OAKLAND — Headed into this offseason, the Oakland Athletics were in need of a rotation overhaul. After 14 different pitchers started games for the A’s in 2018, four staff-wide Tommy John surgeries and a shoulder surgery for ace Sean Manaea put the club in a bind. Then, they re-signed Mike Fiers, traded for bullpen help in Joakim Soria, brought back Aaron Brooks and signed starter Marco Estrada. Frankie Montas added a devastating splitter for good measure.
Though Jesus Luzardo went down two weeks ago with a shoulder injury, and Chris Bassitt went down in Japan after a line driveoff his shin, the rotation certainly wasn’t a world beater, but it was functional. It could possibly withstand the first half, as Oakland awaited the return of Luzardo and the rehab of two of those Tommy John patients — A.J. Puk and Jharel Cotton.
On Opening Day, Fiers provided six shutout innings. Estrada, too, had a strong Oakland debut in Thursday’s Opening Night, throwing six shutout innings of his own and allowing just two hits against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Then, against Soria and the A’s bullpen, what had been a pitchers’ duel turned into a rout, as the Angels broke through for six runs against Oakland relievers in the final two innings for a 6-2 win.
Soria, in his first action in Oakland, entered in the top of the eighth with a 2-0 lead, and allowed a sharp leadoff single up the middle to former Athletics catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Then left fielder Brian Goodwin flared a single to right. Estrada then surrendered an RBI double to Kole Calhoun.
“This is the Major Leagues; if you throw a strike, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be successful,” Soria said. “I threw five pitches in the strike zone, and threw just one quality pitch. They’re going to make you pay if you don’t throw quality pitches. This is baseball. You have to adjust.”
After walking Mike Trout to load the bases, Soria was pulled for Ryan Buchter.
“Soria always seems to find a way to get out of it, and today wasn’t the case,” said manager Bob Melvin. “They put three good swings on him right away, so we tried to match up after that.”
The left-handed Buchter got ahead of Justin Bour 0-1, and then hit the inside corner with a curveball at the knees. It was called a ball. Buchter then issued two more balls to walked in the tying run.
“At the end of the day, they can do whatever they want, call balls or strikes,” Buchter said of the umpires. “There’s no repercussions, there’s no fines, they have absolute job security. But, that’s baseball … We still have 159 [games left], plus the playoffs? Maybe I’m wrong. 158? I’m bad at math. I went to junior college.”
Liam Hendriks came on and promptly allowed a two-run single to Andrelton Simmons, and Los Angeles would add another pair of runs in the top of the ninth on three straight two-out hits against Fernando Rodney.
Estrada, for his part, had escaped a pair of jams of his own making, getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth with a groundout by Zack Cozart, and then rolling up a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play to get out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth.
“I’m not really known for ground balls, so I was pretty happy with that,” Estrada said.
The A’s have now gotten two quality starts out of pitchers who were shaky during the team’s trip to Japan, with Fiers giving up five runs in three innings and Estrada giving up three in five. That’s something they’ll need over the rest of their 18-games-in-18-days stretch to start the season.
“He was great, and I was willing to let him go out for the seventh, but once we took the lead, we had our guys lined up, and we were ahead,” Melvin said. “Similar to Fiers last night. Gave you everything you could expect.”
The A’s had a golden opportunity to get over against Los Angeles starter Matt Harvey — who started things off with four no-hit innings — when he allowed a pair of walks to lead off the bottom of the fifth. A’s shortstop Marcus Semien broke up the no-hit bid with an infield single on a swinging bunt to load the bases, but a Ramon Laureano strikeout and a double play ended that scoring opportunity.
Oakland had jumped ahead in the sixth thanks to Davis, who was given the Edgar Martinez Outstanding Designated Hitter Award before the game — and third baseman Matt Chapman, who was handed the Gold Glove, Platinum Glove and Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award by former A’s third baseman and current Angels special advisor Eric Chavez.
The leading home run hitter in the Major Leagues the last three years, Davis cashed in a 107-mph line-drive double by Chapman in the sixth with his third home run in four games, crushing a hanging breaking ball from Harvey for a 404-foot homer. The drive by Davis came out at a blistering 106.3 mph, and with a shallow launch angle of just 23 degrees, snuck just over the railing atop the high left field wall.
“He’s a strong kid, man,” said Estrada, who teamed with Davis early in the slugger’s career in Milwaukee. “When he connects, it goes a long ways, and it’s impressive to watch him hit those mistakes … It’s fun now, because I don’t have to pitch against him … It’s nice to have him on our side.”