We waited four extra months for the 2020 MLB season to begin amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Opening Day did not disappoint.
The Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels put on a thriller on Friday at the Coliseum, ending in a walk-off grand slam by Matt Olson in the 10th inning for a 7-3 A’s victory.
This game felt like playoff baseball, right from day one. There were four lead changes plus two more game-tying homers, a blown save, a walk-off, and even some MLB history with the first-ever automatic baserunner under the temporary new extra-inning rules, all packed into four hours of pure edge-of-your-seat suspense.
There were multiple heroes for Oakland throughout the night, but Olson came up huge in the 10th on both sides of the ball. In the top half, his heads-up defense helped eliminate the lead runner, who almost certainly would have scored later on a subsequent hit. Then in the bottom half, facing lefty reliever Hoby Milner with the bases full, he unloaded a 427-foot drive deep into the right-field seats.
Another top performer for the A’s was Ramon Laureano, who helped account for the three runs in regulation. He homered in the 4th, doubled in another in the 8th, and then scored later that same inning.
Matt Chapman also chipped in, with the triple that scored Laureano in the 8th, although his uncharacteristic defensive error in the 7th did lead to an unearned run for the Halos. The A’s bullpen added six mostly strong inning in relief of starter Frankie Montas.
A lot happened in this game, so let’s start from the beginning.
Montas powerful but not his sharpest
The Opening Day start went to Montas, and although he wasn’t at his very best he still kept his team in the game. He loaded the bases in the 1st but got out of it, settled down for a quick 2nd and 3rd, and then got a bit wild in the 4th with a couple walks but kept the damage to just one run.
All of that put him at 81 pitches, and with an expected target around 90, that was the end of his evening. It wasn’t a long outing, but that wasn’t a surprise as starters around the league are still getting stretched out after the shortened preseason.
Montas: 4 ip, 1 run, 5 Ks, 3 BB, 3 hits, 1 HBP, 0 HR, 81 pitches
The four free passes were a lot (including a HBP), and there were a few more three-ball counts on top of that, leading to the inefficient pitch count. Of those 81 pitches, only 44 went for strikes. But when he did find the zone and/or draw a swing, the Angels weren’t able to do much with it, with five strikeouts and only one really hard-hit ball — a single by Mike Trout, AL MVP, which is fair enough.
Montas came out firing, topping out at 98 mph in the first couple frames, and overall he averaged 96 with his heater. He picked up nine swinging strikes along the way, too, mostly with his various fastballs (sinker and four-seam).
The outing was far from perfect, but the bad parts can be easily attributed to first-game jitters and the generally weird season situation. But the stuff was there, and so was the ability to gut through and get out of a jam. His next start will come Wednesday against the Rockies.
Laureano sparks lineup; star of the game?
The A’s offense looked tepid in their exhibition games against the Giants this week, causing some worry among a fan base that’s already used to seeing its team start slow early in seasons — in a short summer like this, such a slump could be devastating.
The lineup continued to come up empty to begin Friday, going down in order in the first three innings against Angels starter Andrew Heaney. But the second time through the order went better, as Ramon Laureano broke the seal by blasting a laser over the left field wall for a solo homer. It was the A’s first hit and their first run of the 2020 season, and at the time it tied things up 1-1 and got Montas off the hook.
This ball was legit smoked. He hit it with an exit velocity of 110.5 mph, sending it 441 feet and well over the fence.
Laureano wasn’t done, though. In the 8th inning, with the A’s facing a late 2-1 deficit, he lined a double into the right-field corner, scoring Marcus Semien from first (on a hit-and-run) to tie it again. Once more it was a smash, 103.2 mph off reliever Ty Buttrey.
On top of all that, Laureano also drew a walk in the 6th, and reached base in the critical 10th inning via a HBP — the latter free pass didn’t help score the winning run at all, but at least it was the absence of an out at a key moment.
Olson was the extra-inning hero in this game, but there’s an argument to be made that Laureano was the star for the A’s. They don’t get to extras without him, and very possibly get shut out in regulation.
Chapman errs, atones, errs again, atones again
Even on a relatively bad day, Matt Chapman still helps his team win. He was nearly the goat of this game, though.
