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.