A’s on the Mound: Should Fans Expect April to Continue?

On Monday night, the defending world champion Astros teed off on Athletics starter Brett Anderson as if they were scrimmaging against Oakland’s Triple-A Nashville Sounds with Anderson still there. Astros leadoff George Springer alone had nearly as many hits as the A’s, breaking an Astro record.

Few expect Anderson, or any of the team’s pitchers, to compete now on the level of Houston’s Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. Many A’s fans would be happy if their pitchers could at least make it look like they belong in Oakland and not Nashville—which until Monday they had.

For a team expected to compete for the last place in the American West, the A’s performed solidly in April.

Although they largely rely on Khris Davis, Matt Olsen, Mark Canha, and Jed Lowrie, for hits, their defense—particularly their pitching staff—at least gave them something to hit for.

After losing key starters to injuries, rather than drop a hefty price on an Alex Cobb or Bartolo Colon, Oakland’s front office decided to farm its existing talent and acquire previous hires.

This no doubt annoyed some supporters because the team started 2018 without an ace. Sean Manaea showed the most promise if only he could return to his old 2016 self. But in 2017, he only managed a 4.37 ERA and lost velocity on his fastball—blamed on the weight loss he experienced from his Attention Deficit Disorder medication.

The A’s rotation, however, proved in April that they can compete with some of the best in the league. The bullpen came alive when needed, with Lou Trevino and Yusmeiro Petit’s having especially stood out.

Manaea led the AL with a 1.03 ERA, including a no-hitter against the Red Sox, which earned him American League Pitcher of the Month.

Losing Jharel Cotton to Tommy John surgery prompted the A’s to bring back free agent Trevor Cahill for a modest $1.5 million one-year contract. They originally drafted Cahill as an 18-year-old in 2006, and he played with them in 2009 and 2010. Like Anderson though, who played with the A’s from 2009 to 2013, Cahill has since gone under the radar, struggling with injuries and bouncing around the league, mostly as a reliever.

Since rejoining the A’s though, Cahill has pitched better than ever and currently holds a 2.25 ERA. He became only the third A’s pitcher to strike out 12 or more batters in six innings in his recent shutout against the Orioles.

Meanwhile, Andrew Triggs and Daniel Mengden have also pleasantly surprised.

Although none of their rotation pitched at an Angels or Red Sox level, they proved they had every reason to be where they are.

Perhaps Anderson’s dismal performance on Monday was “just one of those games,” as Melvin put it. It did differ sharply from his recent debut against the Mariners where he threw the seventh best swinging-strike rate of his career in 6+ innings. But it shows the maddening inconsistency that will likely continue for A’s fans until the team’s starters gain more confidence and experience at the helm.

Although putting away the Orioles improved the team to 18-16, the month of May likely presents the toughest stretch that any team will face this year. After their series against the Astros, they travel to Yankee Stadium to take on the hottest team in the league. They then travel to Boston to face the Yankees’ only competition in that department, followed by the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Diamondbacks.

“That list includes five of the six current best teams in the AL by record, with only the Angels missing,” notes Athletics Nation’s Alex Hall. “In their place, we get the current best team in the NL.”

The lack of aces in their starting rotation created basement expectations for the A’s. To raise them will require the team’s channeling its inner April. Manaea, Cahill, Triggs, or possibly even Anderson could develop into aces with time, but it will require a significant boost in confidence and expectations.

Most A’s fans don’t expect them to win the pennant, but they would like to see it at least be a rebuilding year to put them in contention for 2019. Whether their rotation and bullpen enjoyed a temporary April high—or if they really are that good—will be tested every game in May.








Is Ohtani Mania Over? Or Just Warming Up?

The poor performance by the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way wonder Shohei Ohtani against the Boston Red Sox tells more about baseball and the Red Sox than Ohtani.

Ohtani stole the hearts and imagination of millions of fans after awing in his first three games against the Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians. The Japanese rookie pitched 18 strikeouts in 13 innings. His splitter fastball seemed unhittable. He also proved just as dangerous at the plate, hitting .367, including 3 home runs and 11 RBIs.

On Tuesday night, forty-five thousand fans filled Angel Stadium—the second largest crowd since 1998 when it was renovated. Many saw the showdown with the number one ranked Red Sox as the ultimate test of Ohtani’s star power. Ohtani met his match early, however, against leadoff Mookie Betts, dubbed by Red Sox blog Surviving Grady as the meeting of an Unstoppable Force (Ohtani) with an Immovable Object (Betts). Betts, one of the most difficult to strike out in the league, took two strikes from Ohtani before driving one out of the park. Ohtani fell apart after that. He gave up four hits and two walks as the Red Sox racked up a total of three runs against him. The Angels pulled him midway through the second inning, citing a blister on his pitching hand.

Although Ohtani both pitched and hit poorly during spring training, allusions that Ohtani’s latest performance represents his true baseball prowess, and not the Ohtani against the A’s and Indians, hardly holds up. The Red Sox hit off Luke Bard even more brutally than they did off Ohtani, clipping the Angels’ wings with a humiliating 10-1 victory. Betts homered twice more, making it the third three-homer game of his career, tying a Red Sox record with Ted Williams.

Several commentators have brought the typical problems for Japanese pitchers into play, such as the different ball structure and the mound height. But Ohtani has had ample time to make the necessary American adjustments, and those impediments didn’t seem to hurt him against the A’s and Indians. The morale loss with Betts’ opening homerun, however, cannot be discounted. The showdown of champions occurred, and Betts won. This gave the Red Sox a clear momentum advantage.

More than Ohtani’s showing his weakness against the Red Sox, the Red Sox showed that they are truly a force to be reckoned with and the hottest team in the MLB right now. Ohtani’s poor performance no doubt deflated some fans’ hopes who see him as the Second Coming of Babe Ruth. But it’s far too early for Ohtani’s fans to lose hope that this wunderkind will help make baseball the greatest American sport again and lift the Angels to unpredicted success this year.

Ohtani’s first three games were not flukes. But as ESPN’s David Schoenfield put it, “Shohei Ohtani was making the game look a little too easy, and it most certainly is not easy.”