Inside Pitch: A’s bullpen scuffles in Seattle

The Oakland Athletics appeared poised to take their first five meetings with the Mariners in Seattle.

Instead, they finished their second trip to the Emerald City with a series defeat.

The A’s (20-28) were one out from taking a 2-0 series lead. Instead of closing the game and setting up a sweep, though, closer Ryan Madson served up a two-run walk-off homer. Along with John Axford, who gave up a pair of runs without the benefit of an out an inning prior, the blown-save loss gave way to a shelling at the hands of the division leading M’s (28-18) a day later.

The bullpen coughed up 10 runs (all earned) in the three games, while Kendall Graveman and rookie Zach Neal were bot unable to get through five innings. Lefty veteran Rich Hill was credited with the only win of the short trip, pitching an Oakland season-high eight innings in Monday’s 5-0 victory. The offense was led by lead-off man Coco Crisp, who collected five hits, four RBIs and two runs.

Fastball (Team strength): Top-of-the-order production

Crisp (.250/.305/.429 2016 slash), Billy Burns (.271/.311/.335) and Stephen Vogt (.252/.291/.388), in the top three spots of the Oakland batting order, each gathered at least one hit per game. The trio combined combined to go 12-for-37 (.324), with five runs scored and seven RBIs. Vogt and Crisp each added their fourth home runs of the season — Vogt’s came in a winning effort on Monday.

With an injury to Josh Reddick (.322/.394/.466) manager Bob Melvin has been searching for a reliable No. 3 hitter. Vogt showed in Seattle that he is a viable option to do so.

Having the speedy duo of Crisp and Burns getting on base in front of Vogt, Danny Valencia (.306/.333/.505) and home run and RBI leader Khris Davis (.232/.264/.506) will prove to improve on the American League’s fourth-worst scoring offense.

Changeup (Top performing individual): Hill (7-3, 2.18 ERA)

With his eight-inning outing on Monday, Hill became the first Oakland starter to get an out in the eighth. Not only has the first-year Athletic been the top performer on his staff, he has been among the league’s best starters. With the major league’s seventh-lowest ER, the 36 year-old has posted seven wins (T-4th) and 65 strike outs (18th).

In his eight frames Hill allowed eighth hits, but did not issue a single walk while striking out six.

Curveball (Surprise of the series): Hill’s continued road dominance

As he continues to push toward his first career All-Star Game appearance, Hill has become nearly untouchable away from the confines of the Oakland Coliseum. While he has suffered each of his three losses at home, he has earned all but one of his six wins away from it. Even more eye-opening is his ERA, which is 3.79 at home and 1.40 away. Hill also boasts a 3.83-1 strike out-walk ratio and .190 batting average against on the road (2.11, .236 home)

Hill now finds himself just four wins shy of his single-season career high (11) while cementing himself as the staff ace in the absence of the injured Sonny Gray (3-5, 6.19 ERA).

Sinker (Team weakness): Bullpen falls flat

Through the first month-and-a-half of the season the bullpen has been the A’s greatest strength. In their second trip to Seattle, however, the relief corps allowed 10 runs in 8-2/3 innings.

In Wednesday’s shellacking the ‘pen was not protecting a lead, or even trying to keep the game close by the time they entered in the fifth. But it was Melvin’s go-to guys who stumbled on Tuesday. Right-handed set-up man Axford (3-1, 3.79 ERA) allowed two to cross, turning a 5-2 lead into a one-run game. Madson (2-1, 2.66 ERA) served up a two-run walk-off home run, with two outs in the next inning.

The bullpen group has been forced to eat a an AL-high 165-2/3 innings on the season, which is a likely explanation for their 3.59 ERA in April (No. 5 AL) becoming a 6.31 ERA in May (T-worst AL).

Slider (Poor performing individual): Axford

The veteran right-hander had been incredibly reliable, allowing six runs through his first 17 appearances — four coming in one inning in Boston. In his last two outing, however, he has been saddled with a blown save after allowing a pair of inherited runners to score getting just one out against the Yankees, before giving up two without getting a single out in Seattle.

The former closer could be due for an extended rest. Getting five or so full days off should re-invigorate the “Ax-man” with life and vigor on his pitches.

Pitch out (Up next): Detroit Tigers (23-23) in Oakland

Moving forward, into their series with the Tigers and beyond, the A’s starting pitchers need to find a way to work deeper into games. The bullpen has been reliable, but asking them to get 12-plus outs in every game become too much for the group. Continuing to play error-less defense — as they did in Seattle — will certainly help.

The offense will look to feed off the 26-hit barrage. Though it will need to score more than four runs per every nine hits. Working more walks — currently 109 drawn (T-29 MLB) — will breed a rise in their AL-worst .294 team on-base percentage.


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.