Huge Third Inning Lifts A’s to Sweep of Rangers

By Matthew Harrington

The Oakland Athletics (18-10) rode a huge seven-run third inning to exact revenge on the hosting Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park, sweeping their American League West foes one week after suffering the same fate at the hands of the enemy from the Lone Star State. With the series win, including a 12-1 game three blowout over the 2010 and 2011 World Series Runner-ups, the A’s now sit three games ahead of the Rangers (15-13) for first in the division, with the green and gold owning the best record in the AL.

Jesse Chaves (2-0, 1.89 ERA) pitched seven innings of one-hit baseball, surrendering no runs on eight strikeouts and a lone walk. Oakland tagged Rangers starter Robbie Ross Jr. (1-2, 3.86) for 10 runs, six earned, over 3 1/3 innings. The Athletics also knocked Rangers relievers Alexi Ogando and Shawn Tolleson for a run apiece.

Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Eric Sogard had RBI base hits in a seven-run third inning. Alberto Callaspo and Nick Punto also knocked in runs on outs in the frame. Derek Norris hit a run-scoring single in the fourth, as did Sogard to make it a 10-0 A’s lead. Callaspo plated Donaldson on a fifth-inning single off Ogando and Crisp launched a solo home run, his third of the season, to right center with two outs in the sixth to complete the A’s 12-run day.

Josh Wilson connected on an RBI double off reliever Luke Gregerson in the bottom of the eighth inning to give the Rangers their lone score in the series finale. Jim Johnson gave up one hit in the ninth to finish off the A’s sweep of their divisional rival.

The A’s continue their road trip in first place, traveling to Boston to face the reigning World Series Champion Red Sox for a three-game set. The A’s will send Dan Straily to the mound to open the series after an off-day Thursday. The Red Sox rotation is yet to be set with a double-header against the Tampa Bay Rays on the books after a rainout Wednesday night.

 

Behind Bats of Moss, Cespedes, Athletics Spoil Twins Home Opener

By Matthew Harrington

For the Oakland Athletics, Monday afternoon’s 8-3 pasting of the Minnesota Twins offered a reversal of fates for the green and gold. After setting an MLB record for first-day futility with their tenth-straight Opening Day loss last Monday, the A’s (4-3) played spoiler to the Twin City faithful excited to take in their home team for the first time in 2014.

Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss knocked in a pair of runs each, Derek Norris connected on his first homer of the season and Scott Kazmir (2-0, 2.03 ERA) fired six innings of three-run ball to pick up his second win on the season.

The A’s opened the scoring in the top of the second after Moss walked to lead off then scored on a Cespedes double to left field. Alberto Callaspo, getting the start at designated hitter Monday, singled softly to right to advance Cespedes to third. Right fielder Josh Reddick plated Cespedes on a base hit, his first RBI of the season.

Minnesota (3-4) cut the lead by one in the bottom half of the inning off Kazmir when former Oakland backstop Kurt Suzuki singled sharply to left with one out. Center fielder Aaron Hicks doubled to his counterpart to push Suzuki across the plate.

After losing track of the count on a 2-2 pitch with one down in the top of the third, A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie tried taking a base-on-balls one pitch too early. After already removing his equipment to jog to first, Lowrie was informed of his mistake and returned to the plate for the full-count delivery. Lowrie launched the 3-2 Correia change up down the right field line for what appeared to be a homerun to the naked eye. The ruling on the field, upheld after a lengthy video review, confirmed the ball had gone just foul. After being denied the long ball, Lowrie settled for a walk on the next pitch.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson, flip-flopping with Lowrie in the batting order to bat third for the first time this season, doubled on a fly ball to right to put runners at second and third. Moss followed him up by wrapping a one-out single for a 4-1 A’s advantage. After Yoenis Cespedes popped out to Aaron Hicks, Callaspo doubled in Moss to cap the three-run inning.

Minnesota completed its scoring for the day in the bottom half of the inning. After Trevor Plouffe singled to open the frame then league RBI leader Chris Colabello took a four-pitch walk. Kazmir induced a line-drive out off the bat of Josmil Pinto, advancing Plouffe to third on the play. Jason Kubel ripped a run-scoring double to right field, then Suzuki bounced into an RBI groundout to plate Colabello cutting Oakland’s edge to 5-3 after three innings.

With two down in the sixth Norris launched the first pitch he saw from Correia to deep center field for his first home run of the season, a solo blast that chased the Twins starter and put the A’s ahead 6-1.

Despite entering the season with the expectation that Norris would sit against right-handed pitching in favor of the left-handed hitting John Jaso, Norris now has hits in 5-of-9 at-bats against righties this season. He also handled same-handed pitchers with ease in Spring Training to a .354 batting average.

