Oakland A's

Semien’s defensive contributions key in A’s win over Angels

A’s shortstop Marcus Semien said when he saw starter Jesse Hahn wanting to go inside with a sinker to the Los Angeles Angels’ Johnny Giavotella with two on and one out in the sixth inning Saturday, his eyes lit up.

“When you see that as an infielder on the left side, you’re like, ‘Let’s go. Hit it at me,’” Semien said.

In this instance, Giavotella did, and Semien fielded the chopper, stepped on second base and threw to first for an inning-ending double play. It preserved a 1-1 tie in a game the A’s won 4-1 after they scored three times in the bottom of the sixth at O.co Coliseum.

The Angels put their leadoff hitter on base in the seventh on Brett Lawrie’s throwing error, but Hahn diffused that jam in similar fashion, getting Carlos Perez to hit a one-out grounder to Semien, who started a 6-4-3 double play. As manager Bob Melvin later pointed out, the A’s could hardly have scripted it better.

Hahn’s best pitch is his sinker, and he relies on it to induce ground balls with runners on. Of course, that’s only effective if Hahn’s infielders make the plays behind him, and the A’s defensive issues this year – 70 errors in 71 games – have been well-documented. Semien has taken his share of criticism while committing a majors-leading 22 errors.

Saturday, though, Angels hitters hit seven pitches from Hahn on the ground to Semien. And Semien made the play on all seven, including the two double plays he started.

“There were a lot of balls hit to him today, and he played all of them flawlessly,” Melvin said after the game. “And that’s what you expect, is your shortstop to turn double plays when you have a sinkerballer on the mound.”

Hahn will acknowledge his best pitch is the sinker, which usually registers in the low 90s and dives down and in to right-handers. Catcher Josh Phegley described the pitch this way:

“It has so much movement down that you almost have to guess. You see the ball here (indicating a position out front) and you have to guess the swing down here somewhere (indicating a much lower position).

“You see a lot of foul balls, a lot of choppers, a lot of ground balls. Because guys can get the bat on it, it’s just so hard to hit it where you want to hit it (on the barrel). And that’s why it’s an effective pitch – he wants the ball in play. He wants to let you swing at it.”

When the Angels put runners on base Saturday, Hahn said, “I just tried to get ground balls with my sinker there. And the defense played great behind me in that situation.” Asked specifically about Semien, Hahn said the shortstop played “really good. I mean, hats off to him today. He made every single play, and he made them look easy.”

That was often not the case early in Semien’s first season as an everyday shortstop. But he seems to be growing more comfortable at the position, where he has logged hours of pregame work with coach Ron Washington, who was hired in late May to tutor the A’s infielders. Semien said he “love(s) working on defense,” and routinely spends part of A’s batting practice taking ground balls at shortstop, first with the large pad that Washington makes his infielders use to soften their hands, then with his regular glove.

Many of Semien’s errors early in the season came on throws, but he has looked better in that aspect as well recently. After making 15 errors in his first 40 games, Semien has made seven in his last 31. He still leads all major-league players by a wide margin (the New York Yankees’ Chase Headley is second with 15 errors), but the rate at which he’s making them has slowed.

Moreover, Semien appears not to have let his early rash of errors affect his confidence. After describing how he wanted Giovatella’s grounder to bounce his way Saturday, Semien was asked if he ever felt differently earlier in the season, when his defensive struggles were more acute.

“No, that’s how you always feel,” he said. “Sometimes early on in the year, maybe there were times I didn’t make the play, but I still wanted the ball hit to me. That’s the attitude that you’ve got to have out there, and just build off that.”

The A’s have maintained their support of Semien and seemed to throw a subtle vote of confidence his way Friday when they cleared a roster spot for returning first baseman Ike Davis by parting with Andy Parrino, a middle infielder who had been entering games as a defensive replacement for Semien.

Semien still will have the occasional shaky game: He made two errors last Sunday against the Angels, for example. But he has drawn praise from Melvin for his work ethic, and he deflected a question Saturday about whether he’s more comfortable on defense by saying he is “just working hard out there before the game” to improve.

“We’ve got faith in him over there,” Phegley said of Semien. “Especially with Hahn getting ground balls (Saturday), we knew we were going to need him. And he was there.”

▪ A day after they blew a five-run, seventh-inning lead in a 12-7 loss – and blew through much of their bullpen in the process – the A’s received 72/3 innings from Hahn, who allowed one run on four hits.

“It’s exactly what we needed,” said Stephen Vogt, the A’s designated hitter Saturday.

Hahn also had a rocky first couple of months, but over his last six starts, he is 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA. Melvin said the improvement has stemmed partly from the right-hander mixing in more sliders, which offset the movement of his sinker, and the occasional changeup.

“He’s a little less predictable,” Melvin said.

Hahn said those pitches aren’t new, but that recently, “I just think I’ve found them a little bit.” He said his curveball and slider “really weren’t there” early in the season, but he got a better feel for both through side throwing sessions and has been able to throw them for strikes in games, which keeps hitters from keying on his fastball.

Twice in the first three innings, the Angels put runners on second and third with two outs. But Hahn struck out Kyle Kubitza to end the second inning and retired Albert Pujols on a harmless fly ball to center to end the third.

Friday night, Pujols hit his 13th career grand slam to give the Angels the lead in the seventh. Hahn said he still made a point to go after Pujols in the third.

“For me, my best pitch is the sinker in,” Hahn said. “So I tried to get that sinker in on him and either get a ground ball or, fortunately enough, I got a fly ball from him.”

Hahn’s outing was the latest in what Melvin called a string of “significant performances” from A’s starters. In their last 10 games, A’s starters have allowed 16 earned runs over 70 innings for a 2.06 ERA and have allowed one run or fewer in 15 of their last 27 games.

▪ The A’s offense Saturday was basically a series of doubles. Semien doubled in the first and scored on a double by Vogt, who tied Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera for the most RBIs (51) in the American League.

“He’s been as consistent a performer, not only for us, but for anybody in the American League,” Melvin said of Vogt.

The A’s then mounted their three-run sixth on RBI doubles by Josh Reddick, Lawrie and Phegley. While the first two came against Angels starter Jered Weaver, Phegley came up against reliever Cam Bedrosian.

Bedrosian throws a mid-90s fastball, but he started Phegley with a first-pitch curveball, and Phegley yanked it just inside the third-base line.

“I wasn’t (looking off-speed) at all,” Phegley said. “I’m thinking he’s coming in throwing his heater off all that off-speed that we just saw (from Weaver). And he threw me a first-pitch breaking ball, which was pretty similar to what I’d been seeing. I just kinda reacted to it.”

▪ Billy Burns did not have a double Saturday, but he did collect two more infield singles. Burns has 21 infield hits, second in the majors behind Miami’s Dee Gordon, and notched his 19th multi-hit game, which leads A.L. rookies. He’s batting .325 and helping the A’s forget about the absence of Coco Crisp.

“It’s tough to even describe how important he’s been for us,” Melvin said.

▪ It’s A’s left-hander Scott Kazmir (3-4, 2.84) against Angels right-hander Garrett Richards (7-4, 3.59) in the finale of this series Sunday. First pitch at 1:05 p.m.