An absolute weakness of a year ago, the Oakland Athletics’ much-improved bullpen was on full display Monday night.
Mere hours before the onset of Oakland’s Opening Day festivities, ace Sonny Gray was scratched from the start with food poisoning. In his place, veteran lefty Rich Hill was handed the ball as the A’s opened their 2016 season with a 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
Hill struggled from the very first pitch, which hit White Sox leadoff man Adam Eaton. He later hit Jose Abreu as well, but a pick-off of Eaton, fly out and strikeout later, Hill escaped unscathed. The starter was not so lucky in the third, as his missed locations found White Sox bats rather than flesh, though a pair of errors were of no help.
Hanging four runs (two earned) on Hill in the frame, the Sox knocked out the starter after just 2-2/3 innings of work. The bullpen, however, went a stellar 6-1/3 scoreless.
Though Ryan Dull posted the best performance of the bunch — 2 innings with one strikeout — the entire group of Fernando Rodriguez (1-1/3 innings, one hit and one strikeout), John Axford (1 inning, two hits), Ryan Madson (1 inning) and Sean Doolittle (1 inning, one hit, one strikeout) were each equally impressive.
After the game, A’s manager Bob Melvin discussed the excellent outings of his four relievers:
“The bullpen came in and did a great job. Everybody. They were terrific. Against a guy like (Chris) Sale, if you have an inning like that off of him and you get close, you know you’re going to have to be pretty close to perfect especially with Robertson at the end. And they were.”
The bullpen gave the offense every chance to find its way, but the A’s bats were held silent after a three-run outburst in the bottom of the third. Much of that had to do with Chicago ace Sale, who found his groove after the third, going seven innings and allowing three runs. He also struck out seven.
Leading the way offensively for the South Siders was center fielder Eaton, who contributed two hits — a single and a triple — while knocking in the game’s first run as well as scoring one.
After allowing four runs in the top third — aided by errors from Hill and first baseman Mark Canha — the offense lumped four hits and a walk into the bottom half, getting to within a single tally. Sale ended the threat, though, getting Khris Davis to waive at a 2-2 change-up with the tying run at third and go-ahead run at first.
Following the game, All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt talked about his team coming up one hit short:
“(The bullpen) gave us a chance to win and, like we always do, we get the winning run to the plate. We just weren’t able to come through.”
While there was frustration to be had in the A’s seven-hit attack — led by a pair of doubles from Billy Butler and two RBIs from Jed Lowrie — there were none directed at a bullpen that finished last season with the American League’s worst ERA (4.63). Hill, who found out he would be taking the bump “around noon,” took complete responsibility for the loss:
“It was an honor to be able to have the opportunity to have the start on Opening Day. It solely falls on me, the inability to go deeper into the game, for us to not come out on top in that one.”
Melvn’s bunch will have to lick its wounds in preparation for Tuesday’s game knowing that Gray will be unable to take the hill yet again, as Melvin said he would pitch until Wednesday. Instead, it will be Chris Bassitt taking on Jose Quintana in game two of the four-game set.