Photo credit: Sports Graphic Number of Bungeishunjū Ltd.
By Lewis Rubman
March 17, 2019
OAKLAND — MLB is a game of ambivalence, paradox, constant decision making, and frequent boredom, interspersed with excitement, tension, and brief flashes of indescribable beauty, in which young men with short careers toil in their craft or sullen art, slogging through a season.
Grinding it out over 162 games whose venues extend from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Seattle and from Miami to San Francisco, after which the six division champions and four wild-card teams play three elimination rounds, which can consist of as many as 13 games, before the two remaining team face off against each other in the World Series, which, in turn, can last another four to seven games.
Games are played in four different time zones, and afternoon games often are played the day after night games, which can last into early morning, as we saw this past week end in SF. All this can wreak havoc with the players’ timing, and baseball isn’t just a game of inches; it’s also a game of split seconds. The six weeks of spring training that teams spend preparing for this ordeal, while necessary to get the squads into playing shape, also adds to the burden of weariness they accumulate over the season.
West Coast teams in the AL suffer more than any others from this grueling schedule. Not only must they fly across the continent to reach Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay, but the distance between the three west coast AL cities is intimidating. It’s roughly 795 miles from SeaTac Airport to Oakland International Airport and another 410 miles or so to John Wayne Airport in Orange County. (It’s 185 from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Logan International Airport in Boston).
So, when the A’s and Mariners decided to interrupt their spring training this year to play a two-game, regular season series in Tokyo—with a 16-hour time difference across the international date line, 5,140 and 4,700 miles distant from Oakland and Seattle, respectively—it raised several questions about how this would effect the teams’ quality of play in Japan, when they got back to the states, and as the season progressed.
These notes don’t pretend to answer—or even ask—all of those questions. Rather, they are intended to offer some suggestions, facts, impressions, and opinions that can contribute the discussion.
In Japan, Oakland looked flat; Seattle did not. In the March 20 opener, A’s starter Mike Fiers coughed up an early two run lead and left trailing 3-2 after the third inning, having throwing 58 pitches, 40 of them in that fatidic frame. Liam Hendrick’s wildness cost him a run in his one inning, the fourth, and Ryan Dull surrendered three runs (two on a home run by Tim Beckham) in the two-thirds of an inning he struggled through.
The final score of 9-7, Seattle, showed that both teams’ hitters were ahead of the pitchers. The A’s lost the second game, 5-4, in 12 innings. The M’s scored what proved to be the winning run after Jurickson Profar took Marcus Semien’s high throw at second, leaped and threw to first while in the air, pulling Jay Bruce off the bag in a failed double play attempt that, if successful, would have closed down the frame.
Seattle, on the other hand, looked sharp. Hunter Strickland saved both games, and Ryon Healy sparkled on defense and hit a double and a homer in the second.
Although Oakland was officially the home team, emotionally, this was Seattle’s home (or home coming) opening series. Nintendo was the majority owner of the franchise from 1992 to 2016, which greatly increased the M’s following in Japan, not least because the team established a pattern of hiring Japanese players. Yusei Kiikuchi, the lefty who started the second game for Seattle, went 15-5, 3.04 ERA for the Saitama Seibu Lions in the Japanese Pacific League last year.
The crowd was with him on every pitch. And then, of course, there was the Ichiro factor. Seattle’s ageless star announced his long-anticipated retirement after the end of the series, followed by a long and emotional tribute. The series had been billed as the MGM-MLB Opening Series, which rings hollow even here and rang hollower still in Tokyo. A knowledgeable Japanese friend had to ask me what business MGM was in.
This cover from Japan’s leading sports magazine, Sports Graphic, with its title, “Ichiro Opening 2019,” sums up the Japanese view of the series:
The trans Pacific jaunt obviously didn’t hurt the Mariners’ performance while abroad. Going into tonight’s play, they have gone 11-7, a half-game behind Houston, who completed a three-game sweep of them over the weekend. But haven’t had to travel east of Chicago, and they seem to be in a tailspin.
Meanwhile, the A’s have struggled to hit their stride. They are 11-8 outside of Japan, with seven of the wins and three of the loses coming at home. Monday was their first day of rest after 18 straight days of work (unless you consider sitting around club house for hours on end waiting for it to stop raining in Arlington on Saturday night a day off).
In that period, the team traveled 5,550 miles and went through seven hours of time zone changes On the bright side, Khris Davis came out of it leading the majors with 10 home runs, and Profar seems to have overcome his distressing unevenness in the field.
Or at least it seemed so before he committed an unforced throwing error in the top of the second tonight. He also seems to have turned the corner in his hitting, having raised his average from .106 on April 7 to .200 after tonight’s game. The numbers are ugly, but the trend is hopeful. And it was his RBI double in the bottom of that same second inning that gave the A’s the first of their two runs in tonight’s 2-1 victory over Houston.
The Oakland bullpen, considered one of the best, has performed unevenly. Treinen, Hendricks, Trevino, and Petit have ERAs ranging from 0.79 to 1.42, with only one loss and one blown save (both charged to Treinen), including the Tokyo games. On the other end of the scale, the veteran Joakim Soria, who lost one of the games in Japan and posted a 15.00 ERA, has lost another game since then, although he has brought his ERA down to still unsatisfactory 9.72.
The well-traveled and extremely experienced Fernando Rodney pitched 1 2/3 innings over two games in Tokyo, surrendering only one hit. Since then, he has lost one game and seen his ERA balloon to 10.29. Ryan Dull had a disastrous outing against Seattle, surrendering three earned runs on a walk, a double, and home run in two-thirds of an inning. He has had more success since being reassigned to Las Vegas, where he has one save in five appearances and has yet to surrender a run.
As for the starters, Fiers, after his brief appearance in the Dome—whose hard surface, all-dirt infield is no help to pitchers or fielders—came back to get the win with a five inning, no run, one hit stint against the Angels in the Coliseum on March 28 only to give up a combined 14 hits and twelve runs, all earned, in 6 2/3 innings against in Houston and Arlington during the A’s stops in Texas.
Last night’s starter, Marco Estrada, was mediocre in his five inning, five run, three hit start in Tokyo, although he pitched well in his subsequent starts against the Angels and Red Sox in Oakland before losing his touch against the Orioles in Baltimore.
He didn’t recover it last night, surrendering a lead-off homer to George Springer and leaving with an inglorious line of seven runs, all earned, five hits, three walks, one strikeout, and a hit batter, in 3 1/3 innings. In fairness, I should note that one of the runs charged to Estrada was scored by Springer, whom Estrada had walked, but who crossed the plate on Alex Bregman’s homer off Ryan Buchter. I don’t think Estrada exceeded 88 mph on any of his 69 pitches. He was placed on the 10-day injured list with a lumbar strain before game time today.
Having traveled to Japan, with all the baggage that involves in terms of rest, diet, rhythm, and so on, most likely affected the play of the two teams while they were there. However, it clearly could not have been the deciding factor their performance. Their response to and preparation for the difficulties presented by the trip may, however, have been. But that really doesn’t tell us anything important about the underlying causes of the differences (and it assumes that the two teams were basically similar in the first place).
It is too early for anyone to write the final report on the effect of the trip on the 2019 AL season since it would be reasonable to anticipate that when the A’s and M’s have gotten over the original effects of their long journey, there will come a time later in the season when the weariness and strain of the experience will take their hidden toll.
Although, as they say in the advertisements for investment schemes, past performance is no guarantee of future results, it might be worthwhile when we think over the summer about how it all will work out in the long run to consider how the two teams performed in the 2012 season, which they also opened facing each other in the Big Egg.
I think I’ll save that for another column.