Inside Pitch: A’s take series over world champs

A lineup change, bullpen by committee and a pair of strong starts were just enough for a first series win at home.

Through their first seven home games, the Oakland Athletics experienced little success. But a series victory over the reigning champion Kansas City Royals is just the sort of performance that can trigger home momentum.

In a tightly contested three-game weekend series — featuring a total differential of a single run — some minor adjustments made by manager Bob Melvin brought just enough offense.

The willingness, and ability, of the bullpen to adjust for different roles made the slim leads hold. And a Sunday come-from-behind victory capped off the celebration Jed Lowrie’s 32nd birthday and 48 years of baseball at the Oakland Coliseum.

Fastball (Team strength): Timely hitting

After scoring just 18 runs through their first eight games in Oakland (2.25 per game), the A’s pushed across a home high, backing ace Sonny Gray for Saturday’s 5-3 win. Even with what amounted to an outburst, Gray’s offense was credited with only five at-bats with runners in scoring position, and collected only one hit.

That one hit, however, was a Josh Reddick three-runner home run in the first inning — Reddick now has the A’s only two (out of 11) homers with a runner on base.

Reddick said, of the at-bat, that he didn’t want to waste a rare opportunity with runners in scoring position:

“I wasn’t trying to do too much, just trying to get at least one run in. There was a lot of guys on base, and I was trying to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Marcus Semien, who started a game outside of the nine-spot in the lineup for the first time in the early season, lifted a sacrifice fly for an RBI in a similar situation.

Reddick added a sacrifice fly of his own for what proved to be the winning run in the ninth inning of Sunday’s 3-2 victory. An inning before the go-ahead run crossed the plate, the team’s fourth hit of the day — a pinch-hit single from birthday boy Lowire — plated the tying run.

Change-up (Top individual performer): Stephen Vogt

The All-Star catcher entered the series batting .207 , and unable to get anything going.

After an off day on Thursday, though, Vogt put up three hits including a home run in Friday’s 4-2 loss.

Two more hits, including another homer, on Saturday, along with a walk on Sunday, helped him raise his average an impressive 75 points over the weekend. He packed for a 10-game road trip hitting a qualified team-high .282.

Following the game-one loss, Vogt said:

“(Hitting coach) Darren Bush has talked to me about slowing down at the plate, and seeing the ball a little better. So, hopefully, I can continue to do that.”

Curveball (Surprise of the series): Melvin making changes

After seeing his offense and closer struggle for a seventh loss in eight tries at home, Melvin made some changes on Saturday.

Moving Semien from the ninth in the order to the two-hole, slid one of his hot bats into a pivotal position in the offense. Semien rewarded the skipper’s faith with a first-inning walk in front of Reddick’s jack, and sac fly producing a needed security run.

In the same game, Melvin also went to a two-catcher lineup with Josh Phegley behind the plate and Vogt taking on the designated hitter duties for struggling Billy Butler (.150 AVG). The duo combined for four hits, including Vogt’s bomb.

Melvin also went away from closer Sean Doolittle, who gave up his third home run of the season on Friday, using veteran Ryan Madson in save opportunities on both Saturday and Sunday.

Sinker (Team weakness): Team defense

Committing four errors — two from Lowrie and two from third baseman Danny Valencia — led to two unearned runs (out of 11 scored) over the series.

It also caused elevated pitch counts from starters Sonny Gray (Saturday)  and Chris Bassitt (Sunday), both of whom would have been able to work deeper had their defense aided in doing so.

Perhaps worse than the errors, though, was trio of mental blunders from Saturday catcher Phegley.

In the very first inning, Phegley allowed Alcides Escobar to steal second without a throw, as he was focused on framing the pitch. Escobar was brought home soon after by a Lorenzo Cain ground-ball single in front of a pair of strike outs.

The back-up backstop was also unable to bring in a pair pitches, allowing them to rattle free for passed balls. Both advanced runners, one of those runners — Omar Infante with two out in the fourth — was brought home.

Slider (Poor performing individual): Billy Butler

The third-highest paid player on the roster, Butler was signed as a free agent prior to the 2015 season in search of power and run production.

Not only has he been at a complete absence of home run power thus far in 2016, he has yet to produce an RBI or cross the plate himself. In 20 at-bats, the former Royal has as many double-play grounders (3) as he has hits, and even more strike outs (4).

Getting into just one game (Sunday) against his former mates, Butler got two at-bats — grounding into a double play and striking out — before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the eighth.

For a team with a payroll among the lowest in the league, the A’s cannot afford to pay a designated hitter nearly $7 million to play in only one in every three games, only to be removed for a pinch-hitter with the game on the line.


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.