MLB The Show podcast with Matt Harrington: Braves get back-to-back division titles; Fiers lights out for A’s again; plus more

Photo credit: talkingchop.com

On the MLB The Show podcast with Matt:

#1 The Atlanta Braves are for the second season in a row division winners in the NL East with a victory over the San Francisco Giants. Never an easy task to win a second division championship, but the Braves pulled it off.

#2 The Braves players celebrated after the game in the waterfall pool just beyond the outfield fence wrapping up the night. The players posed for a photo while standing in the pool.

#3 It was Oakland A’s Mike Fiers bobblehead night. Who threw a no-hitter on May 7 this season, Fiers on his pitch of the game gave up a hit to Texas Rangers lead-off hitter Shin-Soo Choo, but pitched a very controlled game afterwards threw eight innings of shutout ball.

#4 The New York Mets’ Pete Alonso was the second rookie to hit 50 home runs. Quite an accomplishment from Alonso, whose had a great year so far.

#5 The Washington Nationals got a big win over the Miami Marlins 6-4 to hang onto first place in the NL Wild Card. The Nats’ Trea Turner hit two home runs and Asdrubal Cabrera hit one in the win.

Matt Harrington does the MLB The Show podcast each Saturday at http://www.sportsradioservice.com

Struggling Johnson’s Blown Save Forces A’s Split of Doubleheader

By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. – Oakland Athletics closer Jim Johnson’s rocky start in the Bay Area went from bad to worse Wednesday night at the O.Co Coliseum. For the second time in a three-game series against the Cleveland Indians (2-1), Johnson (0-2, 45.00 ERA) entered the ninth inning with the A’s tied or ahead and coughed up the lead, turning a 4-3 edge into a blown save and ultimately a 6-3 loss to split the day-night doubleheader. Indians reliever Cody Allen (2-0, 0.00 ERA) bookended the series with wins in the first and third games while Jon Axford pitched a perfect ninth for his second save of the season.

“It sucks every time,” said losing pitcher Johnson of blowing the save opportunity. “You have to trust the positives and have to trust the work that you’re doing. I’m going to sleep it off tonight. I’m not going to do anybody any favors hanging my head. These guys need me. These guys have been playing their butts off. We should be 3-0. I’ll take the blame. If I sit here and sulk though, it’s not going to do anybody any good.”

A’s starter Josh Lindblom, called up to start the Wednesday’s second game to keep the rotation on track for the upcoming four-game set against the Seattle Mariners, pitched 4 2/3 innings and left with a 3-2 lead but the Oakland bullpen surrender four runs to drop two-of-three against the visiting Tribe.

“Anytime you lose a game with the lead in the ninth inning it hurts a little bit,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “You have to move on. You have no choice.”

Like in the afternoon game, the A’s (1-2) struck first in their very first at-bats of the game. After Lindblom fired a 1-2-3 inning, center fielder Sam Fuld debuted in style by tripling on a 1-1 McAllister fastball lifted to deep center. Josh Donaldson struck out but Jed Lowrie singled Fuld home for the 1-0 lead. Lowrie moved to second with on a wild pitch with designated hitter Brandon Moss batting. Moss joined Lowrie on the base path working a walk against Indians starter Zach McAllister to put Yoenis Cespedes at the plate with a runner in scoring position. Cespedes plated Lowrie, launching a 1-2 fastball to the corner in right field for a double with right fielder David Murphy’s  vision impaired by the setting Sun.

Cespedes opened the season with critics scrutinizing his long swing that produced a .167 batting average over 60 Spring Training at-bats. The Cuban masher silenced those critics, at least momentarily, going 2-for-5 in game one of the doubleheader then producing the RBI hit in the night cap. Cespedes finished the night cap with a hit in two at-bats paired with a tandem of walks, including one of the intentional variety.

