The last time the Oakland A’s saw Shohei Ohtani on the pitcher’s mound was April of 2018, and he shut them down for seven scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts. At the end of that season, he had Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2019.
Ohtani returned to action on Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum, but the box score was the exact opposite this time around. Instead of a bunch of innings with no runs, Ohtani gave up a bunch of runs and wasn’t able to record a single out. He was pulled in the 1st inning after six straight batters reached base, with five ultimately scoring, and the A’s held on for a 6-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels.
The problem for Ohtani was simple: He couldn’t find the plate. He walked three straight batters at one point, amid a span of 13 out of 18 pitches missing the zone for balls. By the time he threw a strike again, Mark Canha and Robbie Grossman punished him with run-scoring hits.
Mike Trout provided some fireworks with a three-run homer off Mike Fiers, who danced in and (sometimes) out of trouble throughout the afternoon. But the bullpen held serve for five innings without a run, and rookie catcher Sean Murphy added a monster dinger in the 6th for an extra bit of insurance.
The 9th inning brought a chance for redemption for closer Liam Hendriks. The 2019 All-Star got the call on Opening Day but blew the lead on a solo homer, but on Sunday he got the job done, recording four outs on just 16 pitches to seal the save.
Ohtani is one of the brightest young stars in the game at age 23, between his high level of talent and his unusual opportunity to be a star pitcher and a star hitter. The whole world waited an extra year while he recovered from surgery, and this was certainly not the result anyone expected in his comeback.
The right-hander’s first two pitches of the game were strikes, but Marcus Semien drilled the second one for a leadoff single. Then the wildness set in. Ramon Laureano worked a tough walk, and Matt Chapman took a five-pitch free pass to load the bases. Now looking to force Ohtani to throw strikes, Matt Olson waited patiently through five pitches and earned a walk himself to load the bases.
By the time Mark Canha came up, Ohtani was able to find the zone again, but he still couldn’t put the outfielder away. Canha sent off four fouls while working a full count, until he finally saw a pitch he liked and lined a sharp single to right field for two runs. Robbie Grossman came up next and was more aggressive, swinging at the second pitch and pulling a grounder — it could easily have been a GIDP, but it found a hole for another RBI single.
That was it for Ohtani. Six batters, zero outs. Matt Andriese came in for relief and let through one more inherited runner.
Ohtani: 0 ip, 5 runs, 0 Ks, 3 BB, 3 hits, 30 pitches (15 strikes)
The offensive outburst was especially nice to see after the A’s scored only one run on Saturday. Sure, a lot of it was gifted by Ohtani, but a lesser lineup (or even this one on a different day) may have chased some of those bad pitches and bailed him out, and Canha’s at-bat was especially clutch.
Mike Fiers got off to a slow start last year, with an 8.28 ERA through his first six outings. His 2020 didn’t begin much better.
The Angels jumped on top of Fiers right away, with their first two batters of the game hitting singles. He was able to escape that jam, but ran into trouble again soon after.
Staked to a 5-0 lead in the 3rd, Fiers once again allowed the first two batters of the frame to single. That brought up Mike Trout, who worked a 3-0 count, and Fiers tried to sneak a fastball down the middle for a free strike. Apparently the best player on the planet has the green light on 3-0.
This is, uh, probably NOT where you should throw a pitch to Mike Trout pic.twitter.com/x2dtCorlRC— Michael Clair (@michaelsclair) July 26, 2020
While it’s easy to criticize Fiers for having the audacity to offer such a meatball to Trout, do note that was the first time in his career that he’s ever homered on a 3-0 pitch. On 210 occasions he’s resolved an at-bat on a 3-0 count, going 1-for-5 with a HBP, a sac fly, and 203 walks. Another 386 times he’s taken, swung at, or fouled off Strike 1 on the next pitch. Statistically speaking, serving one up might actually be a defensible thing to do — just not at a moment when Trout’s team was down big and he might be looking to aggressively push them back into the game.
