OAKLAND — For the A’s, the nightmare of an opener began long before Rich Hill plunked the first batter on the first pitch of the 2016 campaign.
“This morning at 8:30 [I got a call from Sonny Gray],” explained head trainer Nick Paparesta. “And it wasn’t, ‘Hey good morning. Happy Opening Day.’ It was, ‘Something’s wrong.’”
That something was a bout of food poisoning that knocked Gray out of his Opening night outing. The staff ace was admitted to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek shortly before 10 a.m. when he was given three IV bags and anti-vomiting medication before being discharged early in the afternoon.
With Gray sidelined, manager Bob Melvin tabbed Hill to make his first Opening Day start and just his fifth overall in the past seven seasons.
“I was thinking about what I would tell him but I think there’s no easy way to get into that,” Melvin said of his phone conversation with Hill.
The suspect starting rotation and underwhelming defense — the team’s two most glaring weaknesses entering the season — both let down the sellout home crowd in an ugly third frame that lasted 41 minutes and featured seven combined runs.
Hill recorded only two outs in the inning before getting the hook from Melvin, as the visitors jumped out to a 4-0 advantage thanks in part to errors from the lefty starter and first baseman Mark Canha.
“That’s what happens when you give extra outs, you can’t do that. We learned that last year. We’ve learned it this spring,” Melvin said. “And in close games it typically ends up being a play like that. We don’t execute the one play that cost us the two runs. [That] cost us the game.”
Oakland clawed back into the contest in the bottom of the third, scoring three times off Chris Sale. Jed Lowrie put the A’s on the board, rapping a two-run single to right field before Danny Valencia drove in the third run.
After Hill’s early exit, the new-look relief crew performed as advertised: Fernando Rodriguez, Ryan Dull, John Axford, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle combined to throw 6.1 scoreless innings.
“Our bullpen stepped up,” Stephen Vogt said. “… To see the moves we made and the other parts of our bullpen come in and do what they did, it was outstanding. They gave us a chance to win and, you know, like we always do, we get the winning run to the plate and we just weren’t able to come through.”
Even if Hill became the Game 1 starter by default — and struggled — the assignment capped quite the rise for the $6 million offseason acquisition who spent the majority of 2015 in the minor leagues (with a two-start detour with the Long Island Ducks in independent ball).
“Opening Day is a holiday,” Melvin declared hours before a pregame video tribute and moment of silence for Dave Henderson and Tony Phillips, who both passed away during the offseason. “It’s more of a postseason feel. I got here at 10:45 [a.m.] and there were people waiting to get in at 10:45 — lining up at our gate. So, we’re kind of famous for that [atmosphere].”
But the pregame runup wasn’t fun for everyone.
“Let’s be honest, Sonny wasn’t very happy when I told him in the hospital that he wasn’t pitching today,” said Paparesta who sounded less than thrilled to be delivering a dugout press conference on Day 1 of the season.