OAKLAND — The first time the Oakland Athletics tried the bullpenning/opener thing, it backfired fast and hard. Liam Hendriks — designated for assignment as late as June 25 — was scorched in his first two innings last Saturday, and Daniel Mengden — designated as the long man — went just two innings and allowed four runs.
Tuesday was Take Two for the A’s, with the same starting tandem — Hendriks and Mengden — set to take on the New York Yankees, who sat 3 1/2 games up on Oakland for the first American League Wild Card slot. Hendriks and Mengden threw a combined 5 2/3 hitless innings.
Had Oakland not been short-handed in the back end of the bullpen from the night before, and had the offense generated its normal output — and not a measly two hits — the bullpenning effort would have been a great success. Instead, the A’s lost a game in the AL West standings, and missed an opportunity to put a little fear into their eventual Wild Card game opponent, losing 5-1.
“A betting man probably wouldn’t bet that we were going to get just two hits tonight,” said third baseman Matt Chapman.
Up 1-0 on a Stephen Piscotty second-inning solo home run (his career-high-tying 22nd), the A’s turned to reliever Ryan Buchter, who picked off Gleyber Torres to end the sixth. In the seventh, he gave up just the Yankees’ second hit of the day, a single by Brett Gardner.
Jeurys Familia then came on and gave up a single to Giancarlo Stanton — just Stanton’s second hit in 14 at-bats against the former Mets closer — and walked the next two, including Aaron Hicks with the bases loaded. A home run by first baseman Luke Voit off of Fernando Rodney in the eighth sealed it for New York, before the Yankees (87-52) added three insurance runs.
“We just didn’t do enough offensively tonight,” said manager Bob Melvin. “Even if it’s two runs, when you get two hits, you’re going to have a tough time winning.”
The A’s came in to the game third in the majors in home runs, averaging 4.8 runs per game (sixth in the big leagues), but New York starter J.A. Happ gave up just the Piscotty homer in his six innings, striking out five, walking one and hitting one batter.
“He’s got good stuff,” Chapman said. ‘He was able to command all three pitches. He didn’t make too many mistakes over the plate. I think if he did, we might have fouled them off or just missed them. He was able to establish both sides of the plate to righties and lefties. He kept the ball down.”
The A’s — who lead the big leagues in runs scored in the seventh inning or later — couldn’t do anything against the Yankees bullpen, which has the No. 3 ERA in Major League Baseball.
Oakland will have to rely on bullpen games through the end of the regular season if they’re to make it to that Wild Card, winner-take-all reunion with New York, or if they’re to catch the AL West-leading Houston Astros. With 10 starters having gone on the disabled list — five due to Tommy John surgery — Tuesday’s loss was, at the very least, a proof of concept.
“When it works like that, sure,” Melvin said. “I think it was a little easier with Daniel tonight, because he knew exactly when he was coming in. We’re trying to straighten that out. Liam had a good inning, Daniel followed him up and did well. We just didn’t do enough offensively.”
With the A’s (83-57) having used Lou Trivino and Blake Treinen on Monday to seal a 6-3 win, Shawn Kelley down with a finger laceration and pitching help held up by a misunderstanding of the collective bargaining agreement, Oakland’s normally-strong back end of the bullpen wasn’t quite up to snuff. That’s not an indictment of the bullpen-game strategy, but just a fact that the A’s have to deal with. Just like the fact that seven starting pitchers have gone on the disabled list this season, leaving Oakland with just four on the roster.
Though the A’s vaunted bullpen — fifth in the majors in ERA — wound up losing the game, for the first six innings, the bullpen/opener option seemed like it could very well be a workable model with 15 (soon to be more) relievers on the roster.
After Hendriks’s 11-pitch first, Mengden, the bulk man of the bullpen day crew, retired 10 straight on 35 pitches with three strikeouts as the A’s tossed four perfect innings to start.
While on Saturday, Mengden — a starter by trade –didn’t know exactly when he was going in — a product of the A’s first go at the opener model — he knew exactly what to expect on Tuesday. Mengden finished the day having thrown just 51 pitches in 4 2/3 innings on two days’ rest, using his slider and changeup on both sides of the plate.
“I felt pretty good,” Mengden said. “Today is normally my bullpen day, so it was nothing too crazy. Kind of used to it.”
Matt Chapman turned in his nightly gem — coming over from shortstop to field a bunt by Aaron Hicks, calling off Mengden and easily making the running play in the fifth. Chapman, though, followed that up with a wild throw to first on a grounder by Miguel Andujar, giving the Yankees their first baserunner of the evening. A tailor-made double play, though, erased him.
After Neil Walker reached on a Marcus Semien error in the shift in the sixth, a twin killing erased him, as well, but a grounder through the left side by Gleyber Torres broke the spell with New York’s first hit. That spelled the end for Mengden, but Buchter — after throwing over Brett Gardner’s head and hitting his bat — picked Torres off. The A’s, through six, had faced the minimum.
Buchter allowed a single by Gardner to deep short lead off the seventh, and then Familia fell apart.
“We’ve seen him lose command at times, but then find it,” Melvin said. “That’s exactly what he did tonight. Obviously gave up one run, but had two big strikeouts when we needed them to keep it tied … He gets a little quick and comes out of it a bit, but he finds it.”
As quickly as Familia lost the strike zone, he found it again, striking out Miguel Andujar and Gary Sanchez before being lifted for Fernando Rodney to face the switch-hitting Walker. Rodney got him to foul out to Chapman, sprinting over from a shift to shortstop, to end the inning.
Oakland stranded a pair in the seventh, and the Yankees added a leadoff home run from Voit and an RBI single by Hicks in the eighth to take the lead for good. Adeiny Hechavarria, on as a defensive replacement in the eighth, clubbed his fourth home run of the year off of Emilio Pagan in the ninth.