By Jason Wojciechowski on July 2, 2011 at 2:50 PM
Rich Harden pitched a baseball game!
Hold on, and let that sink in.
Ok, now really: the D'backs jumped out to a 1-0 lead early on a Wily Mo Pena homer (what else?), a laser shot to left that looked initially like it was still rising when it hit the seats. (A later replay of the hand motions in the Arizona dugout showed that they saw the same thing. Unfortunately, that same replay showed that the ball actually was on a slight downward trajectory when it landed. Oh well.)
The A's tied the game in the fourth on a Ryan Sweeney bloop with two outs, bringing home Hideki Matsui after the latter stole second (!) against Josh Collmenter. Poor Miguel Montero had no chance -- Matsui, it appeared from the replay, actually took off before Collmenter lifted his foot to start his pitching motion. Combine that with the D'backs declining to hold Matsui on at first, and he was in easily ahead of the throw.
Then, in the fifth, again with two out, the A's rallied for four runs, the first, third, and fourth scoring on line drives off the bats of Cliff Pennington and Hideki Matsui. The third, though, which would later become key given what the Diamondbacks did to poor Brian Fuentes, came on a Coco Crisp soft liner that just found the gap between Juan Miranda at first and Kelly Johnson at second. He couldn't have placed it there more perfectly had he thrown it. (That's not a joke about Crisp's throwing arm, I promise.)
The A's put some runners on against the D'back bullpen (former A's prospect Sam Demel, Albert Castillo, Micah Owings, and Aaron Heilman), but didn't break through for any runs. Arizona, meanwhile, was chipping away at the lead, scoring one in the sixth off of Rich Harden with a Kelly Johnson double followed by a Stephen Drew single (with a wild pitch moving Johnson to third sandwiched in between).
The real damage, the runs that scared me, came against Brian Fuentes in the eighth, as Kelly Johnson launched a homer over the right-field scoreboard with Gerardo Parra on first base (after a walk to Juan Miranda and a fielder's choice). This made it a one-run game, but Bob Melvin went to Joey Devine to finish the inning and then Andrew Bailey to close things out, so the A's pulled out the victory anyway.
Jemile Weeks managed just a single in five trips, and showed some frustration in the seventh, flinging his bat aside as he managed just a high fly to shallow left on a slider from Alberto Castillo.
In sharp contrast to Weeks's alert play at second base in Thursday's game, resulting in Emilio Bonifacio being cut down at the plate, the young second-sacker made a mental error in the sixth here, the kind of mistake that, as Ken Arneson wrote, it seems like Mark Ellis never made. With Stephen Drew on first and Chris Young at the plate, Drew broke for second on Rich Harden's 1-0 pitch. Suzuki threw down to second and Drew would've been out by ten feet had he not stopped halfway. Instead of heading back for first posthaste, Drew took a few steps back and froze. Weeks, instead of running him much of the way back to first, as we're all taught, and failing to recognize that Drew was actually leaning toward second in his freeze, threw to Chris Carter. On seeing the throw, Drew broke for second. Carter, fortunately, made an accurate throw to Cliff Pennington, rushing over to cover the bag, and the tag was applied in rolling fashion just before Drew's hand hit second base. You never thought you'd see Chris Carter bail out Jemile Weeks on a defensive play, did you?
Cliff Pennington hit two balls hard for a single and a double, which was great to see. He's been taking a lot of 0-4's and 1-4's lately.
Pennington only made two defensive plays all game, but both were well done. The first was described above in the Jemile Weeks note, and the second was a line drive by Sean Burroughs in the seventh that Pennington timed and snagged on a leap.
Speaking of 1-4, Coco Crisp had a run-scoring single that just found the outfield, as mentioned above. He also hit a fairly hard liner in the fourth inning, but it was just a step or two for Stephen Drew to reach out and snag it for the out.
You can forgive that kind of offense when Crisp is running around robbing homers, though, as he may have done in the sixth inning on a drive off the bat of Gerardo Parra. It's unclear to me after the replay, and it was similarly unclear to Ray 'n' Glen, whether the ball would have left the yard or merely hit the top of the wall, but what the hell, let's give Coco the benefit of the doubt and say that the catch straight-up took away a run from the Diamondbacks. In a one-run game, that's pretty important!
Hideki Matsui dominated this game -- two walks, a double, and a stolen base, with the steal leading to a run, as he was able to score from second on Ryan Sweeney's bloop single in the fourth. Matsui's first at-bat resulted in a bouncer to second, my favorite kind of out, so I was sure he was destined to go 0-4 on the day. Golf claps for proving me wrong.
I don't know if Bob Melvin's been checking this blog out or what, but Chris Carter started his second straight game, this time at first. He didn't really call much attention to his plight on the bench, though, striking out twice in three trips. He did, however, launch a slider to the warning track in left, but that's unfortunately as far as it went, and it was hit high enough that Gerardo Parra was able to settle under it easily for the out.
Conor Jackson came in for Carter on defense in the top of the seventh and hit a hard line drive to center right at Chris Young in his only trip to the plate. That relatively early defensive replacement (relative, that is, to when we usually see managers go with their all-defense lineups) shows that perhaps the sticking point on Chris Carter really is the butchery the A's perceive him engaging in with the leather, even if he handled two grounders in this game without incident and made the play described above, saving Jemile Weeks's bacon.
