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Game #1: Oakland A’s Khrush Angels on Opening Day

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Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Last year, when Khris Davis hit 42 home runs, he didn’t collect his first until April 21, over two weeks into the season. He’s already off to a faster start in 2017, khrushing two dingers against the Angels on Opening Day. Those long balls, plus another by Stephen Vogt and a quality start from Kendall Graveman, helped the A’s to a 4-2 victory Monday night.

After losing the first game of the season for 10 straight years from 2005-14, the A’s have now won their opener two of the last three times. They join the Astros in a tie for first place in the AL West, at least for one day. Here’s a closer look at the action!

Graveman steps up

On Opening Day, you’d normally expect a star-studded pitching matchup as both teams send out their high-profile ace starters. Something like Sonny vs. Felix, or McCarthy vs. Felix, or Haren vs. Felix. However, with Sonny on the DL for Oakland, and the Angels once again forgetting to assemble a pitching staff over the offseason, this year’s opener featured ... Kendall Graveman vs. Ricky Nolasco.

To his credit, though, Graveman made the most of his opportunity. It wasn’t his most efficient outing and he didn’t put together a single 1-2-3 inning, but he gutted through six frames with the following quality line: 6 ip, 2 runs, 7 K, 2 BB, 6 hits, 1 HR, 103 pitches.

The evening began ominously for Graveman, as the Angels led off the game with a pair of singles to bring up reigning MVP Mike Trout. But the righty dropped in his signature sinker and got Trout to dribble a grounder for an easy 6-4-3 double play to get the season off on the right foot. The pitch that induced the GIDP registered at 97 mph, a number Graveman touched several times.

Trout got his revenge the next time up, though. Graveman had found a groove, opening the 3rd inning with a pair of strikeouts, but he walked Kole Calhoun after a tough eight-pitch battle. He carefully worked a 2-2 count against Trout but then made his mistake, hanging a fastball up over the plate rather than painting it toward the bottom of the zone. One of the best hitters in the world pounced, sending the ball screaming over the 367-mark in left-center for a two-run homer. It was an absolute laser, not a towering fly but rather a line drive hit so hard that it snuck over the wall before gravity could remind it to land.

Fortunately, that homer was Graveman’s only slipup. He wasn’t mowing down the opposition, but he never let things get out of hand. After allowing the walk and homer, he bore down and fanned Albert Pujols to end the frame. A leadoff walk in the 4th was erased by another double play. Single baserunners in the 5th and 6th were stranded as he uncharacteristically racked up strikeouts.

He didn’t dominate, but he ate innings more than effectively. According to Gameday he threw nothing but fastballs, the vast majority of them sinkers but with a handful of 4-seamers and cutters mixed in. His sinker operated in the 94-96 mph range for the most part, with plenty of 97 in the early frames and some 93 toward the end, giving him a few grounders but even more swings and misses. The homer by Trout came on a cutter that missed its spot.

Overall, this was an excellent outing by Graveman. He stepped up to the big Opening Day stage, overcame any jitters, and calmly put his team in a position to win.

Dingers!

Meanwhile, the offense did its part as well. Oakland got the scoring started in the 2nd inning, when resident All-Star Stephen Vogt knocked one just above the out-of-town scoreboard in RF for a home run (link to video). They briefly lost the lead on Trout’s drive, but a bit of small-ball tied it up — a single by Jed Lowrie, a dinky-yet-productive groundout by Trevor Plouffe, and a bloop to center by Yonder Alonso that fell in for an RBI hit (video).

And then, in the 6th inning, with all the warmup acts complete, the Khris Davis Show began. First, Nolasco hung a curveball about as badly as a pitcher can hang a curveball (video):

Yeah, don’t do this:

That shot gave the A’s the lead, but Khris wasn’t done. He came up again in the 8th against JC Ramirez, and this time he showed his versatility by punishing a hanging slider instead of a curve (video):

Want to know what it means to hang a pitch? Watch the catcher’s glove on both of those shots to see where the balls were intended to go and where they ended up crossing the plate. Rather than breaking down at the last moment and fooling the hitter, they just hung there like batting practice fastballs.

