With most key members returning from a bullpen that ranked third in the majors last season in ERA, the A’s relief corps looked like it would be one of the steadier aspects of this team following an offseason of change – even with closer Sean Doolittle shelved by a shoulder injury to start the year.
The season’s first weekend, though, was a rough one for that unit. A’s relievers allowed seven runs and three home runs in two extra-innings losses to the Seattle Mariners at O.co Coliseum, including an 8-7 defeat in 10 innings Sunday in which little about the first five innings suggested what would happen the rest of the way.
The A’s led 3-0 after five innings before the Mariners, who hadn’t managed a hit against right-hander Jesse Hahn to that point, scored four runs in the sixth to knock Hahn out of the game. Eric O’Flaherty recorded the final out of the sixth to strand two runners but allowed back-to-back singles by Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino to start the seventh, and both scored when pinch hitter Rickie Weeks drove a two-out O’Flaherty pitch over the center-field wall.
It gave Seattle a 7-3 lead, which the A’s erased with four runs in the bottom of the ninth off Mariners closer Fernando Rodney, who gave up a two-out RBI single to pinch hitter Eric Sogard to tie the score.
But the Mariners regained the lead on Nelson Cruz’s two-out homer against interim A’s closer Tyler Clippard in the 10th, and Seattle right-hander Yoervis Medina handed the A’s their first back-to-back losses of the year with a perfect bottom of the inning.
Cruz also hit a pivotal three-run homer in the eighth on Saturday against A’s right-hander Dan Otero to give Seattle a 4-2 lead in its eventual 5-4 win. It followed a costly poor throw by O’Flaherty on a potential double-play ball that yielded no outs. Like Saturday’s game, the A’s rallied in the series finale to force extra innings – but futilely.
“We’re fine,” Clippard said of the relief corps. “Essentially the brunt of the damage, Cruz did. A couple mistake pitches, and some defensive stuff that we’ve got to clean up. Other than that, we’ll be fine.”
Clippard did throw one scoreless inning in Saturday’s loss – albeit with two walks – and the A’s received clean innings Sunday from Evan Scribner and R.J. Alvarez. A’s manager Bob Melvin said bullpen roles have needed shuffling in Doolittle’s absence but added: “We still feel like we have the right pieces down there.”
“We did give up some runs,” Melvin said. “We’re better than that. We have good guys down there. We just gave up a few too many runs the last couple games.”
O’Flaherty stayed in to face the right-handed Weeks, who replaced left-handed Seth Smith, with two on in the seventh despite Melvin’s usual preference for matching handedness. Scribner, a right-hander, was throwing in the bullpen but had just gotten up. O’Flaherty last season actually held right-handers to a lower average (.186) than left-handers (.233) but allowed all three of his home runs to righties.
Clippard, meanwhile, hadn’t given up a home run to a right-handed hitter in a year and one day. Justin Upton last April 11 was the last to homer off Clippard before Cruz hit a 2-0 fastball over the left-field wall, just out of the reach of a leaping Ben Zobrist.
Catcher Stephen Vogt said he found it “pretty crazy” that Cruz appeared to be sitting on a fastball, even ahead 2-0, given Clippard relies heavily on his changeup. As for home runs allowed by Otero and O’Flaherty, Vogt said: “Those are sinkerball guys, and sinkerball guys don’t give up home runs. ... To me, those are fluke pitches.
“Those are two of our better bullpen guys that are going to be solid for us all year,” Vogt said. “Just one of those things that’s happened the last two days.”
Adding to the A’s frustration Sunday was that they built a 3-0 lead against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, a longtime nemesis, with eight hits in the first five innings. Hernandez left the game after five innings after experiencing tightness in his right quadriceps but still has not lost in his last 13 starts at the Coliseum dating to 2009.
Ackley got Seattle’s first hit against Hahn with a leadoff double in the sixth and scored on Brad Miller’s sacrifice fly. Hahn had a chance to escape the inning leading 3-1, but with two on and two out, Robinson Cano lined a curveball to right field. The ball stayed up for Josh Reddick but bounced off his glove, allowing both runners to score. Two batters later, Seattle took the lead on a single by Kyle Seager.
“I’ve got to catch that ball,” Reddick said.
Returning from an oblique injury, Reddick had two hits and sparked the ninth-inning rally with a leadoff double, but said: “Just that one (play) is going to shadow over all that.”