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Oakland A’s Game #5: A’s pitching can’t surmount Rockies in 8-3 loss

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Game got away in middle innings and never came back

Colorado Rockies v Oakland Athletics
Hilliard homers
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Starting rotations around the majors have been slow to get going in this unusual 2020 season, and the Oakland A’s unit has been no exception. Unfortunately, on Tuesday neither the vaunted offense nor hot bullpen could pick up the slack.

The A’s nearly doubled their season total in runs allowed, as they were unable to find any answers against the Colorado Rockies’ lineup in an 8-3 loss at the Coliseum.

Starter Daniel Mengden allowed three runs in four innings, and the Rockies added five more against a trio of Oakland relievers. Meanwhile, the A’s had their share of opportunities at the plate but couldn’t find the big hit, leaving a total of eight men on base but individually missing out on 19 opportunities to drive someone home.

*** Click here to revisit today’s Game Thread! ***

The whole Colorado lineup contributed, with everyone getting at least one hit and six different players driving in runs. The big blow came in the 4th, when rookie outfielder Sam Hilliard homered to break a 1-1 tie and give the Rockies a lead they never relinquished.

For the A’s, Matt Olson reached base three times, Ramon Laureano reached twice and scored both times, and Mark Canha drove in runs in two plate appearances, but they didn’t have enough help to keep up with a consistent Rockies attack. Khris Davis came up with multiple runners on base in each plate appearance but was held to a popout, strikeout, double play, and another strikeout to strand them all.

Rotation still warming up

A’s starters entered Tuesday with a seemingly high 4.86 ERA, but that wasn’t far from the league starter average of 4.42. Oakland ranked middle of the pack overall, 19th in ERA and 14th in FIP (3.93).

Tonight’s outing by Daniel Mengden fell within those bounds. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible, as he avoided the big meltdown inning that sometimes plagues him but labored throughout, putting runners in scoring position in each of his innings.

The right-hander needed 87 pitches to make it through four frames, with just 56 going for strikes. He was able to come up with the key pitch at times, as evidenced by his five strikeouts and 10 swinging strikes, but just as often the Rockies hitters were able to get their jobs done and no matter the result it always took a long time to happen. Factor in Mengden’s slow and deliberate pace, and it took 45 minutes just to make it through the first two innings, even though nobody scored on either side.

Colorado finally broke through in the 3rd with a sac fly, but they really got cooking in the 4th. With a runner on base, Mengden hung a curve to Sam Hilliard and saw it deposited 398 feet for a homer to right. Hilliard, who homered seven times in 87 plate appearances last year in his MLB debut stint, got a mention in our series preview and lived up to that billing.

Mengden: 4 ip, 3 runs, 5 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 5 hits, 87 pitches (56 strikes)

That’s just about a fifth starter’s line, extrapolated down to the reduced workloads of early 2020. The two walks came within the first three batters of the game, and then he settled down and didn’t issue another. He mostly kept the ball in the park, and he was able to miss some bats. It wasn’t enough on this night, but it was within acceptable range from your emergency swingman.

On that last point, it’s possible this might be the only start Mengden has to make. He’s only keeping the spot warm until rookie Jesus Luzardo is stretched out enough to take over, and that could come as soon as this weekend in Seattle, reports insider Martin Gallegos. The lefty tossed three innings of relief in his season debut on Saturday.

Weems debuts

One of the new faces in the A’s bullpen this season is Jordan Weems, a converted catcher who signed as a minor league free agent last winter. He’s also the only reliever we hadn’t seen yet, while the rest of the crew was busy dominating in the opening series against the Angels.

The right-hander finally got the call on Tuesday, with the task of going multiple innings to cover for his tired teammates. It was more than mop-up work, as he entered down only two runs, but going long was every bit as much a priority as keeping runs off the board.

In that sense, Weems succeeded overall. He let two runs cross the plate, but even those weren’t fully his fault, and he logged three valuable innings to prevent the need to empty the pen yet again.

The first batter Weems faced was Trevor Story, a quality MLB hitter who’s drawn MVP votes the last couple years, and he went right after him with accurate 96-97 mph fastballs for a four-pitch strikeout to launch his career on the right foot.

Charlie Blackmon came up next and mixed things up by dropping a bunt, toward Matt Chapman. The audacity! However, where speedster Dee Gordon has failed so many times, Blackmon succeeded, as Chapman bobbled the transfer and didn’t make the spectacular play that he usually does. It was a great bunt, but that doesn’t usually matter with Chapman, although it may not have helped that Weems ran in front of him at the critical moment of field-and-transfer. The rook will learn to stay out of the way next time and let Chaptain America do his thing.

With Blackmon on board, three straight singles scored him and loaded the bases. Raimel Tapia lofted a flyball to CF, within range for Ramon Laureano to have a play at the plate, and his laser throw got there around the same time as the runner. However, it was just a millisecond too late for catcher Austin Allen to apply the swipe tag as the runner went past. More on this play in the next section.

From there Weems settled down, retiring the next seven batters he faced. He struck out Hilliard to end the 5th, then went 1-2-3 in the next two frames on just 17 total pitches.

Weems: 3 ip, 2 runs, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 4 hits, 0 HR, 33 pitches (24 strikes)

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid debut for Weems. If Chapman makes the play on the bunt like he usually does then one of those runs comes off the board, and Laureano came awfully close to nabbing the other one. The 5th-inning rally was real, with some consistent hard contact, but so were his two strong innings in which he retired all the Rockies’ top hitters in his second time facing them.

