If there’s one thing the Oakland A’s will take away from their 2021 season series against the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles, it’s that John Means Business.
The A’s were stymied by the lefty starter for the second time in a week, falling 3-2 on Friday in the opener of a three-game series at the Coliseum. The gem by Means extinguished the quality debut of Mike Fiers, who pitched for the first time this year after beginning the season on the injured list.
Last Sunday, Means kept Oakland quiet into the 7th inning, in a victory that avoided a series sweep by the A’s at Camden Yards. He repeated that effort tonight, polishing off seven frames and allowing just two solo homers, a bloop single, and a walk. Despite that sparkling line, including nine strikeouts and a whopping 22 swinging strikes on 93 pitches, his ERA still rose — up to 1.70 on the year.
Oakland scored the first run of the evening, on a dinger by Sean Murphy.
And then the next batter, Matt Chapman, worked a tough walk! Maybe they would figure out Means this time.
Nope. The next 14 batters were retired in order. Then a bloop jamshot single! Then another out. That was the end of the 6th inning, and meanwhile the Orioles had taken a modest 3-1 lead.
In the 7th, the A’s got one back, narrowing the margin to 3-2.
That’s Mitch Moreland, going deep off a nasty lefty. Yesterday he smashed a double off a 99 mph fastball from southpaw Shane McClanahan. A couple weeks ago, his second walk-off single of the year came against a lefty reliever.
My point is, even though you’d rather have the platoon advantage, it doesn’t mean your good hitters can’t still have good results in meaningful moments against same-hand pitching. Lord knows we’ve seen Matt Olson hit enough game-winning moonshots off lefties to ever doubt him again. That’s why it was a poor decision to pinch-hit for Moreland in the 9th on Wednesday, when doing so prematurely burned up their bench and forced their worst hitters into high-leverage spots instead.
Swap out a good hitter for another good hitter who’s a superior matchup, sure, but not for a bad hitter. They did it again tonight in the 9th, though it didn’t involve Moreland this time.
The A’s got their first two batters on base against Orioles closer Cesar Valdez, and Moreland nearly came through with a smash to the left side. But the 104 mph rocket went right into a glove for a loud lineout, and the runner on second was nearly doubled off — a replay review actually went Oakland’s way!
With two on and one out, and the righty Valdez on the mound, the A’s had righties Stephen Piscotty and Elvis Andrus due up, with lefty Seth Brown available to pinch-hit. Piscotty is off to a decent bounce-back start this year, and only nine months ago we were marveling at how many clutch 9th-inning grand slams he was hitting, and that was during an off-year at the plate. Andrus is batting .159 this year, down from .194 last year, with a .406 OPS; three NL teams are getting more offense than that from their pitchers this year.
Rather than let Piscotty hit and then sub Brown for Andrus, Brown was rushed in for Piscotty. It nearly worked! He hit the ball 367 feet and it looked great off the bat, but it fell short for an out. Then the coldest hitter on the roster was easily retired to end the game.
I simply don’t understand the play here. Sure, Piscotty might have grounded into a double play and left Brown on deck, but that’s not enough to justify the tradeoff. You simply have to choose Piscotty over Andrus there, because it’s like having two chances for a hit instead of one-and-hold-your-breath.
It may not have mattered either way, but the A’s did not put themselves in the best position to win in the 9th. For the second time in three games, they played their cards too soon and in the wrong hands, and ended up with four-fifths of a flush. That’s just enough to lose every time.
But hey, fun fact! Valdez briefly pitched for the A’s in 2017, leading to this stat.
Oldest Former #Athletics to record a Save vs the A's— David Feldman (@dfeldy) May 1, 2021
Rick Honeycutt 39 '94
Rollie Fingers 36-38 '82, 84-85
Diego Segui 36 '74
Dennis Lamp 36 '89
Cesar Valdez 36 Tonight
Fiers heats up
The A’s got their own quality pitching performance, from a source we hadn’t seen yet this year.
Fiers was supposed to be part of the rotation again but began the season on the IL, and it took until the final day of April for him to get back on the MLB mound. Complicating matters was the fact that all five other starters are currently earning their keep and don’t deserve to be bumped, and the fair question of whether the veteran right-hander would even be an upgrade on the current group or rather the sixth-best for a five-man unit.
The first problem was solved for now by temporarily increasing to a six-man rotation, not a bad idea during a long stretch with no off-days. As for whether Fiers can still contribute, it only took him nine pitches to answer that question by breezing through a perfect 1st inning.
The rest was exactly what you expect from a Fiers start. You weren’t sure quite how it happened, but at some point you looked up and he was finishing off the 6th inning and there were only three runs on the board. The Orioles had plenty of hard contact, and he spotted them a couple walks, and he only struck out three while earning just four swinging strikes. But every time he got into any kind of trouble, he made some big pitches to get out of it.
- Fiers: 6 ip, 3 runs, 3 Ks, 2 BB, 2 HR, 6 hits, 83 pitches, 90.3 mph EV
The right-hander was cruising until the 3rd inning, when suddenly Baltimore thumped back-to-back homers. But there hadn’t been anybody on base, so both were solo and the damage was minimized. Then he settled down like nothing had happened and retired his next three batters and continued along his way.
In the 5th, the Orioles put runners at second and third with nobody out, but he retired the top of the lineup to limit them to just one RBI groundout. In the 6th they put their first two on again, but he got a double play and a flyout to wriggle out.
That’s a quality start, and if the A’s lineup shows up then it’s easily enough to win a game.
In a season when simple quantity of innings might become a bigger deal than ever, it sure is nice to see the designated innings-eater back at the table.
Also: Scoreless inning each out of the pen by Deolis Guerra, Sergio Romo, and Yusmeiro Petit, combining for five strikeouts and no walks.
Laser Ramon and Tony Hustle
Let’s finish on a happy note, with a couple impressive highlights by the A’s.
First up, somehow the league still hasn’t figured out not to run on Ramon Laureano.
Don’t. Run. On. Ramon. That’s already his third outfield assist this year.
Even the stadium staff played airtight defense tonight.
The Matt Chapman of cotton candy vendors pic.twitter.com/dH2Y4VUlgb— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) May 1, 2021
But the memorable hustle play was by Tony Kemp. In the 8th inning, with one out and Oakland desperately searching for the tying run, he drew a walk to get on base. Then he stole second, and alertly moved to third on a passed ball that never made it more than five feet away from home plate.
He basically willed himself from the batter’s box to third base without anybody ever hitting the ball. And he represented the tying run in the 8th. Unfortunately he was stranded, but if he’d made it the final 90 feet then his hustle would have been the thing that changed the game.
Kemp now has more walks (8) than hits (6) this year. He’s got his drawbacks, but with a .385 OBP, plus this kind of impactful play-making, and multi-position versatility on defense including the middle infield, he sure does offer a lot for someone who rates replacement-level via WAR.
Means doesn’t justify end
The A’s got shut down by Means again, but they still could have won this game anyway. Just one more clutch hit by the top of their lineup against the O’s bullpen in the 8th, or five feet to the side on Moreland’s smash in the 9th, or perhaps whatever Piscotty might have done if he’d been allowed to bat, and they could have overcome.
That’s a double-edged sword. It’s frustrating that they got so close but came up short. But it’s also oddly consoling, that they put their sixth starter on the mound covered in rust, went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position, and made a questionable managerial decision in the climactic moment in the 9th, and still come one short hop away from winning the game. Sounds like a pretty good team.