How many times is a 400-foot single a symbol of a bad night at the office?
It was Monday as they A’s dropped a historicseason opener to the Cleveland Indians 2-0 – a night of inspiration and futility distilled down to one star-crossed swing.
In the bottom of the eighth, A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson crushed a Cody Allen pitch to the deepest part of this cavernous yard – 400 feet away from where Donaldson took a mighty swing.
It looked gone. It looked like the A’s would break a 0-0 tie and break nine straight years of losing openers.
But somehow, Donaldson’s blast bounced off the top of the wall and back into play. Somehow, A’s first baseman Daric Barton could only advance from second to third base – where he remained stranded.
Somehow Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss couldn’t bring Barton home.
Somehow, the A’s lost their 10th straight Opening Day game – a major-league record.
It’s interesting symbolism, of course. It’s a funny record in a sport ruled by records, stats and advanced metrics.
But it doesn’t mean anything.
The A’s have gone on to the win the American League West three times in their span of opening day losses and look to be the front-runners to repeat again this season.
The only player even left in the A’s organization from 2004, the last time the A’s won a season opener, is Barton. And he’s spent more time in Sacramento than he has in Oakland during those years.
In truth, this loss was just a loss – with 161 games left to play.
Despite the defeat, the A’s did what they do: They often pitched great when they needed big outs.
Their defense, while not brilliant, was good in key moments – as when right fielder Josh Reddick threw home strongly to prevent Michael Brantley from scoring on a Ryan Raburn single in the sixth.
But it was Sonny Gray, the youngest member of the A’s, who embodied Oakland’s very realistic hopes of attaining a third straight West crown.
Even with A’s ace Jarrod Parker lost for the season to arm surgery, Gray represents a depth of quality pitching that division rivals can’t match – at least at the start of this season.
In his 10 regular-season starts last season, Gray showed flashes of excellence and an ace’s courage in pressure moments.
Monday, he showed another side – the ability to keep his team in the game when he doesn’t really have it.
In this case, keeping his team in the game meant not allowing a run in six innings to match a more efficient Justin Masterson, the Indians starter.
The Indians touched Gray with base runners in every inning but one. Gray began the game with two walks and flirted with other three-ball counts. He was missing low and occasionally leaving his pitches up and getting crushed – as when Brantley hit a massive double to right-center field that would have been a home run in many other parks.
In each jam, however, Gray found the grit to see him out of it. In the first and fourth innings, he left Indians runners stranded at third. In the fifth, Yan Gomes reached second base – but Gray struck out Nick Swisher and got Jason Kipnis to ground the ball to first where Barton fielded who tossed to Gray for the force.
Then in a critical sixth, with Gray’s pitch count hovering near 100, one expected manager Bob Melvin to get the youngster after Brantley’s massive double and Raburn’s immediate single.
Melvin stayed put and was rewarded – but not before an extraordinary moment of luck and athleticism.
Asdrubal Cabrera lashed what looked like a go-ahead single up the middle, but it hit off of Gray’s leg, who quickly spotted it, threw home to get Raburn, who was out following a collision with A’s catcher John Jaso.
There was some question of whether Jaso blocked the plate without the ball, in violation of new rules seeking to curb dangerous home plate collisions.
The play stood. Gray’s shutout was preserved, and then he dramatically struck out David Murphy to end the threat.
Suddenly, this A’s franchise is older – with no rookies for the first time since 2006, two 30-year-olds in the starting rotation for the first time since 2010 and with only one player under the age of 25: Gray.
The A’s bats were quiet Monday. Aside from Donaldson, only leadoff man CoCo Crisp hit the ball with any authority. The sourest note, however, was the dismal debut of new closer Jim Johnson – who surrendered two runs and heard boos as he left the mound.
Given how deeply A’s fans loved departed closer Grant Balfour, Johnson better hope his loss – like the A’s new standard of Opening Day losses – is just an anomaly that means nothing in the long run.