Lindblom found himself in a jam in the third, surrendering a single to ninth-place hitter Lonnie Chisenhall to open the inning then issuing a walk to leadoff man Nyjer Morgan. The righty induced a fly ball off the bat of Nick Swisher and then walked Carlos Santana to load the bases with two outs. Lindblom finished the escape act, forcing a Michael Brantley flyout to leave the three Indians base runners stranded.

The Tribe found the run column an inning later when Asdrubal Cabrera singled sharply to right. Murphy flew out to Fuld but Mike Aviles ripped a 0-1 slider 350 feet over the wall in left for his first home run of the season to pull Cleveland even, 2-2. Lindblom retired the next two hitters.

Fuld again anchored the A’s offensive in the bottom of the fourth by singling home Reddick from second base and moving Nick Punto to third with two outs. Reddick reached base on a one-out single then moved to second on a base-on-balls to second baseman Punto. Fuld stole second, his first pilfering as a member of the A’s, but Donaldson bounced out to Cabrera to end the threat with the A’s leading 3-2 with four innings complete on the scorecard.

“Outstanding,” responded Melvin when asked to judge his replacement center fielder’s performance. “We didn’t want to play Coco (Crisp) both games of the doubleheader. We want to give Coco his days off this season. (Fuld) knows how to play that role. He knows how to get himself ready when he’s on the bench for a few days.”

Lindblom retired the first two batters he faced in the fifth before allowing a first-pitch double to Santana, catching the evening tilt after Yan Gomes did the honors in the afternoon game. Melvin lifted the righty in favor of Drew Pomeranz, a 2010 first-round draft pick (fifth overall) of the Indians. Lindblom, called up from the Sacramento Rivercats as part of the special 26th roster spot allotment for doubleheaders, finished the afternoon with two earned runs surrendered on five hits and a pair of walks and strikeouts respectively. Having only pitched 4 2/3 innings, Lindblom would not have qualified for the five-inning requirement to be named winning pitcher if the score held up.

“He was good,” said Melvin of Lindblom. “It was tough to take him out with 4 2/3 innings. I think he was at 85 pitches, we had a left-left match-up. I thought he kept us in the game. We got to the ninth inning with a lead so he did his job.”

Indians fans recognize Pomeranz as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to to Cleveland from the Colorado Rockies for a package that included the 6-foot-5 southpaw. The Rockies later dealt the Memphis, Tenn. native to the A’s for Brett Anderson. The 22 year old, who made the bullpen after a strong spring showing, struggled with four straight balls to Brantley before Reddick nabbed a pop-up off the bat of Cabrera to close the books on the first half of the game.

Marc Rzepczynski replaced McAllister in the bottom of the fifth after the righty surrendered three earned runs on six hits with four walks and four punch-outs over four innings.  The lefty with the consonant-heavy surname held the A’s hitless over the next two innings to keep the deficit at one run.

For the A’s, Pomeranz opened the sixth, getting David Murphy to roll over on one that was handled by Daric Barton at first. Pomeranz then worked a full count after throwing three straight balls to Aviles, but ultimately lost the second baseman on a 4-seamer out of the strike zone.

Melvin and the A’s were on the losing end of a challenge that confirmed an out call on a tag play at home plate in the afternoon, but in the sixth inning Oakland became victim of their first overturned call off the season. Mike Aviles broke for second on an 0-1 delivery with pinch hitter Elliot Johnson at the plate. The throw from Derek Norris, subbed into the game as a pinch hitter in the fifth before taking over for starter John Jaso defensively, beat Aviles to the bag.

It appeared that the swipe tag from Nick Punto was on the mark. After some argument from Aviles, Francona emerged from the first base dugout to argue the call. Replay clearly revealed that Punto had missed the tag by a couple of inches, so the umpiring crew overturned the call after video review from headquarters in New York City and awarded Aviles the steal.

Aviles wound up stranded at second as Pomeranz got Johnson swinging on an 80-mph curveball for the second out, then Luke Gregerson came out of the bullpen to get pinch hitter Ryan Raburn to end the inning on a fly to Cespedes to maintain the one-run gap.