The A’s added a pair in the seventh inning after Twins reliever Samuel Deduno balked home Nick Punto from third with an out before Cespedes’ sacrifice fly brought Josh Donaldson around from third. Despite the blip, Deduno pitched well in relief of Correia (0-1, 6.17 ERA). After the Twins started got knocked out of the game on Norris’ homer, Deduno pitched the final 3 1/3 innings allowing two earned runs.

A’s lefty Scott Kazmir followed up his no-run debut by rattling off six innings of six-hit baseball. He allowed three runs, all earned, and struck out five batters while yielding four walks. Fernando Abad and Dan Otero pitched scoreless innings apiece before Ryan Cook sealed the win by shutting the Twins down in the ninth.

Cook missed the A’s first six games with a strained shoulder forcing him to the disabled list for the season’s first week. Though he didn’t allow a run Monday, Cook opened his 2014 campaign with a somewhat shaky start. He got shortstop Pedro Florimon to strike out on a pitch in the dirt, then issued back-to-back walks to Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer. After a visit from pitching coach Curt Young, Cook retired Plouffe on a popout then finished Colabello off with a punch-out to seal the win.

The A’s will take their first scheduled off-day Tuesday although they have already had two games postponed due to weather-related circumstances. On Wednesday, Jesse Chavez will look to build on his six-inning, one-run performance that yielded a no decision Thursday evening. The A’s ultimately walked off in the 12th inning on Coco Crisp’s first-ever walk-off home run. Chavez will be countered by righty Phil Hughes. The White Sox roughed Hughes up in his first start of 2014, scoring four runs including a pair of long balls over five innings.

 

Crowded Outfield Means Catalyst Fuld May Be Odd Man Out In Oakland

By Matthew Harrington

When the Oakland Athletics dealt power-hitting prospect Michael Choice to the Texas Rangers for Josh Lindblom and outfielder Craig Gentry, the idea was that Gentry would serve as the team’s fourth outfielder. Gentry brought all the requisite skills; the ability to play all three positions, a proven track record performing in the role and faith in management that the role was his to lose. Now, with Gentry ready to return from the disabled list potentially as soon as Saturday fresh, the A’s have a tough decision on their hands. What do they do with their bench when everyone is healthy?

The platoon in place at catcher means both backstops are safe, not that John Jaso or Derek Norris would have been a victim of a crowded bench in the first place thanks to their offensive profiles. Nick Punto brings the intangibles, representing the type of glue guy franchises need in the club house if they hope to survive the 162-game grind with morale intact. Alberto Callaspo, who made his debut at first base in Tuesday’s afternoon half of the doubleheader, now boasts experience at every position on the diamond except catcher, pitcher and center field. The switch hitter stands firmly entrenched as the right-handed bat in a right-left platoon with Daric Barton at first. That leaves fourth outfielder Sam Fuld as the odd man out.

Fuld came to Spring Training a minor league free-agent competing for a position on the Major League roster that he was far from first in line for. The A’s gave prospect Billy Burns, possessor of plus-speed and the eye at the plate Billy Beane adores, an extensive look with 72 spring at-bats over 26 games. The speedster did not disappoint, pilfering 10 bases to pace the green and gold in Arizona while producing a .370 on-base percentage. Gentry, of course, was acquired to be the man off the bench to patrol the grass at O.Co Coliseum and every sign still points at him filling the role. His spot on the roster were only slightly derailed by a lower back strain. There was also always the option that Beane and co. would stick with no true fourth outfielder, electing to have Callaspo or first baseman/designated hitter Brandon Moss, who broke into the majors as an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, spelling Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes when one of the triumvirate needs a breather.

Instead, the A’s saw something in Fuld, who hit a respectable .271 (abeit, less impressive than Burns .306 mark) with a .348 OBP in 59 preseason at-bats. The veteran outfielder, a product of Stanford University, led Oakland with four triples in the valley of the Sun. His March performance landed the 32-year -old a roster spot on Opening Day for just the third time in his seven seasons at the Major League level, not counting the 2008 season when he didn’t play above the AAA level. He’s certainly the one slated to head to the Sacramento Rivercats, if not elsewhere in the bigs, but he’s done nothing but excite in his time in Alameda County. If he hasn’t won a permanent spot in Oakland, he’s certainly shown value to the 29 other general managers in the league.

The compact left-hander, in hitting and throwing alike, has sparked the A’s offense in the leadoff spot when the coaching staff grants Coco Crisp a day of rest, something they plan on doing often this season for late-season preservation. Fuld currently sits behind only Callaspo, buoyed by the lone A’s home run of the season, in slugging percentage and OPS. Fuld is tied for second on the team in RBI’s with two, though five other Athletics have a pair as well. Fuld was denied another Thursday night when attempting to stretch an RBI triple into an inside-the-park homer proved ill-advised.
The 5-foot-10 journeyman with a career .235 batting average and only two seasons of 100-plus games-played may not be in the plans full-time for Oakland, but as long as he can produce like he is Fuld deserves a roster spot.