Joakim Soria pitched the 7th inning, and he got his first batter to hit a grounder right at Chapman, who played it deep as usual and prepared to unleash his cannon arm across to first base. However, his throw took a sink at the last moment and skipped past Olson, something you almost never see from the pair of Gold Glovers, resulting in a two-base error. The gift runner eventually scored an unearned run on a pair of productive flyouts, and that stood as the go-ahead margin until Laureano’s double tied it.
But Chapman made up for the gaffe soon enough. After Laureano’s double in the 8th, Chapman lined a ball off the right-field wall, and by the time the outfielders chased down the carom he was on third base with a go-ahead RBI triple. For the first time this season, the A’s had a lead.
Two pitchers later, he goofed again, though this one was hardly his fault. Buttrey uncorked an extremely wild pitch, the kind that scores the runner from third base probably 99% of the time, However, it bounced hard off the backstop and straight to the catcher, with Chapman only halfway down the line. If he’d raced directly back to third he may have made it, as the catcher briefly bobbled it, but instead he got hung up and tagged out. The box score says TOOTBLAN, but if he hadn’t run in that situation we surely would have complained more about that. Just a bad hop, even if maybe there could have been a chance to overcome it.
But no matter. Fast forward to the 10th, and Chapman was on one end of a game-saving defensive play by Olson, which we’ll get to later.
You know you’re a great player when you can make a critical throwing error and a costly baserunning mistake and still be one of the stars of the game for your team.
Bullpen eventually gets the job done
The A’s bullpen wasn’t perfect, considering it blew the save in the 9th, but overall it had a good night. Six relievers combined for the following line:
A’s bullpen: 6 ip, 2 runs (1 earned), 3 Ks, 3 BB, 4 hits, 1 HR
Yusmeiro Petit and T.J. McFarland breezed through quick innings, and Soria effectively retired four straight batters in his frame due to Chapman’s error. Jake Diekman was perfect in the 8th, and by that point it had taken them only 46 pitches to go four innings.
All-Star closer Liam Hendriks came in for the save in the 9th, but this night wasn’t meant to be that easy. With one out, Hendriks thought he’d struck out Jason Castro on an 0-2 pitch, but it was called a ball to extend the at-bat. Two pitches later, Hendriks centered a fastball and Castro crushed it for a game-tying homer. First save chance of the year, blown.
It almost got worse. A single and a walk started a new rally, and Trout was intentionally put aboard to load them up for Shohei Ohtani with two out. Fortunately, Hendriks bore down and fanned Ohtani on three pitches, ending the threat and preserving the tie.
The 10th inning brought Burch Smith to the mound, and he ended up keeping the Halos off the board too. But that’s a story for the next couple sections.
One of the new rules in this 2020 season involves extra innings. In an effort to curb marathon games in this tightly scheduled summer, MLB temporarily adopted the minor league rule of an automatic baserunner being put on second to begin every extra inning.
The A’s and Angels were the only Opening Day game to require bonus baseball, so they became the first to experience the new rule. The top of the 10th began with Ohtani on second base, after he ended the previous inning with his K at the hands of Hendriks. The bottom of the half started with Semien on base.
Whether the result was a success or not depends on how you measure it. The game went only one extra inning, with a huge boost from those free runners, and every moment of it was exciting as hell. Those are positives.
However, it didn’t necessarily achieve its other stated goal of reducing the amount of time the players are on the field. Due to the artificially increased leverage of the runner in scoring position, and the ensuing heightened drama, it took nearly half an hour just to complete that one inning, and even then they only recorded four outs before the walk-off. If the A’s hadn’t scored and an 11th had been needed, it could have stretched well over an hour.
Of course, this was just one data point. In another game, the batters might go quickly 1-2-3, or the home team might line a single on the first pitch to end it. But it might not be as simple as just a free runner equaling a shorter game in all senses.
Top of the 10th: Matts save the day
Smith’s first batter poked a grounder toward Olson, but instead of taking the easy out at first, Olson went big. He snapped an immediate throw across the diamond to third, where Ohtani was trying to advance on the play. The throw was low and took a hop but Chapman corralled it, and the A’s were able to tag out Ohtani without letting the batter-runner advance to second.