The A’s went down in order in the bottom of the 6th, opening the door for the Indians to tie it in the 7th after Brantley’s RBI ground out brought designated hitter Jason Kipnis in from third base. Kipnis drew a one-out walk, stole second with Santana at the plate then advanced to third when the Indians catcher singled later in the at-bat. Gregerson got Cabrera to line out to Fuld in center to strand Santana in scoring position.

Rzepczynski got Fuld, the lefty’s last batter of the day, to pop out to short to open the bottom of the seventh before giving way to right-hander Bryan Shaw. Josh Donaldson, laboring with a .143 batting average on two hits in 14 plate appearances this season, reached base and advanced to second to welcome Shaw when Brantley flubbed a routine fly in center. Brantley had shifted to center after Raburn pinch hit for Morgan and took over left field and narrowly avoided a collision with Raburn on the play. It was his first error in a franchise-record 247 games, with his last miscue coming June 3rd, 2012 against the Minnesota Twins.

Donaldson jogged to third on a wild pitch past backstop Santana, known more for his bat than defensive prowess behind the dish, but three-spot hitter Lowrie grounded out to a drawn-in second baseman prepared to cut an advancing runner down a home plate. The clean-up hitting lefty Moss, who ended the day 4-for-7, got the job done by rolling a ball into the hole at second with the Indians defense shifted to the right of the diamond. The slow roller got by first baseman Swisher but Aviles was able to scoop it and fire to Shaw racing to cover the bag. Shaw couldn’t close his glove on it with Moss bearing down on him, allowing the leading runner Donaldson to cross the plate with Oakland now up 4-3.

Sean Doolittle, a candidate to replace Johnson at closer should the offseason acquisition continue to struggle, pitched a perfect eighth inning. He now has pitched two innings this season, collecting three strikeouts and no hits along the way.

Francona lifted Shaw after 2/3 of an inning and an unearned run in favor of Monday’s winner Allen to open the eight. Allen retired the side in order to keep Cleveland within one run with the beleaguered Johnson loosening in the pen. Johnson took the mound showered by a hail of boos, with Monday night’s two-hit, two-walk, two-run performance fresh in A’s fan’s minds.

“He’s been around long enough,” said Melvin. “He’s had some ups and downs. It’s unfortunate. When you’re with a new team you want to get off to a good start. That’s tough on him, but we have to be behind him, we have to support him. He’s going to get better.”

Again Johnson failed to retire the first two batters he faced, giving up consecutive singles on two-seam fastballs to Raburn and Swisher. Kipnis bounced into a fielder’s choice with Raburn moving to third and Swisher out at second. With Santana at the plate, Kipnis stole second without a throw from Norris. Santana worked a five-pitch walk off Johnson, who also was roughed up in spring training to the tune of five runs in nine spring innings, loading the bases for Brantley.

“A lot of veteran guys don’t have a good spring,” said Melvin. “The velocity’s there, some of the movement’s there, maybe not as consistently as he’d like it. He’s been up in the zone a little bit more than he’d like.”

Brantley hit a first-pitch changeup, a sinking liner to right that bounced in front of Reddick. Reddick couldn’t field it cleanly with Raburn and Kipnis coming home and Brantley winding up on second with a two-RBI single and Cleveland’s first lead in 17+ innings of play Wednesday. Melvin had Johnson, usually an efficient groundball pitcher, set up the force play by issuing an intentional walk to Cabrera. David Murphy foiled the plans, hitting a sacrifice fly to Fuld to bring Santana home. Melvin called on reliever Even Scribner to mop things up in his first appearance of the season. Scribner got Mike Aviles to float one that Fuld gloved easily, limiting the damage to three runs and a blown save for Johnson.

