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Muller delivers, A’s spoil Ohtani gem on Opening Night

A clutch 8th-inning rally gave the Oakland A’s their first win of the season.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back in Oakland! Hopefully, we’ll have many more years to say that. But for now, let’s not worry about that. It’s time to watch and talk baseball!

As if the immense pressure of being the Opening Night starter wasn’t enough, Kyle Muller had to go into tonight’s performance knowing he’s a rookie who essentially got the assignment by default. But the odds don’t stop stacking there. Two of the first three batters he had to face are arguably the first and second best players in the world: Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. The big lefty didn’t let the pressure get to him though; he came out like a 10-year vet and made those greats look like the rookies.

After striking out Taylor Ward to start the ballgame, Muller made quick work of Trout in what should’ve been a 3-pitch strikeout but home plate umpire Adrian Johnson wasn’t having it. No problem for Muller and his buddy from the Sean Murphy trade, Esteury Ruiz, who laid out for a beautiful “chef’s kiss” diving catch in center field. Sean Murphy who??

Next up: the opposing starter and reigning World Baseball Classic MVP, Shohei Ohtani. Throwing multiple fastballs, curveballs, and sliders at him, Muller had to work and work to get the two-way superstar but he finally got him on an 87 mph slider, the 8th pitch of the at bat.

Not letting the 1st inning strikeout distract him, Ohtani came right back and took care of business exactly the way we’ve come to expect. Going 6 innings on 93 pitches, he allowed only 5 baserunners — a single, a double, and 3 walks — and no runs, striking out a whopping 10 A’s batters. Despite many offense-focused acquisitions this offseason, Shotime made the new-look A’s lineup look like, well, the same-look 2022 A’s for much of this ballgame.

The Angels lineup, bolstering big names as always, didn’t perform much better. Muller, for the most part, cruised through the next 4 innings, allowing just 3 singles and a walk. Two of those baserunners came back-to-back in the top of the 3rd from the Angels’ two-headed Trout-Ohtani monster with no outs, threatening to spoil Muller’s dream night. Once again though, the lefty stayed calm yet aggressive, inducing contact outs from the next 3 batters.

Unfortunately, even the best dreams might have a road bump or two; the baseball gods can’t make it too easy for you. The next inning, Muller came back out determined to set himself up for his first win of the season. After getting a quick groundout, he induced another groundball to second base. The typically steady Tony Kemp botched the throw, allowing Gio Urshela to dash his way to second. With the situation getting dicey, Mark Kotsay got Zach Jackson up in the bullpen in case a tailspin commenced.

It seemed like things were heading that way as Muller threw a wild pitch to the next batter, putting Urshela at third with just one out. Next up, the Angels’ 9-hitter Logan O’Hoppe slapped a line-drive single to left field, scoring the game’s first run and giving Anaheim (as a current LA resident, I refuse to call them an LA team) the 1-0 lead.

Thank god for the old reliable mound visit. Once Muller got the second to calm his nerves he needed, he got Ward on two sliders, forcing an inning-ending double play. The good night was sealed for Muller and he walked off the mound for his first of hopefully many Opening Day starts with much to be proud of. A clip of Kotsay with his arm around Muller in the dugout delivering what looked like a passionate and encouraging pep talk will forever be a perfect snapshot of the night.

The 6th and 7th innings went by fairly quick — thank you, pitch clock — and it was starting to feel like we were headed towards an Opening Night shutout. What a way that would’ve been to start off what’s likely to be a stressful season for A’s fans.

But this team has been showing fight all of Spring Training, coming back to either tie or win multiple games after being down late. Sure, that was Spring and Spring stats don’t matter, but what you look for in Spring is ability, process, and character. Though the A’s may not be overflowing with the first of those three, there were definitely encouraging signs of the latter two — improved at-bats and late-inning fight among them.

In the 8th, an inning the last A’s core had a lot of success with, leadoff man Esteury Ruiz hoped to start a rally with a groundball single to right field. Everyone was surely thinking this would be the perfect time to show off the speed that tantalized the A’s front office and steal a base. But no stealing was necessary; Tony Kemp stepped right up and launched a flyball double to Trout in center field. By the time the ball got to the cutoff man, Ruiz was pretty much already home, renewing the ballgame at 1-1.

Brent Rooker, getting his first at-bat with the A’s, pinch-hit for Connor Capel against lefty Aaron Loup. Unfortunately, he lost the favorable matchup, striking out on 3 straight pitches. The Angels then took Loup out in favor of a righty with the right-handed Aledmys Diaz coming up. Diaz seemed to be the only batter who had any sense of what Ohtani was throwing tonight, working him into a single and a walk. He came through again at the most critical moment with a clutch go-ahead RBI single to left, driving in Kemp and making the game 2-1 for the A’s.

Seth Brown kept the rally going with a single that got pinch runner Nick Allen to third. The Angels decided to walk Jesus Aguilar, preferring to load the bases and take their chances against Ramon Laureano, who struck out in his other 3 at-bats. They made the right bet as Laser grounded into a rally-killing double play to close the inning. The bounceback season we’re all expecting hasn’t taken off yet, but there’s still time for Laureano to hopefully set things right.

With the tight ballgame, I was definitely curious to see how Kotsay would line up all his relievers for the last 4 innings. Today, it was the aforementioned Jackson who got the 6th, Domingo Acevedo for the 7th, Trevor May in the 8th, and finally Dany Jimenez to close out the game.

All four threw scoreless innings with varying degrees of command. May looked the least stable tonight, but he fought his way out of a tough jam. Jimenez, who had a killer start to last season before going down with a shoulder injury, seems like he could get save situations to start the 2023 season and he made good on that decision tonight, securing the A’s first official win of the year.

That caps off a surprisingly fun and intense Opening Night game full of intriguing debuts for the Oakland A’s. Here’s hoping that the good vibes continue and that the team has more pleasant surprises in store.