Marcus Semien had a busy night at shortstop in the A’s 2-1 win over the White Sox on Wednesday, but for arguably the most critical play he made he was lined up on the other side of the infield.
After Adam Eaton’s leadoff single in the eighth inning, the A’s shifted their infield over for Jimmy Rollins’ at-bat against right-hander John Axford. Second baseman Jed Lowrie moved into shallow right field and Semien positioned himself to the right of second base, just behind the bag.
The strategy worked as Rollins hit a slow chopper up the middle that Semien was able to field, then step on second base and throw to first for a double play, erasing the potential tying run.
"That’s Wash," Semien said, meaning infield coach Ron Washington. "We decided after the first game to shift Rollins. I haven’t really seen him play much, so I don’t know how much he hits the ball to the opposite field. But it was a good decision."
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A look at Rollins’ spray chart from last season, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, shows that Rollins did indeed hit into a large cluster of outs on the right side of the infield against right-handed pitching. This ball was more up the middle, and Semien said he thought that Lowrie might have been able to field it had the A’s played straight-up. But because it was hit softly, they might not have had as good a chance at turning the double play.
“Like I said, Wash positions us and we stick to our shifts and make the pitches,” Semien said. “It’s crazy how those shifts work out. You think they’re kind of funky, but most of the time they’re pretty accurate.”
As it was, Semien still had to exhibit some nifty footwork getting to the bag and then side-stepping the slide of Eaton, a fast runner, while making his throw.
"Adam comes in hard," Semien said. "I know, I played with Adam. That’s the way I was taught to play the game coming up with the Sox, too -- make it tough on the infielder to turn it. I just tried to throw it and get out of the way as quick as I could."
Semien’s accurate throw helped Axford and the A’s work out of a jam, though manager Bob Melvin noted that Axford kept the double play intact by shortening his delivery and not giving Eaton a chance to steal second.
"There was a time when he had trouble slide-stepping and being quick to the plate," said Melvin. "He had a couple base-runners on that he needed to be quick to the plate to hold the running game down."
Jose Abreu’s two-out single again put the tying run on against Axford. But Semien made another nice play on Todd Frazier’s broken-bat one-hopper by going to his backhand and slinging a throw to second for an inning-ending fielder’s choice.
"That might be as good a (defensive) game as we’ve seen him play," Melvin said of Semien, who led the majors last season with 35 errors. "He looked real confident throwing the ball today, went into the hole a couple of times. That’s what it’s going to take to win those types of games. We can’t give extra outs."
Semien’s work with Washington on bettering his defense has been well-chronicled and it was notable where he found room for improvement Wednesday night. Eaton’s single to lead off the eighth came on a sharp grounder that Semien backhanded in the hole before making an accurate throw to first. Eaton was called safe on a bang-bang play, and the call was upheld after a video review.
"I wish we would’ve had the one on Eaton," Semien said. "That was close. Maybe if he calls him out and they go to replay, it stays for us.
"Besides that, I was happy with it."
Strong arms -- A stomach illness kept Gray from making his scheduled start on Opening Night. Instead, he took the mound Wednesday trying to play stopper after the A’s began the season with consecutive one-run losses.
"It was a big game for us," Gray said.
Gray responded with seven innings, holding the White Sox to one run -- scored on a Rollins sacrifice fly in the third -- and three hits. He admitted he did not have his best stuff Wednesday and said he threw more off-speed pitches than normal because his fastball command was shaky.
"He was right at the end of his rope there toward the end," Melvin said. "You could see he was dragging a little bit (in the seventh), taking a little longer between pitches.
"I think it took a little out of him, what happened the other day. But he stepped up."
Closer Sean Doolittle was unavailable after pitching in each of the first two games, so Melvin brought in Axford for the eighth inning and Ryan Madson for the save chance. Both pitched around leadoff singles. With two outs in the ninth, Madson went to a full count against Alex Avila and threw a changeup to induce a swinging third strike.
"You could tell just watching them, they’ve been around and they know how to pitch late in games," Gray said of the relievers, both new to the A’s this season. "They make big pitches when they need to."
Madson, meanwhile, was impressed with his first time watching Gray as a teammate.
"He’s so polished, it’s crazy," Madson said. "He reminds me kind of like a right-handed Cliff Lee, where it’s just pounding the strike zone, real aggressive in the strike zone throughout the whole game. That’s tough to do as a starter. It’s really fun to watch."