Mike Fiers shaky early, but reclaims command as Oakland Athletics find their bats against Yankees

OAKLAND — Before the Oakland athletics faced off against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, Dennis Eckersley — as he was inducted into the A’s Hall Of Fame as part of its five-man inaugural class — recalled that his teams in the late-80s were magic.

“I want to wish the 2018 Oakland A’s that magic,” he said.

Winners of 49 of 70 games since June 16, this year’s A’s certainly had their fair share of magic already, before starter Mike Fiers did his best Houdini impression.

Having been rocked for three homers and five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings in his last outing, Fiers served up some hard-hit outs to the warning track and labored through a 29-pitch first inning. He then faced the minimum over the next five innings as Oakland bounced back from a sleep-inducing two-hit Tuesday to take two of three in the series against the AL Wild Card leaders with an 8-2 win, finishing off a streak of 20 games in 20 days.

“To grind through the 20 days, finally over, in the middle of August, against the teams that we were matched up against, pretty impressive,” said manager Bob Melvin. “I told them that after the game. They play at the same pace every day. Doesn’t make any difference to them who they’re playing.”

During that 20-game stretch, Oakland went 12-8, taking two of three from New York, two of four against the Seattle  Mariners– currently chasing the A’s for the second AL Wild Card spot — and three of six against the division-leading Astros, while adding three wins against Minnesota and two against Texas.

Since acquiring Fiers, the A’s are now 6-0 in his starts, while Fiers himself is now 4-0 with a 2.94 ERA, 35 strikeouts and just six walks. Two of those walks came in the first inning on Wednesday, which looked like a repeat of his start against the Mariners last week. In that start, he allowed seven hits and couldn’t get out of the fourth.

On Wednesday, Fiers allowed a lot of loud contact in the first, as Brett Gardner flied out to the warning track in right, Giancarlo Stanton hammered a double off the wall and Andrew McCutchen flied out to the base of the wall in center. He then settled down and got a force-out grounder to first to escape the inning.

“Not the way I wanted to start,” Fiers said. “Just had to really find myself, and make a pitch and get out of it.”

Fiers got a lot of help early from backup catcher Josh Phegley, who was able to keep Fiers’s short curve in front of him.

“Phegley did a great job, was really calling a great game, blocking the balls, keeping them in front of him,” Fiers said. “That’s huge in these games. Not letting them take the extra base and getting into scoring position. Great job by him to help me get out of that first inning.”

Fiers was able to find his curveball after a short confab on the bench with his former teammate in Milwaukee, Jonathan Lucroy, who was getting a rest. He threw it for a strike for the first time while fanning Adeiny Hechavarria in the second, and then he started to cruise.

“I think I was kind of shanking the curveball a little bit,” Fiers said. “Just not really landing and finishing, just kind of out-of-rhythm, really. Lucroy said a couple things to me, things he saw, just to settle down and make your pitches. Don’t try and do anything extra. That’s what I did.”

Yankees starter Luis Severino, on the other hand, uncorked two wild pitches in a fateful four-run first, and his catcher Gary Sanchez was also charged with two passed balls. To be fair to Severino, both of his wild pitches should have been blocked, too.

In his first start batting leadoff, Ramon Laureano doubled over the head of Gardner in left, off the base of the wall. After a passed ball and a single by Jed Lowrie brought Laureano home, Khris Davis sent a drive to right.

McCutchen — no stranger to the Coliseum right field — deeked both Davis and Lowrie, setting up inside the warning track as if to camp under the ball, but then playing the ball perfectly on a bounce off the base of the wall. That held Davis to a double, and kept Lowrie from scoring, but only momentarily.

McCutchen’s chicanery would matter little, as a wild pitch between Sanchez’s legs and a double off the left field wall by Matt Olson brought Lowrie and Davis home to score. A passed ball plus another wild pitch would bring Olson around.

“Everybody got it going,” Laureano said. “Every guy sparked the other guy. It was pretty cool.”

Fiers retired 15 of the next 16 after that first inning, with the only blemish being a leadoff single by Aaron Hicks in the fourth, which was erased by a double play.

Fiers walked Hicks in the seventh, and then surrendered a two-run homer on a 3-2 two-seam fastball, spelling his end after 99 pitches, but at that point, he had a significant cushion.

A broken bat single by Stephen Piscotty in the third brought in two more runs and chased Severino, and the A’s would add on another with a Matt Chapman groundout in the fourth. Chapman — who went 2-for-4 with two RBIs — added an RBI double in the sixth to drive home Laureano, making it 8-0 before the Sanchez homer an inning later.

Chapman’s two-bagger was Oakland’s sixth of the night, with two coming off the bat of Laureano.

Oakland finished the series having gained a game on the Yankees in the Wild Card standings, but because of yet another Astros win — they pounded Minnesota 9-1 and are now 11-4 in their last 15 — Oakland stayed 3 1/2 games back in the AL West.

The A’s have won 18 of their last 23 series (18-2-3), and are undefeated in their last 12 home series (10-0-2).

One of Eckerlsey’s fellow inductees — Reggie Jackson — didn’t wish for magic. He does work for the Yankees, after all. He did wish for a new stadium for the A’s, to keep them in Oakland. That may or may not come even in the foreseeable future.

Magic, though? That’s something these A’s can do. They were 12 games out of a playoff spot on June 18. Now? Their magic number is 17 games, and they’re pencilled in for a winner-take-all Wild Card game against New York.

“I wouldn’t want to play them,” Jackson said.

Ryan Gorcey

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