He threw hard, he threw strikes, and he missed some bats, even if he didn’t miss all of them. Most importantly, he stayed efficient and effective enough to go long and soak up three innings when his team desperately needed it. Factor in any debut jitters, and it’s easy to see this as a positive first impression.

Play at the plate

Regarding the sac fly by Tapia, things got slightly more interesting than usual.

The runner, Nolan Arenado, missed the plate as he was avoiding Allen’s tag. However, Allen didn’t notice the oversight, and turned away to monitor the other runners still aboard. Arenado recovered and scampered back to touch the plate before Allen realized anything was amiss.

We might fairly criticize the umpire here for gesturing a “safe” call before Arenado had doubled back to finish the job, but I’m not buying that as a problem. First, I’m not sure if that motion might have just signified the missed tag, as opposed to an outright safe call. But primarily, I don’t know that Allen even saw it, as he was (responsibly) already shifting his focus to the bases to make sure nobody else tried to advance. It’s possible he noticed the gesture out of the corner of his eye and it affected his decision-making, but that’s not at all clear.

I would have preferred the ump not make any motion at all in that instance, with the absence of an out call implying he wasn’t tagged and the absence of a safe call clearly showing he hadn’t yet safely reached his destination, but it’s not worth getting worked up over. Maybe if this was the deciding run of the game, or crucial in any way, it would have been more annoying.

Mop-up

By the time Weems departed it was 5-2, and even with the game still within reach it still felt like the true mop-up work had begun. Just one of those nights, even for a club proficient at making late comebacks.

Lou Trivino pitched the 8th but got roughed up in a discourging showing, allowing three runs and generally getting hit hard with lots of red exit velocities. J.B. Wendelken was better in the 9th, striking out three batters and getting a fourth out when one of those Ks ended in a wild pitch that put the runner on base.

K Davis

The A’s offense wasn’t silent, reaching base in most of their innings, but they couldn’t capitalize on enough of their chances. There was no better example of that than Khris Davis.

The DH came up with the bases loaded in the 1st but popped out to end the inning. In the 3rd, the A’s had a rally with two on and a run already in, but he struck out to end that. It was the same situation in the 5th but with only one out on the board, and he grounded into a double play. And in the 8th, with a glimmer of hope still glowing, he struck out once more with a pair of runners aboard.

In total, Davis left nine on base. He’s now 0-for-15 to start the season.

“Just pressing some,” said manager Bob Melvin, via Alex Coffey of The Athletic. “If you’re watching his BP it’s good, but it’s got to transfer to the game, so it’s just a little bit of a struggle for him right now. He’s going through a tough stretch.”

Meanwhile, Mark Canha continues to fill the shoes of right-handed run producer, getting the job done twice out of the fifth spot in the lineup. In the 3rd inning he hit a sac fly to cash in on an early run, which tied the score at the time. Then in the 5th he drove in another runner from third, this time on a grounder that would have been a productive out except he made it safely to first (more details in next section).

Tack on a hit and a walk in his other plate appearances, and he did something good every time up. We’re well beyond the point where there’s any doubt that Canha should be in the lineup every single day.

Lukewarm corner

The highlight of any A’s-Rockies matchup is squarely centered around third base, where the two clubs employ the best pair of players at that position in the entire majors, with respect to Anthony Rendon. But the hot corner was lukewarm on Tuesday.

Oakland has Matt Chapman, and Colorado has Nolan Arenado, who were famously high school teammates in southern California. They’re virtually clones, as multi-time Platinum Glove winners with big powerful bats — Chapman won the last two Platinums in the AL, and Arenado the last three in the NL.

With that kind of hardware, fans can reasonably expect a defensive showdown between the two, with no batted ball safe anywhere on the left side of the infield nor even shallow LF. Instead, we got an uncharacteristic miscue from each.

For Chapman, it was the bunt in the 5th. He’s usually automatic on that play, absolutely regardless of who is running down the line, but he couldn’t make the clean transfer from glove to hand this time. As mentioned, though, he did have the distraction of Weems running by, so there’s at least enough of an excuse that we don’t have to worry about what’s wrong with Chapman — especially after two previous slips already the last few days, with a throwing error and a foulout he lost in the sun.

As for Arenado, he had a chance to throw out Laureano at the plate in the 5th. Canha’s grounder went toward him at such an angle that he was actually set up better for a play at home than a throw to first, but he bobbled the ball just like Chapman had and didn’t even get off a throw. This is a play we saw Chapman make on Sunday — not routine or automatic, but one that mere mortals can also pull off rather than just demigods like this pair.

Neither play was ruled an error, though I think Arenado’s should have been because that grounder needs to be converted into at least one out and he bricked it completely. Either way, the complaint here isn’t that the two superstars were bad, just that they didn’t make the usual elite plays we’re routinely used to seeing out of them. There’s always tomorrow!

Quick turnaround

Don’t blink or you might miss the next game. The teams are back at it again at 12:40 p.m. Wednesday, meaning they’ll complete their two-game set in under 24 hours. The sequel pits Oakland’s Frankie Montas against Colorado’s German Marquez in a battle of power pitchers, with both bringing upper-90s velocity. There will be strikeouts.