The Halos got to Fiers again in the 5th. Once again two leadoff single brought up Trout, but this time manager Bob Melvin didn’t wait around to see the fireworks sequel.
Fiers: 4+ ip, 4 runs, 0 Ks, 0 BB, 7 hits, 1 HR, 64 pitches (43 strikes)
In came Yusmeiro Petit, and Trout launched a big fly anyway, but it barely stayed within the deepest part of straightaway CF and he settled for a sac fly. Petit then got two more outs to end the threat, and the Angels never scored again. Melvin called Petit’s clutch performance “the story of the game,” reports John Hickey of Sports Illustrated.
After Ohtani’s early departure, the Angels bullpen got bailed out by a nice performance from Andriese. Although he let home one of Ohtani’s runners right away, it was on a double play, which helped expedite his team’s return to the dugout after a long, deflating inning.
From there, Andriese pitched all the way into the 6th inning, locking the A’s down every bit as much as Dylan Bundy had done the day before — or perhaps, looking like 2018 Ohtani.
Andriese: 5⅔ ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 1 BB, 3 hits, 69 pitches
The righty finally reached his pitch limit just before finishing the 6th, and the magic went with him. On the very first pitch from his successor, Noe Ramirez, A’s rookie catcher Sean Murphy unloaded for his first homer of the season. This one might actually have counted as 1.5 dingers.
Murphy hit the ball with a 109.3 mph exit velocity, and it went 455 feet. Absolutely smoked.
That was the extra insurance run the A’s were looking for, though they didn’t end up needing it. Murphy now has five career homers in 65 MLB plate appearances dating back to last September, and remember that he’s a glove-first catcher.
Bullpen stays hot
After Petit, the A’s sent out four more pitchers to finish off the game.
In the 6th, T.J. McFarland needed only 11 pitches to induce three routine groundouts. That’s just what he does, and he’s now 5-for-6 so far this year at getting those grounders.
In the 7th, Joakim Soria retired three of the four batters he faced, including a strikeout of Trout to end it.
In the 8th, Jake Diekman came in and got his first two batters. The next man up singled, which qualified his three-batter minimum, and so the A’s turned to closer Liam Hendriks slightly early to wrap things up.
Hendriks was an All-Star last year, and arguably the best reliever in the majors, but on Opening Day on Friday he blew his first lead of the new season. Two days later, he got his next chance on Sunday, and this time he nailed it. He needed only one pitch to strand Diekman’s runner in the 8th, and then went 1-2-3 in the 9th to earn his first save of 2020.
Through three games this year, the A’s bullpen has now thrown 15⅓ innings. They’ve allowed only one earned run, on the Friday homer off Hendriks, with 10 strikeouts and just 11 baserunners (7 hits and 4 BB). More of that will go a long way in this short season, when they can’t afford to throw away wins on reliever meltdowns.
Welcome to the Machin
The A’s got an MLB debut on Sunday, from Rule 5 draft pick Vimael Machin. The infielder hasn’t yet gotten an opportunity at second base, so instead he slid into the DH spot for a day.
Unfortunately, the memorable day was one to forget for Machin. He was the first batter to face Andriese in the 1st inning after Ohtani was pulled, and on the second pitch he grounded into a rally-killing double play — even the run that scored doesn’t count as an RBI (which is a dumb rule).
Machin came up again in the 3rd, and once again he grounded into a double play. In the 6th, he grounded back to the pitcher, though at least it only went for one out this time. Still, that’s three plate appearances and five outs created, and then he was left at the plate in the 8th when Grossman was caught stealing for the third out. Go get ‘em next time, meat.
Go for the win
The A’s and Angels have one more game in their season-opening four-game showdown, and Oakland is now up 2-1 with a chance to go for the series win. The finale on Monday starts at 12:40 p.m., with Chris Bassitt pitching for the A’s and Griffin Canning for the Halos.