The A’s almost did even more damage. In Marcus Semien’s first at-bat he hit one a mile high that sent the left fielder to the wall, but it came down about a foot short of paydirt. Vogt nearly hit another one too, in his second at-bat.

Even leaving aside the near-misses, though, the A’s still had a productive day at the plate. Four runs aren’t anything special, but three homers, five walks, and nine hits are a pretty good haul for the first game of the year on an April evening among the marine layer. Even against Ricky Nolasco and the Angels bullpen.

Closing out

With Graveman’s quality start and some dinger magic from the offense, the only thing left was for the bullpen to seal the victory. The pen was a strength last year, and optimism in the unit is fairly high entering 2017. So far, so good.

Ryan Dull pitched the 7th, and he was a sight to behold. Three batters came up, and each of them struck out after swinging through devastating sliders. Two of the batters saw nothing but sliders, one after another, and they still couldn’t touch it.

Sean Doolittle came on for the 8th and brought some fire with him. His fastball had its zip back, coming in at 95-96 and hitting its spots, and he even got a strike using a breaking ball. He retired both of his batters, though the Angels fought off some tough pitches and made him work for it. With Trout due up next, though, Ryan Madson got the call for the especially tough righty hitter.

Madson’s box score line doesn’t look like much, but he was better than the numbers. He began his season by standing up off the bench to face Trout, which is already an unfair assignment. He got ahead in the count, flashing a good changeup and a 95 mph fastball along the way, and on the 2-2 offering forced Trout to fight off another tough fastball. However, the superstar was able to shoot it into right field for a bloop double. That’s not to take away from the hit — he earned it with a great swing — but the point is that Madson made a solid pitch and simply got beat by an elite opponent.

The next batter was Albert Pujols, who entered with a career 1-for-19 line against Madson, but Bob Melvin opted to take the bat out of his hands just in case. That gave us our first glimpse of the new intentional walk procedure, in which the call is made from the dugout and no pitches are thrown. Pujols walked up to the plate, a few words were spoken, and he trotted to first base. I know lots of people hate this new rule and I agree it’s silly, but I’m having a hard time caring. There are bigger battles to fight on more important issues.

More interesting than the rule itself was Melvin’s decision to walk Pujols. Talk about a tough matchup decision — you know Pujols is always dangerous, even at age 37, but Madson sure has had his number over the years. For me the tiebreakers would have been that there were already two outs (and thus no need to create a force for a double play), and that at this stage the next batter, C.J. Cron, isn’t much less scary than Old Pujols. (Pujold?) Nevertheless, the gamble paid off this time, as Cron grounded out harmlessly to end the threat.

The A’s have refused to name one specific closer yet, but the first call went to newcomer Santiago Casilla. He wasn’t as sharp as the other relievers on this night, issuing a non-intentional walk and allowing a loud out on a liner to RF, but he still did more than enough to wrap up the save.

Overall bullpen line: 3 ip, 0 runs, 4 Ks, 2 BB, 1 hit. And 1-for-1 on saves (or 4-for-4 on save/holds).

Other notes

  • The A’s have played some awful defense the last couple years, but they put up a clean sheet on Monday. The closest thing to an error was Marcus Semien merely knocking down a sharp liner instead of catching it, but even he had a quality fielding day overall. Rajai Davis reminded us what it’s like to have an MLB-caliber CF, new outfielder Matt Joyce made a diving grab of his own, and new 3B Trevor Plouffe passed his first test in the Coliseum’s expansive foul territory.
  • Two walks for Semien, who usually has a low OBP; two hits for Jed Lowrie, who stopped hitting last year; and one of each for Yonder Alonso, carrying over his strong spring performance.
  • Rajai Davis is here for his defense and speed and we love him for those, but hopefully he winds up batting ninth instead of leadoff.
  • Jose Canseco + microphone + TV camera = fire emoji
  • This guy:

It’s hard to imagine how Opening Day could go better than this. A bunch of pre-game ceremonies for Bill King and Rickey Henderson, perfect weather, and a victory in a well-played game against our most despised division rival, highlighted by a bunch of dingers by our favorite star players. And most importantly, NO FELIX!

The Oakland A’s are undefeated so far in 2017! They go for 2-0 on Tuesday at 7:05 p.m., Sean Manaea vs. Matt Shoemaker.