Full assortment: A’s struggle with RISP, drop three to Sox

The Chicago White Sox (59) and Oakland Athletics (54) found themselves in the most and third-most one-run games in the American League respectively a season ago — Tampa Bay Rays (56).

With three more such contests in their four-game season opening series, it was more of the same for both teams. The A’s lost three of the four, two of the one-run games, leaving much to improved upon on.

Finding surprising success in the person of their second baseman, among other facets, there is still much to be inspired by in the series loss.

Fastball (what the team did well)

Relief pitching

Prior to a hiccup in the ninth inning of Thursday’s game four, the bullpen had thrown a combined 14 2/3 innings of relief allowing just one run – albeit a game-winner on Tuesday. After posting the American League’s worst bullpen ERA (4.63) in 2015 the Oakland relief staff has bred a great deal of confidence from manager Bob Melvin:

“It makes everybody feel good (when the relievers produces). We knew it coming in, our from office did a good job in identifying an issue we had last year. Not only did we fortify the bullpen, we brought in some experienced guys.”

Offseason acquisition Liam Hendriks did allow four runs in the ninth inning on Thursday, drawing attention from an otherwise stellar series of relief pitching. Following the game, Melvin said that he was going to finish the inning despite having his less-than-best stuff as he was the only pitcher available in the heavily worked ‘pen.

The A’s staff also tied with the Detroit Tigers for the second-most blown saves (25) in the AL last season (Rays, 27).

What was, statistically, the worst part of the Oakland roster a year ago made itself known as a strength in the first four games of 2016.

Change-up (the team’s top performing individual)

Jed Lowrie

At first glance, Lowrie’s numbers look less than impressive – 3-for-15 (.200), all singles, with one walk (.235 on-base percentage). His hits, though, have come in all the right situations. In five trips to the plate while runners were in scoring position, the second baseman collected all three of his hits. He also lifted a sacrifice fly, giving him a total of five RBI (T-4 in the AL).

His work in the clutch inspired Melvin to move Lowrie to the coveted No. 3 spot in the lineup on Wednesday. The skipper spoke about Lowrie’s success after Tuesday’s 5-4 loss:

“It seems like every hit he’s gotten for us has been with runners in scoring position, a big hit at the time… He can hit, no doubt.”

Removing Lowrie’s .750 batting average with runners in scoring position leaves the A’s with six hits in 35 such at-bats (.171) with four RBIs.

Curveball (A’s most surprising factor of the series)

Illness

The A’s clubhouse was hit with a 24-hour flu bug as the season’s Opening Day arrived.

What was once thought to be food poisoning is now believed to have been the flu that caused ace Sonny Gray to miss his first start of the season. When he finally took the mound, on Wednesday, he wasn’t totally healthy, although he did enough to get the win. After the seven-inning, one-run performance, he said:

“I felt OK. I definitely didn’t have my best stuff tonight, but it was one of those games when you’ve got to go with what is working early.”

Along with Gray, game-four starter Kendall Graveman suffered the flu bug earlier in the week. While he would not say that his health had anything to do with his early exit in a losing effort, he lost command far sooner than he has shown in the past.

The illness took effect early in the series, with Gray’s scratch Rich Hill was pushed to the game-one start on late notice. His early departure – going only 2-2/3 innings – the bullpen was forced to eat more than six innings on the first night of the season. It never fully recovered, forcing Hendriks to finish a game despite limited effectiveness, as he was the only remaining option.

With the Bay Area experiencing a bit of bi-polar weather, the flu should have been expected. It is gone now, likely not to return.

Sinker (greatest team weakness)

Team hitting

The A’s were atrocious hitting with runners in scoring position. Aside from Lowrie’s performance, the A’s offense could muster only four run-scoring hits in those situation.

With no real power threat in the middle of this lineup, Oakland hitters will need to rely on a team effort – moving hitters over, then getting them in. the inability to perform in “money situations” will seriously hamper any postseason aspirations.

All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt is worried, though, saying that the struggles are highly unlikely to continue:

“I think that this team is going to hit. … We’re going to catch our stride here, and once we get rolling this team is going to hit. And I feel real good about that.”

Putting the onus of the offensive production on a guy who is a career .248 hitter in run-scoring situations is not a promising formula. Even with Lowrie’s at-bats included, the A’s hit a mere .237 in those clutch positions. That number must be improved upon.

Slider (player who needs to improve on his performance)

Khris Davis

The left fielder was traded for in mid-February with the hopes that he would shape the offense, bringing a powerful reputation – averaging 30 home runs per 162 games played in his career.

He does tend to strike out a fair bit, though, as his 143 strikeouts per 162 would suggest. He has done exactly that quite a bit in the season’s early goings, piling up seven strikeouts in his first 11 at-bats with the club.

Following Tuesday’s loss, Melvin addressed Davis’ struggles:

“With Khris, sometimes you’re trying to press — do a little bit too much. A guy like him is going to strike out a fair share, but when he catches one it’s going to go a long way.”

It is promising, however, that Davis collected both of his hits in the series over the span of his final six at-bats. Melvin believes that stretch will waken his swing saying, “sometimes you relax a little after that first hit.”

Looking to shore up the problem, while continuing with the formula of solid bullpen work, the green and gold now head to Seattle for a three-game weekend series with the Mariners. They will face A-killer Felix Hernandez – career 22-8 record with a 2.64 ERA – in game three on Sunday.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.