OAKLAND — The first month of the 2019 season was always going to be a difficult one for the Oakland Athletics. Aside from a trip to Japan interrupting spring training, foreshortening the pitching staff’s run-up to the season and costing them first baseman Matt Olson, the A’s would be missing their ace, Sean Manaea, and two other rotation pieces in AJ Puk and Jharel Cotton, slated to return from injury around the mid-season mark.
Oakland just had to tread water. The A’s sank. Starting out 19-25 with Mike Fiers going 2-2 with an 8.28 ERA in his first six starts, Oakland quickly fell back to last place in the American League West at 19-25. Then, their bats fell quiet, hitting just 12 home runs in 19 games.
With their 6-5 win on Saturday — their second straight over the now-struggling Seattle Mariners — Oakland has now won eight straight games — their longest winning since 2013 — and clubbed 20 homers in the process, moving up to third in the division and two games over .500. Fiers has found his command, and after another six solid innings on Saturday, he now has a 2.84 ERA in his last six starts.
“We’re confident and everything is clicking right now,” said A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano. “Just keep it rolling.”
Oakland has hit 25 home runs over its last 11 games, including Matt Chapman’s second-inning opposite-field solo shot on Saturday, but as the A’s showed early in the season — when they went just 10-9 while clubbing 36 homers to open the year — offense doesn’t do much if it’s not backing up consistent pitching.
Fiers — Oakland’s nominal ace in Manaea’s absence — has now gone five innings or more and allowed three runs or fewer in each of his last six starts, including his second career no-hitter. The A’s starters over the last nine games have compiled a 2.32 ERA.
“For the past month, I’ve been feeling great, feeling 100 percent, or pretty close to it, so that’s the biggest thing, is feeling healthy,” said Fiers. “Feeling like I’m throwing every pitch the way [I] want it, and that’s half the battle. Locating comes next, and that’s pretty much it.”
Fiers finished Saturday allowing five hits and no walks, striking out three in six innings, and throwing 89 pitches in what manager Bob Melvin called a “workman-like” outing, where he only threw 13 of his 89 pitches while behind in the count.
“I still feel like I’m working out a couple things here and there, but I’m getting back to the pitcher I am, and throwing more strikes, challenging guys early and being the aggressor,” Fiers said. “I was throwing everything for strikes, speeding them up and slowing them down.”
The only damage Fiers really sustained was on three mistakes, the first a one-out single by Mitch Haniger, a two-out solo home run on a 2-2 changeup in the fourth by Domingo Santana and a Haniger solo shot in the fifth — his fourth homer in six games against the A’s.
Oakland, meanwhile, continued their offensive explosion that’s seen them average 7.25 runs per game over the course of their winning streak. Even more impressive has been the fact that, since slugger Khris Davis went down with his initial hip contusion in Pittsburgh (he landed on the injured list officially on Friday), Oakland has slugged 31 homers in 17 games.
“We have enough guys to hold the fort down,” Melvin said. “With Mark Canha swinging the bat like he is right now, we got Matt Olson back, which was huge for us, we have enough. We definitely have enough.”
The A’s got out to a 1-0 lead on a line-drive, opposite-field 109-mph solo homer by Chapman in the first, and after stranding a man on second with one out in the second, Oakland got back-to-back singles with one out in the third from Chad Pinder and Chapman. After a two-out walk to Mark Canha (1-for-3, double, walk, run), Jurickson Profar hit a chopper over the mound.
Second baseman Shed Long came in front of the bag to cut it off, and threw to first, but not in time, as Pinder scored. Chapman, trying to score from second, aggressively blew through a stop sign from Matt Williams at third to try and force a perfect throw. First baseman Encarnacion made that throw to nip Chapman, but only barely.
“He knows from the other side that you have to make a really good throw to get him, so I’m fine with it,” Melvin said.
Laureano led off the fourth with a double — making it five straight games in which he’s doubled, matching the Oakland record set by Miguel Tejada, who did it four times, the last in 2003. Laureano, as is his way, professed to having no idea who preceded him in the doubles department.
“I think we’re about ready to see him start to heat up,” Melvin said.
After Josh Phegley took a dose, Marcus Semien lined a single into left that ate up Santana, bringing Laureano around to score. Semien took second on the throw, and Phegley advanced to third. A two-run double down the line in left by Pinder chased Yusei Kikuchi, who came in seventh in the Majors this season with seven quality starts, and had allowed 16 total hits over his last four outings combined before allowing 10 to Oakland.
After Santana’s solo shot, the A’s added on insurance in the eighth, when a Laureano sacrifice fly cashed in a Canha leadoff double. They would need it, as closer Blake Treinen, after loading the bases in the ninth on Friday, gave up another homer to Santana, cutting the lead to 6-4. It could have been worse, had Laureano not made a catch on the dead run on a drive to center by catcher Omar Narvaez to lead off the inning.
“If [Laureano] doesn’t make that play, we’re still playing,” Chapman said.
A double by Kyle Seager was followed by another sparkling defensive effort, as Robbie Grossman — starting in left only because a stomach illness scratched Stephen Piscotty in right, necessitating a move of Pinder — made a sliding snatch on a foul ball by Jay Bruce. Grossman covered 108 feet in 5.2 seconds to make the play, according to Statcast.
A double by J.P. Crawford immediately after the catch drove in a run to make it 6-5. Treinen, who has a 4.91 ERA in his last eight appearances — far from the immortal he was last season, when he had a 0.78 ERA and 38 saves — finally got Long to fly out to right to end the game.
“It’s just so rare to see him get hit a little bit,” Melvin said. “I think everybody’s in shock sometimes. His sinker’s running a little bit, trying to do off the plate and do some things differently with his other pitches, but his stuff’s still good. I think he’ll be fine.”