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Taking closer-by-committee to a whole new level

A’s played the 9th inning on an out-by-out basis Tuesday

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Sam Moll
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the Oakland A’s closer right now? On Tuesday the answer got complicated.

The A’s had to rebuild pretty much their entire bullpen this year. Only two full-time members of last season’s crew returned, and one of them just had Tommy John surgery and will miss the summer. That left Lou Trivino as the presumptive closer alongside a new group of tryouts, from prospects to waiver claims to minor league free agent signings.

Indeed, Trivino has seen most of the 9th inning duties so far. He got the nod in their first two save opportunities last week, blowing one and converting the other. Those came on consecutive days, and when they got yet another save chance the next afternoon, Trivino got a rest and Dany Jimenez stepped in to seal the game. Two days later, Sweet Lou was back in the saddle earning another save.

That hierarchy seemed simple enough for now, with Trivino as the primary option, but on Monday he went on the COVID-19 injured list, which puts him out of action indefinitely. Time for a new plan!

Naturally, that very evening the A’s found themselves holding a somewhat close lead. In their home opener they were ahead 5-1 against the Orioles, and Jimenez came in to wrap up the final frame, after the setup crew of Domingo Acevedo and Justin Grimm. Due to the four-run cushion nobody got a hold or a save, but it was still a reasonable look at a potential late-inning arrangement.

Then on Tuesday they were in an even tighter spot. This time the lead was only 2-1 entering the 9th inning, and the relief depth was running thin, as Jimenez, Acevedo, and Grimm had all worked Saturday and Monday. Manager Mark Kotsay could have gambled on a rerun of one of them, for the third time in four days, but instead he got creative. Not only did he call on an entirely new name, he called on two new names, splitting the frame in twain to maximize his matchups.

Two of the first three Baltimore batters due up were lefties, so the first arm out of the barn was southpaw Sam Moll. The leadoff lefty was lifted for a righty pinch-hitter, and Moll struck him out. Next up was the expected righty, who singled. Then the next lefty struck out.

By this point, Moll was in a bit of a limbo. He had mostly handled the lefty-heavy section of the lineup he’d been tasked with, and he’d satisfied his three-batter minimum, but the inning wasn’t over. He could keep going for the third out, but he didn’t have to, and at this extremely high-leverage moment it was worth doing whatever possible to optimize the result of the next at-bat.

Due up was Anthony Santander, with two outs and an especially speedy tying run on first base. Santander is a switch-hitter off to a strong month so far, and he’d already knocked two hits against Oakland’s lefty starting pitcher earlier in the evening and drawn a walk against a different lefty reliever.

Kotsay decided to turn him around this time. He lifted Moll and brought in right-hander Zach Jackson, pushing Santander to the lefty batter’s box. It only took four pitches for Jackson to record the strikeout, getting Santander to chase a 1-2 slider in the dirt with a checked swing that went a bit too far.

That was the first career MLB save for Jackson, in his sixth career game. It came five days after Jimenez notched his first save, in his fifth career game. And not only was Jackson the substitute for the substitute for the usual closer, he was part of a tag-team solution to the 9th inning that night.

Necessity caused the A’s to blow straight past closer-by-committee on Tuesday, to a point of “next man up” on a batter-by-batter basis. None of this is necessarily a permanent situation, as somebody could settle into the job long-term whether it be Trivino or otherwise, and they won’t always have slim leads to protect a bunch of days in a row like they’ve had this week.

But this also isn’t a problem, for now at least, especially while it’s working well. It’s exactly what you should do with a rebuilding bullpen full of lotto tickets that need sorting out. Quick, rank the current relievers in order of who will have the best numbers at the end of 2022, except two of them are actually coaches and I’m not tell you which ones:

  • Domingo Acevedo
  • Ryan Castellani
  • Chris Cron
  • Justin Grimm
  • Dustin Hughes
  • Zach Jackson
  • Dany Jimenez
  • Adam Kolarek
  • Jacob Lemoine
  • Zack Logue
  • Sam Moll
  • Sam Selman

It’s impossible to predict, and the best way to figure it out is to toss them all into some games and see who performs, and who helps them earn wins. The team is going to keep playing every day, and somebody needs to come in to pitch when they take leads, so try stuff out and see what works. The group isn’t lacking in talent, despite their unheralded names and modest track records, and Oakland has a long history of discovering star relievers in unlikely places.

So who is the A’s closer right now, while Trivino is out? That depends on what day it is, and who’s batting with two outs in the 9th inning.