Axford pitched a 12-pitch ninth, overpowering Fuld with a third-strike fastball before coaxing Donaldson and Lowrie to pop out, handing Cleveland a split of the twin bill and a 2-1 series win. Johnson ended up on the losing end, extended a streak of winless appearances against the Indians. Johnson is 0-7 against the Indians in his career. Though Melvin was coy about any shattered confidence he has in his $10 million closer, he did rule Johnson out for game one of a four-game set against visiting Seattle starting Thursday night. The Mariners come to town buoyed by a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels, their best start to a season since the Ken Griffey Jr.-Jay Buhner-Edgar Martinez era.

“You know what, it’s been two games,” said Melvin after being asked if the thought of unseating Johnson at closer had crossed his mind. “Potentially because of the pitches he threw tonight (29 pitches), as far as tomorrow that’s tough. We traded for him for a reason. He has a terrific track record.”

 

Opening Day A House of Horrors Once Again as Athletics Make History For Wrong Reasons

628x471

By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. – San Francisco owns the rights to baseball torture, but over in the East Bay seamheads suffer from a case of downright misery every opening day. While Opening Day arrives on a stream of promise crested by the red, white and blue bunting of the occasion du jour, the wave of excitement came crashing down on the Oakland Athletics (0-1) with the brutal reality of a 2-0 night loss to the visiting Cleveland Indians (1-0) With Monday night’s loss at O.Co Coliseum marking the club’s 10th-straight loss in a season’s first game, the A’s etched themselves forever in dubious MLB history, breaking the record for most consecutive losses in a row on Opening Day.

“You don’t talk about it,” said A’s start Sonny Gray. “You know it’s here, going around.”

Gray dug deep to produce a six-inning, zero-run effort but a ninth inning struggle by new Oakland closer Jim Johnson (0-1) yielded two Tribe runs to be saddled with the loss. Indians closer Jon Axford, called upon by the Brewers last season for ninth-inning duties, likewise sputtered in the ninth but kept the home team from crossing the plate to pick up his first save of the season.

Justin Masterson, a 2013 All-Star for the Indians, pitched an effective seven inning surrendering only three hits and a lone walk while striking out four. He departed the game with a no decision. Tribe reliever Cody Allen (1-0) was tabbed the winning pitcher after producing the final two outs of the eighth inning with the bases loaded.

Gray, who received opener honors for the reigning two-time American League West champions after injuries to rotation mates Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin forced the A’s to scramble for back-up plans, performed like a true ace despite entering play with only one season and 64 innings of major league service time.

In the first of what will be many Opening Day nods for the 24-year-old, Gray struggled with command early, walking the first two batter he faced before striking out Jason Kipnis and inducing ground balls from Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley in a 29-pitch inning. Despite lacking a feel for his pitches and precision control, Gray performed like a savvy veteran, getting the outs when needed. In total, Gray stranded seven Tribe base runners while racking up seven K’s, five hits and three walks on 105 pitches on a night when the threat of a postponement due to rain loomed.

“You always want to prepare as if you’re going to play,” said Gray. “We felt coming in that the rain was going to be clearing up. There was a little bit in the afternoon, but that was it.”

Gray didn’t just excel with the arm on the soggy Monday night, he also did it with the glove on multiple occasions. After Santana opened the top of the fourth with a walk, Brantley advanced him to third on a double to right. With a pair of runners in scoring position and no outs, Gray got Indians designated hitter Ryan Raburn out on strikes before fielding a grounder up the middle off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera. Gray caught Santana stranded between third and home plate and slung the ball to A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson for the fielder’s choice. He then induced a David Murphy ground out to wriggle out of trouble.

“He was a little off-kilter early,” said manager Bob Melvin. “He worked his way through it though. With the number of pitches he had in the first inning, we didn’t think he would go six innings. He recovered well and he fought.”

Two innings later, Gray’s fielding prowess would be tested again. After getting Santana to fly out to first baseman Daric Barton in foul territory, a double by Brantley and a bloop single by Raburn put runners on the corners with only one gone in the inning. Cabrera once again smoked a ball up the middle that Gray took off his trailing leg then barehanded and fired home in time for Jaso to make the tag on Brantley.