Every time number 29 steps to the plate or has a ball hit his way elicits an excitement that something electric is happening. He’s the one-man rally, the highlight reel grab, the game-changer in every sense of the word. It’s no wonder that he’s gained a cult-level status in his stops in Chicago and Tampa Bay. Rays fans watched the phenomena that was Fuld, dubbing the outfielder’s blossoming the so-called “Legend of Sam Fuld”. He soon saw his status elevated to tall-tale heights, with Chuck Norris jokes being altered to feature Fuld as the larger-than-life protagonist in Norris’ stead.

The Oakland A’s are now 2-0 when Bob Melvin pencils Fuld into the starting line-up. Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps a season of Fuld can lift the Athletics over the playoff hump and bring the East Bay its first World Series title since 1989. Fuld’s future in the clubhouse at 7000 Coliseum way remains uncertain, but one thing is. A’s supporters would gladly watch Fuld’s legacy expand over this season over the likes of Punto or Gentry if it involves bringing the A’s more wins and some hardware in October.

Crisp’s First Walk Off Homer In the 12th Beats Mariners 3-2

Oakland Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp is congratulated after hitting a walk off home run during the twelfth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Thursday, April 3, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
Oakland Athletics center fielder Coco Crisp is congratulated after hitting a walk off home run during the twelfth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Thursday, April 3, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)

By Kahlil Najar

OAKLAND – Coco Crisp hit his first walk off home run of his career in the bottom of the 12th inning to give the A’s (2-2) a 3-2 win over the previously undefeated Seattle Mariners (3-1).

“I was just going up there to swing as hard as I could. Probably nine times out of 10, I ended up with a strikeout with that approach. Tonight was that one time that it ended up working out. I’m not going to have that as my everyday approach but I’m just grateful that it worked out tonight,” said Crisp on his game winner. Head Coach Bob Melvin said, “That was his intent, and that’s tough to do. Going up there trying to hit a home run especially when you’re a leadoff-type guy.” Then when asked about Coco’s power and if many teams take his power for granted Melvin said, “Some teams do. But we don’t.”

Jesse Chavez took the mound for the A’s tonight for his first official game of the year after leading the majors in wins in Spring Training and he performed well. Chavez scattered five hits over six innings and struck out four Seattle batters and only walked two.

The start of the game didn’t look like it was going the A’s way as Alberto Callaspo; who was starting at first for the first time in his career, let a grounder from Almonte go through his legs and the ball ended up in short right field. Nick Punto who was playing second tonight went to back up the ball but after he picked it up, he threw the ball wide to Callaspo who had hustled back to first and gave the A’s their second error on the very first batter of the game and landed Almonte at second.

The Mariners capitalized on this error when after a Brad Miller fly out moved Almonte to third, Robinson Cano hit a hard grounder to A’s second basemanb Nick Punto who tossed him out at first but allowed Almonte to score and gave the Mariners a 1-0 lead. Seattle scored again the top of the fifth when Almonte hit a single into center field that scored Logan Morrison who had singled earlier in the inning and gave the Mariners a two run lead.

The A’s had been held hit-less into the bottom of the fifth until Punto smacked a sharp single to left field. With the momentum switching, Punto stole his first base of the year and landed at second with new fan favorite Sam Flud up to bat.

Fuld didn’t disappoint as he hit a line drive into center field that Almonte dived for but missed and allowed Punto to score from second. The ball traveled so far on the ground that it looked like Fuld would have his first career inside-the-park home run but with some great fielding by the Mariners they were able to pick him off at home and only give the A’s one run. Umpire Crew chief Fieldin Culbreth called for a replay review of the play at the plate to see if  Zunino was in violation of the collision rule and gave Fuld a lane to get to home plate. The review proved that Zunino wasn’t in the way and confirmed the out and end the inning.

The A’s waited until the bottom of the Eigth to tie the game at two when Yoenis Cespedes hit his first triple of the year and scored Coco Crisp who had walked at the beginning of the inning.

After the issue with Jim Johnson and the longevity of the games over the past two days, Melvin brought in Sean Doolittle for the ninth and tenth inning and he only gave up one hit on 20 pitches and kept the game tight.

In the bottom of the twelfth Coco Crisp hit his first homer of the year and his first walk off homer ever into right field off of newly entered Seattle pitcher Hector Noesi.

New guys Sam Flud and Nick Punto impressed the crowd and Melvin tonight with their tremendous play.

“They both run the bases well and in the field. They were key to the win today and usually you need vets to come off the bench but these guys performed well,” said Melvin.

In addition to his almost inside-the-park homer, Flud had an amazing diving catch to end an inning and Punto had a head-first slide into first to load the bases.

The A’s and Mariners head back at it tomorrow night when Oakland’s Dan Straily takes on the Mariners Chris Young, game time 7:05 pm PST.

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.