Ryan Sweeney managed the first 0 wRAA I believe I've seen this season with his two singles and one caught stealing in four trips. The out at second on the steal attempt was pure execution and reactions: his jump was pretty poor. Miguel Montero's throw was on target but far from perfect, but it was plenty to get Sweeney.
For what it's worth, neither of Sweeney's hits was the most impressive thing the world's ever seen, the first a bloop into the right-center triangle of right-fielder, center-fielder, and second-baseman, and the second a high chopper over the mound that second baseman Kelly Johnson fielded but made no throw on.
Kurt Suzuki did hit a liner in the eighth that unfortunately went right to Sean Burroughs at third, but his previous at-bats were a strikeout, a foul pop, and a chopper to third that started a double play. Unimpressive day for the A's catcher.
David DeJesus tallied two walks, a single, and a double, both walks coming on full counts, the single a liner through the 3-4 hole, and the double a fly down the left-field line, deep, bouncing on the track once before it hit the wall. DeJesus packs a surprising amount of power into his small frame, not 30-homer power, but "can take a fastball on the outer half and hit the ball hard down the line the other way" power, the kind of power that is the difference between being a speedy guy with occasional singles and David DeJesus himself.
The bloom seems to have come off Scott Sizemore's rose a little, although nobody can take away his two singles in this game, even if one was a blooper and the other was a medium grounder that Kelly Johnson kept on the infield. In his first few games with the A's, it seemed as if every time up, he hit a ball with authority, and that hasn't been true in a little while.
Not that this matters very much. Sizemore is still a good enough hitter to be a major-leaguer, and expecting him to keep up his early pace would have been foolish.
Above, I celebrated the fact that Rich Harden took the mound and then left under his own power. Now we can celebrate his quality start, six innings of two-run baseball, with six strikeouts, no walks, and ten swinging strikes in just 76 pitches.
The only quibble I have is that Harden gave up a number of fly balls, including the homer to Wily Mo Pena, the deep drive to Gerardo Parra that might have left the yard were it not for Coco Crisp's catch above the wall, a Justin Upton shot that was caught by David DeJesus with his back brushing the fence in right field, and well-struck double by Kelly Johnson. Harden had some good fortune in the game, from Upton's ball missing a homer by millimeters to Crisp's catch to the Stephen Drew rundown play that's already been described a few times.
That said, let's not minimize a strikeout per inning, a whiff every seven pitches, and just three three-ball counts from a guy on whom the knock in recent years has been a fairly extreme inefficiency with his pitches. Further, even the Wily Mo Pena homer came after Chris Carter let a foul ball get into the seats that Daric Barton might have caught. It looked to me like an inexperience issue more than an athleticism one -- Carter seemed unsure of where he was in relation to the seats, took his eye of the ball, and appeared to never really pick it up again as it fell into the first row, surely within range of the big man's wingspan.
We'll wait and see what happens to Harden in his between-starts bullpen and his recovery period, but for now, it's pretty exciting to have a reasonable facisimle of the hard-throwing Canadian A's fans were so jazzed about back in 2003 back and pitching for the good guys.
Brad Ziegler also played a little good-luck/bad-luck, as he had a grounder from Miguel Montero go off his shin into left field, narrowly missing caroming right to Scott Sizemore, who might have had a play on the not-so-swift D'backs catcher. Cliff Pennington made up for this by snagging, as described above, Sean Burroughs's two-out liner to end the inning. Around all this action, Ziegler struck out Chris Young and Wily Mo Pena. Granted, those are two of the whiffin'est hitters around, but still.
I was watching the game this morning, and my wife walked into the room just as Brian Fuentes took the hill. "Look at those numbers," I told her. "Why don't they send him to the minors?" she asked. She had already left by the time Kelly Johnson took Fuentes yard.
Three whiffs in eight pitches is why Joey Devine is in the A's bullpen.
And five whiffs in twelve pitches is why Andrew Bailey is one of the best relievers in the league. (Miguel Montero did hit a momentarily frightening fly ball to center, though, the kind of knock that causes the pitcher to not want to turn around and watch until he absolutely has to. The replay, showing Bailey steeling himself before eventually looking back to see what would happen, was excellent. (What did happen, of course, was that the ball settled into Coco Crisp's glove short of the warning track. This is still Oakland.))
Bob Melvin basically had three decisions tonight: when to take Chris Carter out for defense; when to take Rich Harden out; and when to take Brian Fuentes out. The Carter decision is impossible to evaluate. Large-sample defense is a really difficult question for us on the outside to judge, so asking about the tradeoffs of two innings of Conor Jackson at first versus three? No way. I defer.
I thought Melvin made exactly the right call on Harden. After a long bottom of the fifth for the A's that saw four runs score and a pitching change happen, Harden promptly gave up four hard-hit balls. Two of those went for outs (the Parra near-homer and a Justin Upton fly to right that wasn't as big as his first-inning out, but was still not a softie), and then Stephen Drew erased himself on the bases. Even with Harden having faced just 21 batters in six innings, having thrown only 76 pitches, having looked mostly dominant for the first five innings, not letting him pitch the seventh was exactly the call I was making at home in my underpants, because he seemed to have lost a little bit on his pitches, and the game, while not close-close, was still just a three-run affair.
As for Fuentes, perhaps it was an obvious call to get him out following the Johnson homer, but we've all seen managers tempted to leave a lefty in when the next guy up after the home run is another lefty (Stephen Drew in this case). Melvin knows what Fuentes did to poor Bob Geren, though, so he handed the ball to Joey Devine right then and there. I applaud this move.