever team he winds up traded to will be gaining a determined worker and a team leader in addition to a staff ace.
Alas, Rich Hill had been unfairly stolen away from the A's, and had been sidelined for a month, but today marked his return to the mound, and it was clear that he didn't miss a beat during his time off. If anything, the time off gave his arm enough rest to last him the rest of the season. Not yet fully stretched out, Rich Hill was on a pitch count of 85 pitches for today's game, and he would make the most of that limited amount. Over six innings, Rich Hill would get six strikeouts, four hits, two walks, and one hit batsman, and did a wonderful job inducing weak contact and preventing what baserunners he did allow from advancing and scoring. The two runs that Rich Hill did allow came in the fourth inning, and while Hill's control in that inning wasn't as sharp as it was in the other innings, an adequate defense wouldn't have allowed any runs to score. With a runner on third base and two outs, Rich Hill induced a ground ball to Danny Valencia, who smothered the ball and then made an abysmal worm-killing throw to first base late, allowing the run to score. Following a walk, Josh Harrison hit another ground ball towards Valencia, whose slow reactions and lack of range in general could not stop the batted ball, and wound up with an RBI double instead of an inning ending ground out.
Danny Valencia had his worst game as an Oakland Athletic. Since coming to the A's, Valencia has done nothing but hit like he's never hit before, and gave life to an A's team that was really struggling in the second half of last year. His presence in the lineup gives it a sneaky amount of depth, and by all accounts he has loved the time he has spent on this team, the copious losing aside. And in the first half this year, Valencia, like Hill, has managed to prove to the baseball world that he is not a fluke, a one season wonder, his bat is here to stay. While most of the offense was completely anemic for the first few months of the season, Valencia was hitting nightly home runs. While the offense was getting marred by bad at bat after bad at bat, Valencia was acting as the exception.
Except for tonight, because Danny Valencia played like he woke up an hour before the game started with a nasty hangover. In each at bat he had runners on base to move over or drive in, and at the plate he was 0-5 with three strike outs. He was swinging at bad pitches and taking good pitches to hit, and looked completely hopeless and helpless. In the field, he was worse! In addition to the aforementioned ground balls in the fourth inning that Valencia couldn't handle to allow for two runs, in the tenth inning, there were two MORE ground balls that good-fielding third baseman would have at least been able to knock down, if not get the actual outs, that allowed for the go-ahead (and ultimately winning) run to score. Baseball moreso than any other major mainline team sport is dependent on a team-wide effort rather than individual performances, but tonight Danny Valencia single-handedly downed the A's to such a degree that it almost felt like sabotage (it wasn't sabotage).
Another first half pleasant surprise was the resurgent bullpen of the A's. With a completely new look and some hefty price tags attached, the bullpen did not have a high bar to leap over in order to improve on last year's relief corps, but even then exceeded most all expectations people had for it. The most notable relief additions were John Axford and Ryan Madson, both due to their higher salaries and their history as closers, but both with question marks as to how effective they can still be at this stage of their careers. The two both answered the call and instantly became the team's workhorses, logging innings at a rapid rate due to the collapse of the team's starting pitching staff. However, Ryan Dull, after getting his first taste of the MLB at the end of last season, has emerged as the A's best reliever. To date, Dull has still not allowed an inherited runner to score despite constantly being thrown into very hairy situations in relief. The bullpen has been unexpectedly overworked, but despite some wear and tear, the relief corps should continue to put up highlight worthy performances for the second half of the year.
In tonight's game, Axford, Dull, and Madson combined to pitch three innings and shut down the Pirates offense, the Pirates threatening to score in the ninth inning off of Madson but failing. In the tenth inning, however, Coulombe entered the game after just getting added back onto the roster as the rotating seventh reliever. Coulombe honestly didn't pitch horribly in the inning, but he wasn't good, and he obviously got saddled with some bad results. All the hits Coulombe allowed, of which there were four, were relatively softly hit singles, and two of those hits were Valencia-aided. But when it was all said and done, the Pirates had put two runs on the board (and it could have been three if not for Coco Crisp showing off his arm strength and throwing David Freese out at home plate). The A's would not be able to tie it up again in the bottom of the tenth.
The A's lost, but this was a close, tight game, and the team didn't roll over and give up, the players fought until the very last out. This is likely a lost season for the A's, and soon many of the guys on this team may be packing their bags and heading for not-greener pastures, but games like this one are a reason to continue to watch, even if the team is collectively a giant gas ball of disappointment. Coco Crisp had an outfield assist, Billy Burns had a great at bat and stolen base in the bottom of the ninth, Josh Reddick went four for four with a walk where one of his hits was a double that bounced into the one tiny open hole in the A's fence and embarrassed the A's in front of the National League with their non-functioning ballpark, Rich Hill threw curveballs and sliders, and Madson did a brilliant job working out of trouble unscathed in the ninth inning. There was a lot of good in this game despite the disappointing end result, just like how the A's first half had a lot of good despite the disappointing results.
The season is now half over, I can't believe it.