It was deja vu all over again for the Oakland A's in their 2016 season opener, as they dropped yet another one-run game, this time 4-3 to the Chicago White Sox. The A's lost 35 one-run games in 2015.
The A's were set to throw ace Sonny Gray against the White Sox's all-world lefty Chris Sale, but Gray was scratched a few hours before the game with food poisoning. Oakland instead sent veteran Rich Hill to the mound versus Sale. Hill, who struggled through an abysmal spring training, couldn't make it through the third inning and left the game with the A's trailing 4-0.
With Sale on the mound, it looked like it was going to be a long night for the A's, but Oakland clawed back with three runs in the bottom of the third to make it a ballgame. The A's had a few more chances to score against the White Sox, but ultimately could claw no closer than 4-3.
The pivotal inning was the third, when the A's defense once again let them down. With one-out, Hill walked Austin Jackson. Jackson then reached third when Hill threw an errant pick-off to first baseman Mark Canha, who was unable to get a glove on the throw. Jackson would score on Adam Eaton's triple and then Eaton would come around to score on a Jimmy Rollins bloop single to right. Jose Abreu followed with a double, putting Rollins on third and the Sox on the verge of blowing the game open.
Hill battled back to strike-out Todd Frazier and he looked on the verge of limiting the damage to two runs when he got Melky Cabrera to ground a ball up the middle. Marcus Semien fielded it and fired to first. The throw was a bit wide, but Canha was unable to stretch and catch it. The ball rolled past him and both runners scored. The second of those two runs would be the game-winning score.
The A's battled back against Sale in the bottom of the inning. With one out, Stephen Vogt collected an infield single for the first A's hit of the game. Semien followed with a walk and both runners moved up on Billy Burns slow ground-out to short. Jed Lowrie then changed the complexion of the game with a two-run single to cut the Sox's lead in half. After a Josh Reddick single moved Lowrie to second, Lowrie scored on a single to center by Danny Valencia. The A's were unable to get Reddick home from third, however, as Khris Davis struck-out swinging to end the inning.
The A's would have a few other opportunities to score. Billy Butler led off the fourth inning with a double but was stranded at second. He would double again in the sixth, this time with two-outs, but pinch-runner Coco Crisp was left stranded at second. In the seventh, Burns singled with two-outs but was picked off first by catcher Dioner Navarro. In the eighth, the A's had a runner on second with one out, but could move him no further, and in the ninth, the A's got a lead-off walk from Crisp but he was stranded there.
Despite the loss, there were several good things for the A's to take away from this game. The biggest was the performance of the bullpen, which dominated. Fernando Rodriguez, Ryan Dull, John Axford, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle combined to throw 6.1 scoreless innings. They allowed four hits, didn't walk a batter and struck-out three.
Butler is in need of a good start to his season and he had a big game, doubling twice in three at-bats against Sale. He should see a few more starts in this series with the White Sox's lefty-heavy staff.
Lowrie was also impressive in his return to Oakland. He had the key two-out, two-RBI hit in the third and worked a walk.
Hill continues to struggle and the A's suddenly look very thin in their rotation with Felix Doubront on the DL. Hill made a throwing error, hit two batters and walked one in 2.2 innings. He also allowed a double and a triple.
The A's defense continues to look shaky. Semien's throw on the key play to Canha in the third was off-line, but it was a play that Canha should have made. Lowrie had a shaky play at second on a Rollins' groundball that he barely got the out on in the seventh that could have led to a big innings. Axford also had a misplay on a grounder that was ruled a hit. The A's will need to shore up that defense if they have any chance of competing this year.
The A's also struggled with runners in scoring position once again. Oakland was 2-for-10 and left six runners on base. With the exception of the third inning, they were a team in need of a big hit all night.
A's prospect Yairo Munoz will begin the year in extended spring training. He is dealing with heel and foot issues and is scheduled to see a doctor on Tuesday, according to A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman. A timetable for Munoz's return is not yet known.
A's catching prospect Lana Akau suffered a concussion during spring training and has yet to resume on-field activities. There is no timetable for his return at this point either, according to Lieppman.
The A's four full-season affiliates released their preliminary Opening Day rosters on Monday. All four rosters can be found here.