Given the number of injuries the A’s have sustained already this season, the sight of Rich Hill, their best starting pitcher, leaving the mound accompanied by a trainer in the seventh inning Sunday struck an ominous tone.
“We were very nervous,” reliever Sean Doolittle said, “to say the least.”
So it almost seemed a reprieve when A’s manager Bob Melvin said after his team’s 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers that Hill had a “real mild groin strain,” and Hill added that he expects to make his next start.
“He didn’t want to come out,” Melvin said. “Hopefully that’s a good sign, and hopefully in a couple days he’s good.”
Hill said he felt a “little pull” somewhere around the fourth inning, yet between the start of the fourth and his exit with one out in the seventh, he retired 10 of 12 hitters and held the Tigers scoreless after two early runs. The left-hander, who entered the game as the American League ERA leader, saw that figure rise slightly to 2.25, decimal points higher than the 2.22 mark of Chicago’s Jose Quintana.
But a three-run sixth inning by the A’s helped Hill win his fifth consecutive outing and become the first A’s pitcher since Mark Mulder in 2003 to record at least eight wins by the end of May. With injuries depleting the A’s starting rotation – Sonny Gray, Chris Bassitt, Henderson Alvarez and Felix Doubront are all on the DL – and their fill-ins struggling, Hill has been a main reason the 22-29 A’s are still remotely relevant.
In 11 starts, Hill is 8-3. All other A’s starters combined this season are 7-22 with a 6.05 ERA.
Sunday, catcher Stephen Vogt said Hill didn’t have “his best curveball of the year. (But) he was still able to battle through it and give us a chance to win.”
Hill put eight runners on base in 6 1/3 innings, two of whom scored on singles by James McCann in the second inning and Victor Martinez in the third, but he skirted more trouble partly because of his nine strikeouts.
That included two strikeouts of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, who also grounded into a double play in the third after Hill had walked the first two batters of the inning. In his two starts against Detroit this season, Hill has faced Cabrera six times with four strikeouts. Hill is one of only five pitchers – and the only left-hander – to strike Cabrera out twice in a game this season.
Because of the big break on Hill’s curveball and how often he throws it, Vogt said, “Any hitter’s going to go up there and try and guess, and Rich is going to outsmart him more often than not. He’s had some success with Cabrera because of his stuff, not any other reason.”
In Cabrera’s first at-bat Sunday, he fouled off three consecutive 1-2 pitches – including a slower-than-normal 69-mph curveball from Hill – before swinging late on a high 91-mph fastball. In the sixth, Hill struck Cabrera out on three straight fastballs, the last clocked at 88 mph and delivered from a sidearm angle that Hill had not shown Sunday.
“It’s just making pitches and trying to keep him guessing,” Hill said. “In my opinion, he’s the greatest hitter of our generation – the past decade and a half – so it’s somebody that, like I said, you just have to execute your pitches.”
With one out in the seventh, Hill threw a 1-2 pitch to Jose Iglesias that brought Melvin and trainer Walt Horn out of the dugout. After Hill left, Ryan Dull finished the inning and Melvin flipped his normal bullpen alignment by using Ryan Madson in the eighth and giving the ninth to Sean Doolittle, who notched his first save since April 20.
The reason: Madson faced J.D. Martinez, Cabrera and Victor Martinez – the heart of the Tigers’ order and three hitters who, after Madson’s clean inning, are a combined 4-for-39 lifetime against the right-hander.
The A’s won two of three against the Tigers and have won seven of the last eight games pitched by Hill, whose next outing is scheduled for Friday in Houston.