OAKLAND — After a somewhat unsuccessful first effort at using an “opener,” last week, the Oakland Athletics will make another go of it on Tuesday against the New York Yankees. Like last time, it will be Liam Hendriks pitching the first.
Unlike last time, manager Bob Melvin isn’t keen on letting Hendriks go longer than one inning.
“We’ll see,” Melvin said. “Good chance.”
The A’s are trying the bullpenning strategy again because of the shape of the starting staff. Only four starters remain on the roster, if one counts Daniel Mengden, who hasn’t started since returning to the majors in late August. Overall, 10 starters have gone on the disabled list, including Sean Manaea and Brett Anderson (nerve irritation; will throw a bullpen on Wednesday), the most recent additions.
“With the amount of starters who have gone down, we’re trying to do the best we can, and I think you see a number of teams doing it now,” Melvin said. “There’s probably three or four teams doing it right now, trying to combat what usually is the toughest inning for a starter. Might be the first inning, maybe keeps them off of one more turn around. The numbers would suggest that a lot of times, that third time can be a bit of a challenge.”
The A’s, playing their 19th of 20 games in 20 days, will have “quite a few” of their 15-man bullpen unavailable for the second game against the Yankees. Fernando Rodney — who did not pitch on Monday — will be available. Shawn Kelley — who has a laceration on a finger on his pitching hand — may not be available through the Thursday off day.
“It’s day-to-day,” Melvin said. “Yesterday, I’m not going to save somebody if the starter comes out after five and we have a chance to win the game, so you have to go after it.”
An odd snafu kept the A’s from calling up Frankie Montas, who would have been the long man. Because of a new rule in the Major League collective bargaining agreement with the MLB Players Association, players cannot be called back up within 10 days of being sent down, unless there is an injury. Montas was recalled for a start against the Mariners last week, and was sent down on Aug. 31.
For the same reason, the A’s could not recall reliever Ryan Dull, starter Chris Bassitt and outfielder Nick Martini. Melvin, for one, had originally thought all those players would be up by Tuesday.
“The CBA changes all the time, just a couple-day miscalculation,” Melvin said. “With a guy like [Aaron] Brooks today, I don’t think it should be a big deal.”
Brooks, joining Oakland for his second tour of duty with the club, has both started and relieved this season, and said he was going to get his feet wet out of the bullpen on Tuesday. He very well could be the long man, instead of Montas.
Mengden served as the so-called “bulk guy” after Hendriks opened last week, and it’s a tricky ballet the A’s staff has to perform to make sure starters — creatures of habit and routine — are ready to come in in the midst of unfamiliar circumstances.
“You try to be as precise as you can about when he’s going to go in,” Melvin said. “I think with the next guy today, we’re trying to be a little bit more precise.”
Last time out, Oakland left Hendriks in for two innings, and had Mengden warming up after the first and the second.
“We knew that there might be some bumps in the road as far as this goes, and we try to get better with it each time,” Melvin said. “It appeared that he was kind of going through his routine in the first, there was the potential of him coming in the second, ended up coming in the third. He won’t make any excuses, but the more precise you can be, the better they can be prepared to go out there.”
With 15 relievers in the bullpen, the A’s do have a plan for Tuesday, and they have at least some options.
“Based on the fact that we’ve had some bullpen days this year, I don’t mind,” Melvin said.”I have experience doing bullpen days. It’s the opener and then using a starter after that, that’s kind of new territory. At least we’ve had it once. We feel like we’re that much more prepared this time. The fact that we have like 100 guys down there suggests that we can do a bullpen day any day we want to.”
Ideally, Melvin would not want to use one reliever per inning. He’d like to have a pitcher go multiple innings in order to save the rest of the bullpen.
“If you look at the way Tampa does it, it’s typically one inning, and then maybe up to even four or five [for the next pitcher] after that, and then you’re in the game, and you bring in the guys that you usually close out games with,” Melvin said.
Asked why the A’s just don’t have a starter go three or four innings, and go with a bullpen after that — closer to a more traditional game — Melvin said there was a proprietary reason the A’s didn’t want to do that.
The use of an opener — as opposed to a straight-up bullpen game — is designed to exploit matchups in the top part of the lineup.
“The way other teams do it, usually, that first inning, depending on who those matchups are in the first inning, you can get somebody in there that might profile to match up against their first three guys,” Melvin said. “In the case of [Sergio] Romo and the Angels, when they first started it, you have five guys that are all right-handed power hitters. That’s why they used Romo to start.”
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