“That was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen,” said Johnson. “I’ve never seen anybody wiggle like that out of trouble.”

Two occurrences that wouldn’t have been possibilities last season occurred on the play. With a new rule banning collisions at home plate on bang-bang plays being instated this season, Cleveland bench boss Terry Francona came out to argue that Jaso had not granted Brantley a clear path to home plate. He attempted to use his coach’s challenge, another new rule implemented this season, to send the play to video review at the MLB war room in New York City. After crew chief Mike Winters conferred with his umpiring crew and the review booth, the ruling was confirmed. Francona, however, was not charged with use of a challenge as the play itself could not be reviewed.

“You can’t challenge the play, you can only challenge if he’s out or safe,” explained Melvin. “As far as blocking the plate, you have to just ask for them to get together and review it. That’s what they did, so (Francona) wasn’t charged with a challenge. There’s still a lot of plays where we’re trying to figure out if we can challenge them.”

The A’s received two innings of lights-out relief in the seventh and eighth innings from new addition Luke Gregerson and last year’s relief corps stalwart Sean Doolittle, giving Oakland a chance to break the shutout in the bottom of the eighth and stand three outs away from reversing the trend of Opening Day defeats.

Masterson was lifted for lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who surrendered a single to Barton before coaxing pinch-hitter Nick Punto to pop out to right on a first-pitch hack for the first out of the inning. Francona went to the pen to match righty Cody Allen with the switch-hitting leadoff man Coco Crisp and righty Donaldson. Allen lost Crisp on a full-count pitch to walk the center fielder and move Barton into scoring position.

Donaldson, who finished fourth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting last season, crushed a 2-2 offering from Allen to deep center, caroming off the very top of the padding above the 400-foot marker. Barton, however, delayed to tag up on second base in case the ball was caught, and failed to score, holding up at third base. Shortstop Jed Lowrie struck out and Brandon Moss grounded out leave the bases loaded. In total, the A’s stranded nine baserunners.

Johnson took the mound in the ninth looking to preserve the shutout. The righty, replacement for fireballing Grant Balfour, came over in the offseason along with a $10 million contract from Baltimore for second baseman Jemile Weeks to take over ninth-inning duties for the former All-Star. Johnson, unlike Balfour, pitches less for the strikeout and more to induce contact, something he excelled at in leading the majors in saves in each of the last two seasons.

“He’s the type of guy who is always one pitch away from a double play ball,” said Melvin of Johnson. “It’s just didn’t happen for him today.”

Monday would not be as fortuitous for Johnson, who walked Cabrera to open the ninth, then hung a pitch at the waist to Murphy who singled the mistake into right. Johnson then pushed catcher Yan Gomes to a 2-2 count but plunked the backstop on a pitch inside to load the bases.

Nyjer Morgan, who made the Indians after an injury forced starting center fielder Michael Bourn to the disabled list, plated Cabrera on a lofting sacrifice fly to Coco Crisp to make it 1-0. Former Athletic Nick Swisher, greeted with a cacophony of jeers to start every at-bat, singled sharply to center to push across the second and final Indian run and chase Johnson amid a chorus of boos in favor of Fernando Abad. Abad k’d Kipnis swinging then got Santana to bounce one that Donaldson fielded to end.

“I would have booed me too,” said Johnson after the game. “I deserved it. Hopefully they’ll be cheering for me next time.”

The A’s opened the ninth with a John Jaso walk sandwiched between a Yoenis Cespedes flyout and Josh Reddick strikeout. In total, the A’s 3-through-7 hitter went a combined 0-for-19 with one walk and one hit both courtesy of Jaso. Jaso advanced to second on a wild pitch from Axford with Barton, who ultimately drew a walk, batting. Nick Punto struck out swinging to end the game and mar the A’s chances at a perfect 162-0 season.

Tuesday brings a chance at redemption with free-agent signee Scott Kazmir taking the bump for the green and gold. The southpaw will be opposed by Indians hurler Corey Kluber.