Only two bullpens in the majors last season combined for a lower average fastball velocity than that of the A’s (91.4 mph), according to the analytics website FanGraphs. So it was a little unusual to hear manager Bob Melvin’s description of White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu’s at-bat against reliever John Axford in the seventh inning of the A’s season opener Monday night.
“It was definitely power against power,” Melvin said.
Axford, one of several new relievers in the A’s bullpen this season, threw 11 pitches to Abreu in the at-bat. All 11 of them were fastballs between 94-97 mph. On the 11th, Abreu popped out to second baseman Jed Lowrie to end the inning, stranding runners on first and third in a game the A’s trailed by one run.
The A’s went on to lose by that margin, 4-3, but Melvin cited the at-bat as “a key part in the game,” keeping them within a run in the late innings. It also illustrated a new aspect of the A’s bullpen this season. As part of restructuring a relief unit that posted the highest ERA in the A.L. last season, the A’s acquired three pitchers – Axford, Ryan Madson and Liam Hendriks -- who all ranked in the top 50 last year in average fastball velocity.
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Axford said it was not predetermined that he and catcher Stephen Vogt would rely on his fastball Monday. But that’s exactly what happened. Axford threw 30 pitches while facing five hitters in a scoreless seventh inning, and only one of them was not a fastball – the 1-2 curveball that Jimmy Rollins grounded into a fielder’s choice for the second out.
Abreu, the White Sox first baseman, is a good fastball hitter. He has a career average of .379 on four-seam fastballs, according to Brooks Baseball, and last year hit .355 on the pitch with 10 of his 30 home runs. Axford also throws a slider and curveball, but he said he was not surprised to see Vogt call repeatedly for the fastball.
“(Abreu and I) have had battles before and I’ve given him different mixes of different things,” said Axford, who had struck Abreu out in each of their prior three encounters.
“It just ended up being one of those battles where I think Vogt and I just stuck with what we had. (Abreu) was swinging – he was swinging at balls away, balls up, balls down and fouling them off. I was just trying to get the ball in a spot where we could induce some weak contact or get him to swing through it.”
Axford said he thought Vogt might have noticed something in Dioner Navarro’s at-bat to start the inning – five fastballs and a groundout – that led him to keep going back to the pitch. “Maybe there was life or a little cut action or something,” Axford said. “I don’t foresee that happening the rest of the season. Last night was just one of those moments.”
Like many of baseball’s hardest throwers, Axford has spent much of his big-league career as a closer. In 2011, he finished ninth in Cy Young voting while closing for Milwaukee, recording 46 saves and a 1.95 ERA. He spent last year as the closer in Colorado, saving 25 games for the Rockies, and reserves a certain reverence for the ninth inning, calling it “a little more fierce, a little more difficult” than earlier ones.
His role in Oakland is different, at least for now. As Monday’s opener indicated, the A’s begin the season with Sean Doolittle as their closer and Madson as their primary eighth-inning reliever, like he was last year in Kansas City. With Melvin using the rest of his bullpen to bridge the gap from his starter to the eighth inning, Axford’s responsibilities may be both earlier and less defined than in years past.
Axford said he likes having a rough idea when he’ll enter a game, “But at the same time, knowing that the role could be a little different, I’m getting myself ready and prepared a little bit earlier.” Monday, after starter Rich Hill exited in the third inning, Axford said he started to get loose by stretching in the fourth. His A’s debut came in the seventh inning of a game his team was losing. But the erstwhile closer said that did not feel strange.
“I’ve been in spots like that before, too,” Axford said. “I’ve pitched earlier than that. It was a good atmosphere last night, though. I think the adrenaline was going a little bit because it was opening day, a good crowd. I got into a tough spot with a couple weak ground balls that turned into hits, managed to get my way out of it.
“We still needed a shut-down inning so we could stay where we were, just one run down. So I think the adrenaline, the intensity of the moment, was still the same.”
Matt Kawahara: 916-321-1015, @matthewkawahara