By Morris Phillips
Major League Baseball has quite a bit of anonymity running through it these days, so here goes in recapping the Angels and A’s on Sunday:
The biggest name came up a little bit short, the most transcendent name didn’t last long, and the newest name went the furthest in the A’s 6-4 win at the Coliseum.
The A’s took full advantage of Shohei Ohtani’s unraveled return to the mound, striking for five runs out the gate before the two-way star was removed without recording an out. But the A’s were stymied by starter-turned-reliever Matt Andriese (5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief) and superstar Mike Trout (4 RBI) which turned a rout into a tense game in the fifth.
We pause at this point to examine how Ohtani’s 11th major league start–and his first since Tommy John surgery in 2018–became his worst, and how Trout came tantalizing close to rescuing his teammate with a second, three-run homer in the game’s first five innings.
Ohtani, the singular big league talent who combines a home run swing with a nasty, mid 90’s fastball-slider combo wiped out the A’s in his second big league start, a 12-strikeout masterpiece littered with unhittable sliders in April 2018 at the Coliseum. Despite being used conservatively by the Angels, as an occasional DH and having a no less than a full week between starts, Ohtani experienced arm discomfort that truncated his rookie season as a pitcher. He kept hitting that season before having the surgery in the off-season, then missing all of 2019 as a pitcher, while continuing his designated hitter duties.
Ohtani’s summer camp procceded naturally–and trouble free–a ramp up of velocity and length over three appearances. He appeared ready to pitch effectively on Sunday, his first start for new manager Joe Maddon.
Marcus Semien, with just one hit in his first eight at-bats, took Ohtani back up the middle for a leadoff single. The next three batters all walked as Ohtani took deep breaths on the mound and looked less than comfortable. Singles by Mark Canha and Robbie Grossman increased the A’s lead to 4-0, and forced Maddon’s hand after the Japanese star faced just six batters.
“He just didn’t throw the ball very well,” Maddon said. “I can’t sit here making excuses for him. I’m not going to do that. It just wasn’t his day. The fastball wasn’t coming out, there was no deception in his pitches.”
Tellingly, Ohtani hit 94 mph as high–slightly off the 96 mph he regularly hit in 2018–and threw just two sliders. No doubt, healthy, but tentative, not surprising given his injury and infrequent pitching assignments going back over three years now.
“Right now I feel like I was throwing the ball rather than pitching,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “There is still a little rust. I have to come up with a game plan.”
Trout came up in an advantageous situation in the third with a pair of runners aboard and gifted a 3-0 count by Fiers. Not through granting gifts, Fiers looked to get back in the count with a batting practice fastball that Trout launched. Not surprising, but the bomb was the first of Trout’s 286 career homers to come on a 3-0 count. In fact, only five times in 210 situations had Trout resolved an at-bat on a 3-0 pitch with a swing, and that produced just one single. Needless to say, Fiers had little to fear, except…
When Brian Goodwin and David Fletcher opened the fifth, as they did in the third, with back-to-back singles, Fiers got a relatively early hook as well. But Yusmeiro Petit back the starter with three consecutive outs, including a sacrifice fly that reached the warning track induced off Trout’s bat. That smash would have given the Angels the lead, instead it made Petit the game’s subtle hero.
Four other A’s relievers followed, concluding with Liam Hendriks’ four-out save, and none allowed a run. The heroes in Oakland’s 2-1 start to the season? The bullpen with one run allowed in 15 plus innings of work.
“They’ve been fantastic,” Bob Melvin noted. “We knew the bullpen would be very important in the beginning of the year. They’ve been up to the task.”
Sean Murphy, the first A’s catcher to truly be handed the keys to the car by Melvin since Stephen Vogt departed, finished the Halos with a 455-foot home run in the sixth. First pitch swinging against reliever Noe Ramirez, Murphy was everything Trout wasn’t with his controlled, home run swing in the third: violent and powerful.
“He’s about as strong as anybody and can hit the ball as far as anyone on our team. All it takes for a guy like him is one pitch,” Melvin said of his young catcher.
The A’s conclude the wraparound, four-game series on Monday with Griffin Canning facing familiar face, Chris Bassitt for the A’s.