Oakland A's

A’s unable to capitalize on closer Tyler Clippard’s success

Oakland closer Tyler Clippard, left, and catcher Stephen Vogt, right, congratulate each other following their 7-5 win over the Texas Rangers on May 1 in Arlington, Texas.
Oakland closer Tyler Clippard, left, and catcher Stephen Vogt, right, congratulate each other following their 7-5 win over the Texas Rangers on May 1 in Arlington, Texas. The Associated Press

A’s closer Tyler Clippard illustrated his ability to handle the pressure of a final frame Thursday – on the golf course at Pebble Beach.

Clippard, an avid golfer, used the A’s off day to play the iconic course for the first time, calling it a “bucket-list type of place.” That afternoon, he posted a picture of the scorecard from his round on Twitter. Clippard had approached the 18th hole needing a birdie to shoot a par 72. He holed the par-5 in four shots.

Asked if he had deliberately tried to birdie the hole, Clippard, who said his handicap is “a zero,” answered, “Not really.”

“I mean, for me, that’s the beauty of golf – it’s so similar to pitching,” Clippard said. “You really just have to take it one shot at a time. And the tee shot on the hole’s so intimidating, that birdie’s so far from your mind at that point. You’re like, ‘All right, let’s get this one on the fairway first, and then we’ll go from there.’ That’s why I love golf.”

In his real job, Clippard also has been the effective late-game reliever the A’s wanted when they traded shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Washington Nationals for him over the offseason. Pressed into closing duties by Sean Doolittle’s shoulder injury, Clippard had a 1.69 ERA in 14 games and had allowed just nine hits in 16 innings entering Saturday’s game against the Chicago White Sox.

Through Oakland’s first 37 games, though, Clippard had just three saves in four opportunities – an indication of one of the biggest and most confounding problems of the A’s early season. Entering Saturday, the A’s had the lowest starting rotation ERA (3.52) in the American League and had scored the third-most runs (172) in the A.L. Yet they haven’t been able to consistently get games to Clippard in the ninth inning with a lead.

And the pitfall has often been the same: the seventh inning. Through their first 37 games, the A’s allowed 35 runs – 30 earned – in the seventh, including five in a 7-6 loss to the White Sox on Friday night. The A’s needed four pitchers to get through that inning – starter Jesse Hahn and relievers Fernando Rodriguez, Fernando Abad and Evan Scribner – and Clippard never got into a game the A’s had led 6-2 after the sixth.

3 Saves by Tyler Clippard in four opportunities

“We had three guys in the inning we felt like could do the job,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said after the game. “It just didn’t get done.”

Often that has been the case in the seventh, a typical bridge between the starting pitcher and the marquee late relievers. It was not so last season, when the A’s posted the lowest opponents’ on-base plus slugging percentage (.621) in the seventh inning among A.L. pitching staffs.

Particularly in the second half last year, the A’s had a starting rotation that routinely got them into or through the seventh with workhorses like Jeff Samardzija, Sonny Gray, Jon Lester and Scott Kazmir. This year, Gray has pitched into the seventh in six of his eight starts, but all other A’s starters had combined for eight such outings entering Saturday – meaning Melvin has needed to rely on the bullpen for those outs.

The A’s three most-used relievers in the seventh in 2014 were Dan Otero (a .660 opponents’ OPS in 31 games), Ryan Cook (a .706 OPS in 22 games) and Fernando Abad (who allowed just eight hits in 64 at-bats over 26 appearances in the seventh).

Entering Saturday, opponents were 7 for 17 this season in the seventh against Abad, the lone left-hander currently in the A’s bullpen. Otero, one of their more versatile relievers, has been used to plug holes elsewhere. Cook is one of several relievers – also R.J. Alvarez, Chris Bassitt and Eric O’Flaherty – whose ineffectiveness has landed them in Triple A or on the disabled list.

In the eighth inning or later, the A’s ERA was 3.38, but their problems in the seventh have often left them trying to overcome leads at that point rather than preserve them.

The A’s eagerly await the return of closer Sean Doolittle, who was scheduled to pitch in his second rehab game on Saturday with High-A Stockton.

Partly for this reason, the A’s eagerly await the return of Doolittle, who was scheduled to pitch in his second rehab game on Saturday with High-A Stockton. Doolittle’s return to the closer role would free Clippard to pitch the eighth – the A’s original plan – and give Melvin more options to work the seventh.

Scribner had a 2.61 ERA through his first 19 games and 25-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Friday was the first time Rodriguez had been scored on in five appearances. Melvin has professed his faith in the pieces of his bullpen, but navigating the hazards of No. 7 has been an issue.

“I’ve got to somehow find the right answer in that inning,” Melvin said. “Obviously we have struggled with it.”

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