By Jason Wojciechowski on April 2, 2011 at 12:50 AM
A 6-2 loss to the likely awful Mariners was not the way I hoped the A's would open the season. On the other hand, being realistic, it's probably about the way you might expect them to open, facing Felix Hernandez, who's always in the conversation for Best Pitcher In The League honors.
It's not so much the lack of hitting that bothered me, though, because Felix pitched, for the most part, like a beast. What bothered me were the five errors, all but one of them unquestionably terrible plays. (The one was a hot shot at Kevin Kouzmanoff off of Ichiro's bat in the top of the fourth. It was an error under the standards as I understand them, but it wasn't an easy play flat-out botched the way the other four were.)
This isn't a team I'm going to worry about with errors long-term, though, so it was just a frustrating night, not something that brings me down as a matter of the A's prospects of contention.
As to the A's prospects of contention, I thought the most significant item was Trevor Cahill's eight whiffs in 4 2/3 innings. He paired it with four walks and the Mariners hit 19 foul balls off him, though, which combined to drive up his pitch count to the point where Bob Geren couldn't let him go longer despite holding a 2-1 lead. Cahill's defense-independent numbers (FIP, xFIP, etc.) haven't measured up to his ERA so far in his career, in no small part due to a low whiff rate. He gets a lot of ground balls, but his BABIP has been shockingly low, even lower than you'd expect given the A's stellar infield defense. If he can turn back into the strikeout pitcher he was in the minors will continuing his ground-ball ways, he'll continue to get excellent results even if it turns out he's not some weird weak-contact-inducing freak.
The bullpen, and Bob Geren's choices therein, were frustrating, however. With the game still in reach, Geren called on Blevins, Breslow, and Ziegler -- Balfour never budged from the bench. Those three aren't bad pitchers, but with the game as tight as it was, and with Felix on the mound for the Mariners, I'd have made it a priority to keep the Mariners off the scoreboard whether it was the fifth inning or the eighth, and whether the A's were winning or losing.
More importantly, though, while Jerry Blevins did fine, notching a walk, strikeout, and sac bunt in three batters, Craig Breslow, who was called on with the explicit command to retire Ichiro, gave up an RBI single to the great Mariner, and followed that by granting the least likely homer you'll see all year: Chone Figgins ripping one deep onto the concrete steps in left field. The pitch to Ichiro was a fastball up, way too hittable; and the fastball to Figgins was grooved. In the next frame, Breslow continued the futility, walking Jack Cust (not that that's so surprising -- Cust do what he do) and giving up a double to the left-center gap that was absolutely stroked by Justin Smoak (who, I want to note, swings very very hard).
Brad Ziegler couldn't stop the bleeding, not helped by errors by Barton and himself, nor by a throw home that was off-line enough by Cliff Pennington that Kurt Suzuki was unable to put a tag on Miguel Olivo.
It remains to be seen what the Olivo play at the plate will cost the A's, as Kurt Suzuki, whose ankle was turned by the large man bearing down on him in the play, stayed in the game initially before giving way to Landon Powell in the top of the eighth. Perhaps it was just precautionary, or perhaps Suzuki will actually have to miss time. As I mentioned in part one of the season preview, this is not likely to have a devastating impact on the offense. Powell and Josh Donaldson can handle the stick well enough for the A's purposes. The question will be the defense and the pitching staff, which raise questions we don't know nearly enough about (beyond the basic fact that Catcher ERA is worthless).
A few loose thoughts:
- Did you see what Bob Geren did with Jerry Blevins and Craig Breslow? Blevins relieved Cahill, faced three batters across two different frames, and then gave way to Breslow when Ichiro stepped to the plate. Since Ichiro and Breslow are both lefties, this wouldn't be notable if not for the fact that Blevins is also a lefty. This gives me hope that Bob Geren is going to play actual matchups with his bullpen this season, as opposed to the typical "lefty? Lefty!" nonsense that goes on in most major league dugouts.
- Ryan Sweeney pinch-hitting for Cliff Pennington was a little weird -- is Sweeney so much better a hitter than Pennington (who hits from both sides, recall) that you'll take both the pinch-hitter penalty and the defensive hit of Andy LaRoche playing shortstop?
- On the other hand, now we know who the backup shortstop is. I still like my idea to push Mark Ellis back over to his college position and put the defensively weaker LaRoche at second, but I guess Geren's only willing to go so far out of the box.
- Jack Cust: three walks, including one for an RBI. Twenty-eight pitches seen, second only to Ryan Langerhans's absurd 31. He's still got it!
- Langerhans's 31 pitches seen is even more ridiculous since he struck out four times in five trips to the plate.
- Did we really need to get crowd shots of random Asian fans while the MLB International guy visited Papa and Ray in the booth to talk about relief efforts in Japan?
- Trivia question: most Opening Day starts in Oakland history. Me: Catfish. Real answer: Dave Stewart. I swear that was my second guess.
- Nobody throws the baseball at the first base position like Daric Barton. His throw on the Ichiro pickoff play was perfect, and necessarily so. Ichiro ran exactly where he needed to, toward the inside of the diamond, but Barton got the throw around him anyway. Remember, A's fans, how much justifiable anxiety we would feel whenever Jason Giambi had to make that play?
- Brad Ziegler far too frequently has no idea where the baseball is going to go.
- Kevin Kouzmanoff pretty much embodied all things Kouzmanoff in this game, with awkward defense, horrible swings at pitches low and outside, and a rally-killing double play in the eighth inning.
Hitter of the Game: Josh Willingham, of course, for his first-inning homer off Felix Hernandez.
Pitcher of the Game: Mike Wuertz, for a perfect inning with two strikeouts on eleven pitches. Too bad the game was over.
Defender of the Game: Mark Ellis, for being the only infielder without an error, and for starting two double plays, though both were on plays that all competent major league second basemen would make.