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Game #4: A’s swept by Astros to open season, but there are 158 games to go

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It was ugly. But this ain’t over.

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

There are good starts to a baseball season, there are bad starts, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s what we saw from the Oakland A’s in their opening four-game series of 2021.

After being thoroughly overmatched in their first three games against the Houston Astros, the A’s lost again Sunday by a decisive 9-2 score, sealing a four-game sweep at the hands of their top division rival at their own home ballpark.

*** Game Thread #1 | Game Thread #2 ***

Did you see the first three games of the series? Sunday was that again, but even worse. It was the complete divergence of poor play by Oakland plus everything possible going wrong even when they did play well.

The tone was set immediately, casting doubt over any hope that the A’s might steal the finale and leave the series on a positive note.

The first batter of the game hit a deep fly to right field, which was tracked down and caught at the wall by Chad Pinder, the hottest player on the team. But Pinder came down hard and hurt himself on the play, initially staying in the game but eventually leaving by the end of the frame with a left knee sprain. The second batter homered, lefty vs. lefty, Kyle Tucker off Sean Manaea. Two batters in, the A’s already trailed and incurred their third injury in four days.

In the bottom of the 1st, the A’s got the run back (on strong doubles by Mark Canha and Jed Lowrie) and then loaded the bases with one out, to bring up Pinder’s spot in a high-leverage moment. Pinder is the only Oakland hitter who’s homered so far this season, and he went deep against Astros starter Jose Urquidy last October in the playoffs, but he was already hurt, so instead Stephen Piscotty had to get up cold off the bench to pinch-hit. In the 1st inning. He struck out, which is fair enough, and the runners were all ultimately stranded.

And that was just the 1st inning. In the 2nd, Houston hit another lefty vs. lefty homer, this time by No. 8 batter Jason Castro. In the 3rd, Canha almost made a nice running catch to end the inning, but instead the ball squirted out of his glove and caromed off the wall. In the 5th, Canha basically homered to right, except it hit the very top corner of the jagged edge, so it stayed in the park for a triple, though he did later score.

It was still only 5-2 at that point, but the game jumped the shark in the 6th. A new Houston rally put a runner on first with one out and a run already in, and the Astros hit a routine double play grounder into a shift that had third baseman Matt Chapman in a shortstop position. Chapman, the best defender in the sport, muffed the flip to second and everyone was safe. The inning continued instead of ending, and the next batter hit a three-run homer. It was the first career dinger for No. 9 hitter Chas McCormick, who was in the lineup replacing injured All-Star Michael Brantley.

The homer came off reliever Yusmeiro Petit, the second time in the series that he inherited a pair of runners and let them both score. Overall in the four-game series, Oakland’s bullpen allowed 7-of-11 inherited runners to score.

The weekend came to the most fitting conclusion possible, with the A’s raising the ultimate white flag of surrender. Rookie outfielder Ka’ai Tom, who started in LF, moved to the mound to pitch the 9th inning because the game was effectively over and it wasn’t worth wasting any more actual pitchers with another game coming tomorrow.

The Rule 5 draft pick faced four batters, retiring three of them, including Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez. The only hit came on a weak grounder to third base that would normally have been an out, but due to a defensive shift it rolled to nobody for an infield single.

Listen, there’s no way around it. This was a terrible series, even worse than any reasonable worst-case scenario we might have imagined.

In fact, it was historically bad. They’re the “fifth team since 1901 to allow eight or more runs in each of their first four games of a season, first since Cleveland in 2009,” per Matt Kawahara of the S.F. Chronicle. Their minus-26 run differential is the worst in the majors so far, by a lot, and it’s the worst they’ve been beaten in a four-game series since they were the Kansas City A’s in 1950, adds Kawahara.

All four starting pitchers got knocked around. The bullpen got torched. The lineup didn’t make much noise, getting out-homered 8-1 and going 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position. The defense was uncharacteristically bad virtually all around the field, including both Gold Glove infielders making errors. And three players got hurt, including the star CF, the star catcher, and the early breakout candidate.

But I was also watching in 2001, when a star-studded super-team went 2-10 to start the year. That club finished the year at 102-60. Giambi, Tejada, Chavez, the Big 3, Damon, Isringhausen, etc. That group lost 10 out of 12, all to AL West rivals, and it didn’t end up mattering, because baseball is measured in half-years not half-months or half-weeks.

A few days ago, we were all pumped about this 2021 A’s team, because they are loaded with talent and depth. Are there question marks? Of course. But they’re supposed to be good, and four games doesn’t change that, no matter how awful those games might have looked. Will they bounce back like the 2001 club, and all the other contending A’s teams that have started slow over the years? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain — that answer hasn’t been written yet, no matter how much you might be justifiably panicking right now.

It’s impossible not to be disappointed, and upset, and frustrated about these first four games. I know I am, and I’ll bet the players are, because they know this weekend didn’t represent what they’re capable of and they’ll be out to prove it next week. But there’s no way around the truth in that previous paragraph. It ain’t over.

There are 158 games to go, and no MLB season has ever been decided after four contests. This sweep was ugly, and it won’t get any easier next week, with a matchup against the defending champion Dodgers and then a road rematch with the Astros. But this too shall pass.

Several hitters are showing signs of life. At least two of the new injuries don’t sound serious. Half the bullpen has actually been good. Giving up homers to the Astros is completely normal. Tomorrow is another chance to get back on track. Let’s do this.