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A’s begin series against Rangers with Liam Hendriks as the opener

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Oakland Athletics starter Chris Bassitt throws a pitch during the first inning of a June 15, 2018 game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. (Ryan Gorcey / S.F. Examiner)

By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner

OAKLAND — For the third time in the last week, Liam Hendriks will start for the Oakland Athletics. The team has recently begun utilizing an “opener” strategy in which a relief pitcher throws the first inning or two and is then followed by a more traditional starter, and this time they’ll use it against the Texas Rangers.

Hendriks served as the opener on both Saturday and Tuesday, with mixed results. In the first game he ran into trouble, but not until the second inning. The next time out he was limited to just the first inning, retiring the side in order and then giving way to Daniel Mengden. In that more recent game, Hendriks and Mengden combined to hold the powerful Yankees hitless until the sixth.

On Friday, the long-man role will be filled by Chris Bassitt rather than Mengden. The A’s called up Bassitt from Triple-A Nashville earlier in the afternoon. The right-hander has started seven games for Oakland this season, most recently on Aug. 26 in Minnesota. In that outing he allowed just one run in 4 2/3 innings, and overall he’s got a 3.19 ERA in 36 ⅔ frames while doing a good job of limiting hits and homers.

The A’s lost both of the games in which they used the opener strategy so far, but the second loss had more to do with the team’s offense after the sparkling performances by Hendriks and Mengden. Oakland’s lineup was limited to just one run on two hits in that contest.

One idea behind the opener, which was pioneered by the Tampa Bay Rays this season, is that it minimizes the number of times the starter has to face the top of the opponent’s lineup. Pitchers tend to get less effective as they face the same batters a third and fourth time, and this setup lets the starter skip the first turn against the other team’s best hitters in favor of a high-octane reliever who doesn’t need to pace himself for a long outing.

The creative pitching arrangement comes at the end of a season full of injuries for the green and gold. They have seven starters on the disabled list right now, two others have missed time this summer, and their best starting prospect in Triple-A went down for the year during the spring. They’ve managed to patch together enough of a rotation despite the adversity, but they’re turning to extreme measures the rest of the way to squeeze everything they can out of the staff as they vie for a playoff spot.

Friday brought more bad news on the health front. Andrew Triggs, who has been out since May with nerve irritation in his arm, was shut down in his recent rehab effort. The right-hander pitched for the High-A Stockton Ports on Wednesday, but his original symptoms returned afterward. He’d been angling for a return in September, but that no longer looks likely.

Furthermore, lefty Sean Manaea is still a “long shot” to come back this season, according to manager Bob Melvin. He’s out with tendinitis in his rotator cuff and has not yet begun throwing again. On the bright side, lefty Brett Anderson will throw this weekend with an eye toward returning to the rotation next week during the team’s road trip.

As for Friday, Hendriks will face a lineup that begins with Shin-Soo Choo, Rougned Odor, and Elvis Andrus. The Rangers will send Yovani Gallardo to the mound. The 32-year-old right-hander hasn’t faced the A’s this year, but he did see them five times last season as a member of the Mariners. He posted a respectable 3.33 ERA in those games, but along the way he allowed three homers to Khris Davis.

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