Erratic start doesn’t squash A’s optimism 

click to enlarge Jessie Hahn
  • Ben Margot/AP
  • A’s newcomer Jesse Hahn pitched five no-hit innings Sunday against the Mariners before faltering in the sixth inning, when he allowed four runs (only one earned).
OAKLAND — The A’s were down 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning at Coliseum on Sunday, and Seattle Mariners closer Fernando Rodney was on the mound.

Game over? Hardly. The A’s scored four times, coming from behind to force extra innings for the second straight game. But they fell 8-7 in 10 innings, one day after losing 5-4 in 11 innings. Surely, they lead the major leagues in heartbreak.

But after going 3-4 on their opening homestand, the A’s made it clear that some things haven’t changed even though many of the faces are new.

“If you look at the people in this room, we’re all fighters and we’re people who don’t ever want to quit,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “A lot of us, this is our second and third chance. So we’re never going to quit. That’s just what this team is made on, and that’s who we are as people and as players.”

In other words, they’re the same blue-collar, overlooked and dangerous A’s.

This year, the A’s arrived at spring training flying further under the radar than a stealth jet. General manager Billy Beane typically shuffles his team’s roster the way hockey teams change lines, but he outdid himself after last season, when the team lost 9-8 in 12 innings to Kansas City in the American League wild-card playoff game.

Beane made 10 trades with 29 players changing teams. Beane traded away four players who were All-Stars last season — third baseman Josh Donaldson, first baseman Brandon Moss, catcher Derek Norris and pitcher Jeff Samardzija — following his buy-low, sell-high or buy-high, sell-higher pattern.

Ten players on the Opening Day roster were acquired during the offseason. The list includes six key position players — shortstop Marcus Semien, third baseman Brett Lawrie, first baseman Ike Davis, catcher Josh Phegley, utilityman Ben Zobrist and rookie outfielder Mark Canha. Right-handers Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman made the starting rotation. Closer Tyler Clippard, who is filling in for Sean Doolittle, and rookie R.J. Alvarez are in the bullpen. Beane also added designated hitter-first baseman Billy Butler as a free agent.

The A’s lost their top two home run hitters in Donaldson (29) and Moss (25). Yoenis Cespedes, who was traded last season to Boston for left-hander Jon Lester, ranked third on the team with 17 home runs in 101 games. The current team has less power but could well score more runs. Going into Sunday’s game, the A’s were hitting .297, third-best in the league. They had only three home runs but scored 36 runs, more than every team except Detroit (39). During spring training, they led the majors in runs (199) and doubles (90).

“We got a great lineup,” said outfielder Josh Reddick, who made his season debut after missing the first six games with a strained right oblique. “Everybody just doubts it like they always do. I think we’re the only team that’s not surprised by it.”

One thing’s for sure: The A’s would be having a lot more fun if Doolittle were healthy and throwing his ninth-inning heat. With Doolittle out, Clippard, who was expected to be the setup man, has been forced to take over his role. He gave up a solo homer to Nelson Cruz with two outs in the 10th inning. Earlier in the game, left-hander Eric O’Flaherty gave up a three-run blast to pinch-hitter Rickie Weeks. Cruz hit a three-run homer off reliever Dan Otero in the eighth inning Saturday.

“We have good guys down there,” manager Bob Melvin said of his bullpen. “When you don’t have your closer, everybody is in a different slot. We gave up some runs, but we’re better than that.”

The A’s outhit Seattle 14-7 in the series finale, eight of those hits coming against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Every starter in the lineup except Zobrist and Semien had at least one hit. Butler had three hits and extended his hitting streak to seven games, the longest in the American League. Vogt, Lawrie, Reddick and Fuld each had two hits.

Vogt, who has one of the A’s three homers, said he likes the quality depth in Oakland’s lineup this year.

Pitching has long been the A’s foundation, and, despite the bullpen’s early problems, that’s still the case this year. Through their first six games, the A’s had five quality starts and a team ERA of 2.25, which ranked third in the league.

Sonny Gray went 1-0 with a 0.59 ERA in his first two starts, allowing one earned run over 15¹⁄³ innings. Scott Kazmir pitched seven shutout innings against Texas in his first start, allowing one hit and striking out 10. Drew Pomeranz blanked the Mariners for seven innings on two hits. Hahn pitched five no-hit innings Sunday before giving up three hits and four runs in the sixth, but only one of those runs was earned. The rotation’s only real hiccup came from Graveman, who had a nightmare debut against Texas, giving up seven earned runs in 7¹⁄³ innings after going 3-1 with a 0.36 ERA in spring training.

“It’s pretty incredible what this group can do, top to bottom,” Vogt said. “And then we’ve got Doolittle and Parker and Griffin. We’ve got ... too much good pitching, and it’s not a bad problem to have.”

And the new-look A’s could well turn out to be one of baseball’s biggest surprises again.

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