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Game #4: A’s bullpen blows it after Estrada’s gem

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Angels come back to win 6-2.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Entering the season, everyone was worried about the Oakland A’s starting rotation but hopeful that the lockdown bullpen would clean up after it. The opposite happened on Friday night, as starter Marco Estrada threw a gem but then the bullpen exploded spectacularly. In the end, the A’s turned a late lead into a humbling 6-2 loss to the Angels.

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For most of the evening, it looked like deja vu all over again. The A’s had won the series opener on Thursday 4-0, and through seven innings they led this one 2-0. In the opener they’d gotten six scoreless frames from Mike Fiers, and they got the same from Estrada tonight. Khris Davis homered deep to left again. But then the 8th inning rolled around and the script finally changed, as this time when Joakim Soria got into trouble he didn’t wiggle out of like he had the day before.

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For his part, Estrada showed why the A’s signed him. He gave up a lot of contact, including a few deep drives, but most of it hung harmlessly in the sky. Of his 12 outs in the air, four of them were popups caught by an infielder or catcher. The Angels managed only two hits off him, plus a pair of walks, as he quietly and efficiently carved through their lineup.

Estrada retired his first 11 batters to begin the game, and it should have been a full dozen. He struck out that 12th batter, but the ball clanked past catcher Nick Hundley to let the man reach base. The Angels then loaded them up but Estrada got out of it, and it stood as the only time he allowed a runner to reach third base. Even with that unearned setback, he still needed only 77 pitches to finish his six innings.

Unfortunately, Matt Harvey matched him nearly pitch-for-pitch most of the evening. After starting the game with a leadoff walk to Robbie Grossman, he retired the next 12 straight. Just as the Angels had received a gift-wrapped bases-loaded rally in the 4th, the A’s got one in the 5th, and they squandered it just the same as their opponent had. A wild walk to Kendrys Morales, a five-pitch walk to Jurickson Profar, and a 20-foot excuse-me single by Marcus Semien put the ducks on the pond, but Ramon Laureano turned in an awful at-bat for a three-pitch strikeout and then Nick “Butler” Hundley grounded into his third backbreaking double play of the season.

But then, in the 6th, the A’s finally broke through against Harvey — and even that was pretty lucky. Matt Chapman lined one toward the gap in right-center and tried to stretch it into a hustle double, and Kole Calhoun sent a perfect throw toward second base. Chapman almost certainly would have been out on the play, but 2B Tommy La Stella inexplicably cut it off just a few feet in front of the bag, where SS Andrelton Simmons had been waiting to receive it. That mental error extended the inning long enough for Khris Davis to come up with two outs, and he ... oh, no, don’t throw him one there.

Khrush probably wouldn’t even have batted in the inning if not for La Stella’s messup, and the A’s slugger made them pay. Of course, it helped that Harvey missed his location by approximately half of a person, hanging a changeup to baseball’s top homer hitter in what can best be described as “literally everyone’s wheelhouse.”

With the lead on the board, it was time for the vaunted pen to shorten the game. Lou Trivino got it going, needing only 11 pitches to breeze through his inning. But then, the happy deja vu ended.

Soria came in for the 8th against the bottom of a subpar lineup, and he immediately found trouble. Jonathan Lucroy smoked a single up the middle at an exit velocity that I can only assume equaled all of his 2018 hits combined, and then No. 9 hitter Brian Goodwin lined one past Profar to start an honest rally. Next up was Calhoun, a longtime thorn in the A’s side, and he blasted a double to the wall to drive in the Angels first run (of the season). Mike Trout was then obviously walked intentionally, and that was all for Soria.

With the lefty Justin Bour due up, southpaw Ryan Buchter came in next, but the move didn’t work. Buchter walked Bour on five pitches, forcing home the tying run and blowing the save. He might have been squeezed a little, as the second pitch appeared to catch the corner of the zone and could have been Strike 2, but the next three weren’t close at all.

Liam Hendriks came in next, and it took only two pitches for that to go wrong. Simmons singled back up the middle, plating two more runs and giving the Halos a lead they’d never surrender. It took him only eight more pitches to record three outs and end the threat, but the damage was done.

I want to criticize the decision to bring in Hendriks, but I’m not sure what else should have happened. Fernando Rodney might have been a slightly better option but wouldn’t have been any more popular of a pick on AN, and anyway he did come in for the 9th and wound up allowing two more insurance runs on a slew of hits. Yusmeiro Petit is even more of a contact/flyball pitcher than Hendriks, in a situation where you’d like to avoid a sac fly (or a dinger). J.B. Wendelken is still relatively untested. Perhaps Blake Treinen could have come in early, but you can’t just throw him at every problem for six months; the game was already tied, and with at least six outs to go, so maybe this wasn’t the time once Buchter had already blown the lead. I’ll defer to Bob Melvin’s generally wise judgment on this one.

And so a promising night ends in disappointment for the green and gold faithful. On the bright side, the rotation is off to a nice start in the U.S., and Trivino and Treinen are still lights-out. Khrush and Chapman are still absolute studs, and Morales reached base twice in his A’s debut. And hey, even a great bullpen blows one now and then, so hopefully this is just an aberration. Let’s brush this one off and go get ‘em tomorrow.

The A’s are back on Saturday, at 6:07 p.m. against the Angels. It’ll be Brett Anderson vs. Felix Pena.