Houston’s Jose Altuve took the first pitch that A’s left-hander Rich Hill threw on Sunday afternoon, a fastball, for a strike. Altuve took Hill’s second pitch, another fastball, for a ball. He hit the third pitch, a curveball, over the center-field wall.
It is no secret that Hill relies heavily on his big, parabolic curveball, and it was just as clear early Sunday that the Astros’ hitters were going to wait for and attack that pitch. Hill, stubbornly, kept throwing the curve, even as he struggled to command it early, and it became more effective later in the game. But he made just enough mistakes with it over the first three innings to create the difference in a 2-1 loss for the A’s.
Hill threw 13 curveballs in the third inning – 11 that missed the strike zone and three that resulted in walks that helped load the bases for Colby Rasmus, who drove in Jason Castro with a sacrifice fly. The Astros sent their final 27 men to the plate without managing a hit and finished with two hits, but the A’s, who collected eight hits, recorded only one with a runner in scoring position and missed a chance at a three-game sweep at the Coliseum.
“They just did a good job in the third inning of capitalizing on my mistakes,” Hill said. “Curveball wasn’t hitting early on. It came back in the fifth and sixth inning. But by that time, they had already done their job.”
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Entering Sunday, Hill had thrown his curveball on 34.9 percent of his pitches, highest among qualified major-league starters, according to FanGraphs. And the first time through their order, the Astros seemed content to wait almost exclusively for that pitch. In the first two innings, their hitters swung at only one fastball with fewer than two strikes in the count.
Altuve, Houston’s spark-plug second baseman, didn’t wait that long, pouncing on the first breaking ball he saw for his seventh home run this season. Hill said he thought he threw a “pretty good” curveball but that “it was probably too much of a strike.”
“It was a curveball that was up in the zone,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “It was a good curveball. But obviously (Altuve) was sitting on it.”
The next curveball Hill threw to Altuve was another crucial pitch. After Castro’s leadoff single in the third, Altuve took five consecutive fastballs from Hill to work a full count. Hill finally threw a breaking ball that finished around the strike zone but was ruled a ball, helping set up Houston’s other run.
“That’s a borderline curveball on the upper part of the zone,” Vogt said. “He rings him up there, Altuve’s upset. He calls it a ball, we’re upset. It’s the one pitch in baseball you can argue, a high curveball.”
After taking an ultra-aggressive approach against A’s starter Jesse Hahn on Saturday, the Astros were just as patient Sunday against Hill. They swung at just 31 of his 106 pitches, despite entering the game with a 44.3 percent swing rate as a team, and drew four walks from Hill, who also hit a batter on a full count.
Still, Hill kept throwing curveballs, finishing with a whopping 57, and he got better results as the game went on. Over his final three innings, the Astros were 0 for 8 in at-bats that ended on curveballs with three strikeouts – all looking. Hill, who ranked fourth in the American League in strikeouts entering the game, credited Vogt with making him stay with the pitch.
“It’s his pitch,” Vogt said. “When you don’t have your best pitch, you keep searching for it, keep throwing it, because even if he misses with it, it’s still effective. It helps him with his release point; it helps keep hitters off balance. That’s why he was so good toward the end – he was a lot sharper because he kept throwing it.”
As Hill found a way to complete six innings, the A’s struggled to figure out Astros right-hander Doug Fister, with their lone run coming in the seventh on consecutive singles by Chris Coghlan, Yonder Alonso and Marcus Semien. With two outs, Fister handed the ball to reliever Tony Sipp, who got Jed Lowrie – a .526 hitter with runners in scoring position entering the game – to fly out to right field.
“What looked to be a little bit of a shaky start early on, he ends up giving up two (runs) in six,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Hill. “If we swing the bats better, a lot of times, that’s enough.”