Oakland A's

A’s Hill sees room for improvement after rocky spring debut

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Rich Hill fields a ball during spring baseball practice in Mesa, Ariz., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016.
Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Rich Hill fields a ball during spring baseball practice in Mesa, Ariz., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. AP

Rich Hill probably isn’t competing for a job in spring training this year, given the left-hander is the closest thing the A’s have to a rotation lock outside Sonny Gray. But Hill, who turns 36 on Friday, isn’t taking his situation or his veteran status for granted.

Case in point: Following a rocky first spring start Saturday against the Milwaukee Brewers, Hill was particularly irked at himself over a play on which he was slow to back up third base on a hit to the outfield. It was the kind of fundamental play the average fan might not even notice, but Hill acknowledged it should be second nature to a pitcher with his experience.

“That was just one of the things that overall was frustrating, thinking back on it, not reacting to the play a little bit more (quickly) as a professional,” Hill said. “That was one thing that I would consider bad body language.”

Overall, Hill rated his spring debut Saturday as “pretty poor.” He walked three, allowed two hits and was charged with one run that scored after he left with one out in the second inning.

“He looked like he was a little bit out of rhythm today,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “The stuff looked good; the ball was jumping. It just looked like he was ahead of his arm a little bit. Some balls were up. First time out, typically, that can happen.”

Hill used to be a sidearm reliever before making himself over as a starter last season. He said he typically uses his breaking ball to get himself to a good fastball release point and that his fastball should get sharper as he starts to implement more typical pitch patterns.

“If I execute my pitches down with my fastball, if I get on top of the ball and throw the ball downhill, it’s a different story,” Hill said. “That’s what I’m going to work on going into the next outing.”

The A’s signed Hill to a one-year, $6 million deal over the offseason, and one bad spring outing isn’t going to shake their faith in him.

“We’re just looking to keep him healthy and get his pitch count up and the process of getting ready for the season,” Melvin said before Saturday’s game. “As we look at (the rotation) right now, he’s probably going to pitch behind our Opening Day starter.”

Phegley strikes – A’s catcher Josh Phegley hasn’t been able to get behind the plate yet in a game this spring because of a sore shoulder, so he was glad to contribute with his bat in the A’s nine-inning, 8-8 tie with the Brewers.

Phegley hit a tying solo home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth off right-hander Hiram Burgos. The A’s lost a one-run lead in the top of the ninth when Milwaukee’s Yadiel Rivera hit a two-run homer off Dylan Covey to nearly the same spot where Phegley’s landed in left field.

“It felt a lot better after the 97 mile per hour sinker guy I saw before that,” Phegley said with a grin. “That was tough. I was glad I got another AB. I was hoping we’d have held onto (the lead) and I didn’t need one, but that’s a good way to end the day.”

Phegley also had good news before the game. He tested his shoulder by throwing to bases and said it felt “100 percent normal.” That bodes well for Melvin’s plan to rest Phegley on Sunday and have him behind the plate for the first time this spring Monday.

“Very much so,” Phegley said when asked if he’s eager to catch in games. “After my first couple ABs this spring, I need to contribute with some defense, I think. But that (homer) makes me feel a little bit better about the offense.”

Smooth transition – New second baseman Jed Lowrie made a nifty defensive play in the third inning, charging a ball that ricocheted off of reliever Liam Hendriks, fielding it and flipping to first base with his glove for the out.

Lowrie still is getting used to playing on the right side of the infield, where he has just 58 games of major-league experience but will start the season for the A’s. A separate story on how Lowrie is handling the transition – and his thoughts on MLB’s new slide rules at second base – will appear in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee. But here was Melvin after Saturday’s game when asked about Lowrie’s play:

“He’s made some nice double play turns too, made a play up the middle (Friday). When you haven’t been out there in a while at that position, it’s not as easy as he’s making it look right now. He’s doing that with hard work. We’re keeping him at second base right now to re-learn the position, but it looks like it’s riding a bike for him.”

Et cetera – Hendriks, expected to be a key reliever for the A’s in late-game situations, made his spring debut and pitched a scoreless inning with one hit and one strikeout.

“Ball was jumping,” Melvin said. “A lot of times with a new team, first time out, you can get a little jumpy, but it seemed like after the first couple of pitches he found his rhythm. If he’s throwing the ball over the plate and getting ahead, he’s going to be tough to hit.”

▪ First baseman and left fielder Mark Canha, who’s been limited by back stiffness, resumed baseball activities Saturday, playing catch and swinging a bat. Canha said he felt “really good” and hopes to ramp up his activities.

▪ Right-hander Henderson Alvarez, recovering from shoulder surgery, is scheduled for a bullpen session Sunday.

▪ Right-hander Jarrod Parker, being brought along slowly after a series of injury issues the past two years, Sunday will throw two sets of 20 pitches with a rest in between to simulate an inning break.