Two major shortcomings of last season’s league-worst A’s team were its bullpen and defense. One of those areas looked vastly improved in the A’s 4-3 season-opening loss to the Chicago White Sox on Monday night, but the other one cost them the game.
All four runs scored by the White Sox on Monday came in a third inning in which the A’s committed two errors - a wild throw by starting pitcher Rich Hill on a pickoff attempt and a critical play on which first baseman Mark Canha could not secure a throw by shortstop Marcus Semien. The latter occurred with two outs, allowed two runs to score and resulted in Hill exiting his A’s debut before he had completed three innings.
It also left the A’s facing a 4-0 deficit, and although they responded with three runs in the bottom of the third against Chicago ace Chris Sale they could not complete the comeback, falling in their season opener for the 11th time in the last 12 seasons.
"That’s what happens when you give extra outs," A’s manager Bob Melvin said. "You can’t do that. We learned that last year, we’ve learned it this spring. In close games it typically ends up being a play like that, a play or two defensively that you should make … We don’t execute the one play that cost us two runs, and it cost us the game."
The A’s led the majors in errors last season and again this spring. With Chicago runners on second and third in Monday’s third inning, Melky Cabrera hit a two-out chopper up the middle. Semien, last year’s errors leader, charged the ball and made a high throw to first that clipped the outstretched glove of Canha, who tried to catch it while keeping his foot on the base.
"As soon as I saw the throw, I’ve got a decision to make there," Canha said. "I can stay on the bag and try to catch it and prevent any runs from scoring, or I can jump or come off the bag and just make sure I secure the ball, in which we probably don’t get the runner and one run scores and we get to the next hitter.
"I stretched up and a little bit forward, and I probably should’ve went more straight-up for the ball, I suppose. It was a tough decision to make. You have half a second to make the decision … I tried to stay on the bag and go get it, and it hit off the tip of my glove."
The play prolonged the inning and brought Melvin out of the dugout to relieve Hill, who had thrown just 66 pitches but faced seven batters in the inning. Hill shouldered blame for not pitching deeper into the game. But the left-hander was already in a difficult spot.
Hill did not find out until about noon Monday that he would be starting the opener. It was supposed to be ace Sonny Gray, but Gray had a bout of food poisoning overnight and was in the hospital Monday morning receiving fluids. Hill was pitching on normal rest but he looked uncertain early on, hitting Adam Eaton with his first pitch of the game and hitting Jose Abreu later in the inning.
"I think maybe a few of the pitches were just over-aggressive," Hill said. "Other than that I settled in. It was just the deep counts and the inability to go deep in the game that’s disappointing for myself, and obviously the reason why we lost the game."
Hill said it was "an honor" to receive the Opening Night start in Gray’s stead and that he had "ample" time to get ready. Melvin said Hill looked "a little out of sorts early on," but that he "recovered nicely."
"We got him out of there when it really wasn’t his fault on the one play they scored two runs," Melvin said. "He did OK. It’s tough in that situation to come in and have to start on a day you’re not thinking you’re going to start."
Melvin said Chris Bassit would move up to start the second game of the series Tuesday. Gray was able to play some light catch late Monday and could make his first start of the season Wednesday.
After Hill left the game, the A’s received 6 1/3 scoreless innings from their bullpen. A’s relievers combined for the highest ERA in the American League last year (4.63), leading the front office to acquire several new relievers over the offseason. Two of those, John Axford and Ryan Madson, threw scoreless innings Monday, while returners Ryan Dull, Fernando Rodriguez and Sean Doolittle combined to allow two hits in 4 1/3 innings.
"They were terrific," Melvin said. He added that Doolittle appeared to have "the best velocity we’ve seen out of him this year." The A’s closer regularly hit 93 mph on the stadium radar gun and struck out right-handed hitter Austin Jackson on a changeup, his third-best pitch.
The A’s put the potential tying run on base five times in the final six innings but were unable to drive him in. Jed Lowrie hit a two-out, two-run single in the third off of Sale and Danny Valencia singled in Lowrie two batters later, but new left fielder Khris Davis struck out to end the inning -- one of three strikeouts for Davis in his Coliseum debut.
"It would’ve been real easy to kind of cave," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "But our bullpen stepped up and -- especially after last year, the woes we went through -- to see the moves we made and other parts of our bullpen come in and do what they did was outstanding.
"They gave us a chance to win. Like we always do, we get the winning run to the plate. We just weren’t able to come through."