A month into the season, A’s manager Bob Melvin said he is still looking for the right “recipe” in a bullpen that has regularly left a bad aftertaste by accounting for half of the team’s 14 losses, which are tied for most in the American League.
The bullpen did not factor into the decision in the A’s 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday afternoon but did allow two runs that proved costly when a three-run A’s rally in the inning fell just short, ending on reigning MVP Mike Trout’s over-the-shoulder catch of Ike Davis’ bases-loaded drive to center field. That handed the A’s their sixth loss in seven games, including a 1-5 homestand that Melvin described as “awful.”
The A’s 9-14 record marked their worst April since 2001. Ironically, they led the majors with five shutouts – but in their 14 losses compiled a team ERA of 5.50. The bullpen’s struggles have been perhaps the most troubling aspect of the A’s slow start, especially because the unit was viewed as a strength going into the season.
Entering Wednesday, the bullpen’s seven losses were two more than the total of any other major-league team, and its 4.50 ERA ranked as the majors’ fourth-highest. Those numbers corresponded directly to the A’s records in games decided in the last at-bat (0-6) and by two or fewer runs (0-9) – a stark contrast to recent seasons, when the A’s have seemed to thrive in close, late-game situations.
Closer Sean Doolittle starting the year on the disabled list required the A’s to rethink the bullpen configuration, making Tyler Clippard the interim closer, and Melvin shuffled things again recently by elevating Evan Scribner to an eighth-inning set-up role. Eric O’Flaherty has appeared less often in the late innings during a difficult individual month. Ryan Cook joined the A’s last weekend after starting the season in Triple A, ostensibly to inject life into the relief corps, but he allowed four runs in his first three outings.
Before Thursday’s loss, Melvin said his only option is to keep tinkering. “I’ve got to find the right recipe, I just haven’t done it yet,” he said. “Getting Doolittle back would help out, everybody back into their roles. But at this point in time, with the struggles we have had, it’s my job to try to find what the right recipe is down there.”
Not all the ingredients look fresh. O’Flaherty posted an 11.57 ERA in nine April outings, appearing just three times after April 17, and Melvin revealed Thursday the left-hander has “had a little bit of a shoulder issue.” After resting O’Flaherty for several days, the A’s put him into an apparent low-pressure situation Thursday – starting the sixth inning with Oakland trailing 4-0. O’Flaherty retired his first two hitters but walked Taylor Featherston and allowed an RBI double to Erick Aybar before departing.
“It looked like the ball was moving pretty well, I think I saw 90 (mph), 91, some decent sliders,” Melvin said of O’Flaherty. “We wanted to get him in what was a low-leverage situation at the time and see how he responded. From everything I’m hearing right now, he’s fine.”
Melvin said before the game he thought the early bullpen issues might be self-fulfilling: “Just like when hitters go into slumps. ... I think maybe in the bullpen right now, guys are trying to maybe do a little too much.”
Right-hander Dan Otero said that can be a natural result.
“You just remind yourself, at least me, to stay the course, it’s a long season,” Otero said. “You’ll get yourself out of it if you keep making pitches.
“We have a lot of confidence in everybody (in the bullpen). It’s good people throwing the ball well, just the results aren’t coming right now. They will. We have confidence in ourselves and in everybody that goes out there.”
Doolittle’s recovery from a shoulder injury has been promising – he has begun throwing off a mound, and his next step is facing live hitters. The A’s, though, have not set a date for their All-Star closer’s return, which would allow Clippard to assume the set-up role in the design the A’s envisioned in the offseason.
“It’s not (a strength) right now, but it will be in my opinion,” Melvin said of the bullpen. “We do have some quality guys down there with some track records. We’re just not getting it done at this point. My feeling is we’ll get a lot better as we go along.”