Two pitches later, Tommy La Stella hit a single that would have 100% scored Ohtani if he’d still been at second. Instead it only put runners on first and second. Smith walked one more batter to load them up, but ultimately got out of the jam unscathed.
After their earlier miscue in the 7th, the Matts showed why they’re multiple-time Gold Glove and Fielding Bible winners. That wasn’t just a great play, it was a play that almost no other first baseman would even attempt, much less pull off. The pick by Chapman on the other end was every bit as important, illustrating how well these two work together as a unit to make each other even stronger — after all, Olson has done the same for Chapman plenty of times. They are a pair of generationally special players on the infield corners.
In an interesting twist, Ohtani made two consecutive outs, which seems like it must be another first in history since it would otherwise be logistically impossible. He struck out to end the 9th, and was tagged out to start the 10th.
Bottom of the 10th: Walk-off!
After Smith and the Matts survived the top of the 10th, it was their turn in the bottom against Angels closer Hansel Robles. They didn’t waste it.
Semien started automatically on second, and Laureano was hit with a pitch to fill the open bag at first. Chapman struck out, but a wild pitch moved the runners up. Khris Davis walked to load ‘em, and that was the end for Robles. With Olson coming up, the Halos turned to lefty Hoby Milner.
It didn’t work. Olson destroyed the very first pitch he saw, depositing it into the RF bleachers among the cardboard cutouts of some of the team’s famously dedicated diehard fans. He said he went in looking for Milner’s slider and he got exactly that, reports insider Martin Gallegos. It was a hanger, too, right near the middle of the zone.
The walk-off dinger was the third of Olson’s career, and interestingly they’ve all come against lefties — he beat Tony Sipp in 2018, and then Josh Hader in 2019. It was the fifth Opening Day walk-off in A’s history and the first homer, and overall it was their eighth walk-off grand slam (via info manager Mike Selleck). But perhaps most impressive of all, it was the first time an MLB player has hit a walk-off slam on Opening Day since 1986.
Four A’s debuts, and a familiar face returns
The A’s added some new players over the offseason, and several of them made their first appearances in green and gold on Friday.
- LHP T.J. McFarland threw a perfect 6th inning. He’s a groundball specialist, and indeed he induced groundouts from two of his three batters.
- RHP Burch Smith gutted his way through the 10th, navigating around the auto-runner to keep the Angels off the board. He allowed a hit and a walk, but eventually earned the win, in a rare case where that junk stat really feels meaningful.
- C Austin Allen came in for defense in the 9th after starter Sean Murphy was pinch-hit for. Allen later came to bat in the bottom of the frame, but struck out looking on three pitches.
- 2B Tony Kemp pinch-ran for Chad Pinder in the 7th, He was stranded on base, then got no fielding chances in the top of the 8th, and then was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 8th.
Friday also brought the return of a former Athletic. After the A’s kicked the Angels’ Buttrey in the 8th, lefty reliever Ryan Buchter came in to end the rally, which he did by recording the final out.
Worth the wait
If there was ever a game to make an extra four-month wait feel worth it, this was the one. It was an absolute roller coaster, reminding us of everything we love about baseball and sports in general, and serving as exactly the merciful distraction we all needed during a tense, stressful year. Better yet, the A’s came through in the end, in particularly dramatic fashion.
This is exactly the kind of start Oakland needed. Get off on the right foot and get the first win out of the way quickly, get the bats woken up on day one, and jump straight into midseason form as much as possible. The pitching, hitting, and defense all produced more good than bad, and the whole episode offered the feeling of relief that we are in fact watching a contending team as we’d hoped, even if there’s still a little rust yet to shake off.
No rest for the weary
When baseball is back, its back. After a wonderful but exhausting four-hour Opening Day marathon that ended past 11 p.m., the A’s and Angels are back at it on Saturday at 1:10 p.m. Sean Manaea takes the mound for the A’s against Dylan Bundy.
Gonna be crowded on the BART ramp after that one. Be patient, cardboard cutouts.— Melissa Lockard (@melissalockard) July 25, 2020