By Jason Wojciechowski on April 6, 2011 at 2:00 AM
Strengths of the team, my ass. Defense and the bullpen, defense and the bullpen. Those are the glamour spots on the A's, such as they are. An already solid relief corps was bolstered in the winter when Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes were made to wait longer than they liked, falling into Oakland's lap, essentially. Defense has been a strength for years, particularly on the infield, and particularly at third base, where if Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jack Hannahan, and Eric Chavez haven't been playing good defense, what exactly have they been for?
Instead, defense and the bullpen have conspired to lose three games for the A's, with Fuentes turning a tied game in the ninth into a three-run deficit, Craig Breslow and the gloves failing in the opener, and now, tonight, Grant Balfour turning a one-run lead in the tenth into a walk-off Yunel Escobar homer1 and a heartbreaking loss. That's, of course, just to mention Balfour and not the three more defensive miscues committed by Kevin Kouzmanoff, one on a botched throw that might have cut down Rajai Davis at the plate, one on a booted grounder on the batter before that, and one on a long throw across the infield that he apparently could not get all the way to Daric Barton. All three of these plays came in the sixth inning, you can give significant credit for two runs to the A's third baseman because of them. Given that the game ended up tied and in extra innings, those two runs were pretty important.
No less important, though more of a disappointment of accretion than a sudden anger-causing event, was Oakland's inability to do anything at all against Carlos Villanueva, who came on in the fourth inning in relief of a struggling JoJo Reyes. The A's touched up Reyes for five runs and knocked him out of the box, but were immediately silenced by the less-than-imposing Villanueva.
Here's the position player box for the game:
Coco Crisp absolutely destroyed a Jon Rauch fastball on the inner half in the top of the ninth. He didn't get much loft on it, so it was "just" a line-drive double into right, but still: he smashed that baseball. It always amazes me how much power Crisp manages to get out of his frame.
Conor Jackson was making his first start for the A's, playing left field against the left-handed starter, pushing Josh Willingham to DH and Hideki Matsui to the bench, just as Bob Geren said would sometimes happen. He is a man of his word.
Offensive player of the game Josh Willingham's homer in the top of the tenth, his second of the year, was a laser into the second deck in left. Jason Frasor had two strikes on Willingham but hung a breaking pitch that Willingham knew exactly what to do with. The ball got out like it had a dinner date in Montreal.
Mark Ellis was involved in the weirdest play of the game. He absolutely scorched a ball into left, one-hopping the wall. Travis Snider came up with the ball quickly, though, and fired a strike to second base. The ball was waiting for Ellis to arrive, so he went into a half-hearted slide that didn't even reach the base. Aaron Hill put the tag on Ellis's knee, but the force of said tag apparently jarred the ball loose. It never hit the ground, but the umpire's eagle eyes spied it pop out of the glove and back in and correctly ruled that Hill did not have control, so Ellis was safe. Ellis, meanwhile, thinking he was out, had come off the bag. Hill, either thinking Ellis was out or trying to sell the play, was taking a step or two toward the dugout. Both players reacted to the realization that the umpire had called Ellis safe at the same time, but Ellis was closer to the bag by a substantial margin, so he got back easily for a double.
This, by the way, seemed like a pro forma argument situation, where John Farrell is expected to come out of the dugout to clarify what went on, Aaron Hill half-heartedly objects to the call, etc. etc. None of this appeared to happen. This is to the extreme credit of all parties involved. Kudos, sirs.
David DeJesus nearly killed poor JoJo Reyes with a vicious line drive back up the middle. Reyes instead got out of the way and tipped the ball with his glove. Yunel Escobar then made an insane dive to spear the ball off the deflection before it went into center field, lept to his feet and rifled a throw to first that was just 1/3 of a second too slow. Great hitting, great running, great defense. Not a great pitch, as Reyes gave DeJesus a meatball, but you can't ask for perfection.
Here, verbatim, is the text of my note on Kevin Kouzmanoff's at-bat against Carlos Villanueva in the top of the fifth:
fb up whiff 01; slider away fouled right 02; 22; slider down and away, chases, whiffs, duh
Andy LaRoche was making his first start, like Conor Jackson, though he'd had a couple of defensive appearances after Geren pinch-hit for Cliff Pennington late in games. Further, in this one, Geren actually went to Pennington on defense early, brining his usual starter in for the bottom of the sixth, with the A's up 5-0.
The A's generally hit JoJo Reyes hard, smacking him around for a series of line drives, many of them down the third base line for doubles. As Ray Fosse said around the fourth inning, the A's wore poor Laynce Nix out at third base, leaving him diving to his right repeatedly, coming up empty every time.
My first look at Brandon McCarthy2 was a fairly pleasant experience. He generally kept the ball down, working 14 grounders out of 31 balls in play. As you can tell from his pitch count, the Jays were swinging early and often, not getting into the deep counts that result in strikeouts or walks, even though for his career, McCarthy has had a fair number of both (and has not been a groundball pitcher). McCarthy did give up a lot of hard-hit balls, and much as his pitch-count was low and the A's defense was saving his bacon, I would rather have seen Bob Geren lift him earlier than he did. Only two of the five runs McCarthy ended up allowing were "earned," so I think he still gets a "quality start" in his stat book, but that doesn't mean a better result couldn't have been achieved had Geren brought out the hook somewhere during the Blue Jays' five-run sixth inning.
In that inning, Kouzmanoff made his murder of errors, but don't forget that Rajai Davis knocked a breaking pitch down the third base line for a double, Aaron Hill hammered a line drive single to left-center, and Edwin Encarnacion blasted a fastball to the wall in left. In short, even putting aside McCarthy's own error, his pitching was not blameless for the inning. I think Geren may have been fooled by the five innings of no-run results rather than examining the process to see the line drives and hard-hit balls McCarthy had been giving up throughout the evening.
Grant Balfour ... well, it happens. I'd rather he have put Rajai Davis away after getting two strikes on him, but that doesn't always happen. The fastball to Yunel Escobar was just a mistake. A dreadful, horrible, awful mistake, but it's not like any of us feels worse about it than Balfour already does. This was a winnable game, but there will be other winnable games.