HOUSTON – April is over and the A’s have failed their first overall test of the American League West.
The first month of the season saw Oakland play 26 games, 23 of them against the AL West teams the A’s will have to beat to be competitive.
With Sunday’s 7-2 loss to the Astros, the A’s are 9-13 against the West and five games behind division-leading Houston. A year ago Oakland was heading into May with a 13-12 record and was 1½ games out of first – and that team went on to lose 93 games.
“Competitively, we can hang in there and learn from the best,” left fielder Khris Davis said with a nod to the first-place Astros. He finished the month with 10 homers and 17 RBI. “But this is what we’ve got. We’ve got to go to battle. We stack up in the middle of the pack. We have to stay healthy. We need to string along good ABs after good ABs collectively.”
There wasn’t much of that Sunday, not with Astros ace Dallas Keuchel throwing. He’s 5-0 with a 1.21 ERA, and two of the wins have come against Oakland. The A’s touched him for just three hits Sunday, and that’s part of an ongoing problem.
Sunday was the ninth time Oakland had scored two or fewer runs in a loss. Oakland is third in the AL in homers hit with 31, but only 12th in runs scored with 90.
It’s safe to say this isn’t the productivity Billy Beane, David Forst and Bob Melvin had hoped to be seeing one-sixth of the way into the season.
“We’ve been hurt, and it’s tough to really gauge where we really are with as many injuries as we’ve had,” Melvin said. “I think we need a little more time and get a little bit healthier. Some teams can handle key injuries. It’s a little tougher for us, and we’ve had several key injuries.”
The A’s are banking a great deal on getting healthy.
“The AL West is a battle every year,” catcher Josh Phegley said. “We’re kind of sizing each other up right now. If we get healthy, I like the way our team stacks up against everyone else. If we get rolling, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
But, save for a five-game winning streak on the last homestand, the rolling hasn’t happened yet. And there are issues.
Defense, for one. Oakland is dead last in the AL in both errors – the A’s made their 22nd Sunday – and fielding percentage and mid-month had a streak of errors in 11 consecutive games. The result has been 17 unearned runs, also the most in the league.
Most pervasive of the A’s problem may be the injuries. With Sean Manaea going on the disabled list Sunday morning the A’s have made used of the DL 10 times already. That’s three more times than to this point last year, and in 2016 the A’s set an Oakland record with 27 uses of the DL.
Included on the list are the top three starting pitchers – Sonny Gray and Kendall Graveman in addition to Manaea – starting shortstop Marcus Semien and leadoff hitter Rajai Davis. Graveman came back on Thursday and Gray and Rajai Davis are due to return Tuesday in Minneapolis
“It’s good to know we have reinforcements on the way,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “It’s really important to us. To know that we’re getting Sonny back, that has to be a big boost for the pitching staff. Having Rajai’s energy in the lineup will make stuff happen.”
Khris Davis agreed that having those two return could make for a new burst of energy in the Oakland clubhouse.
“Their presence is very important,” he said. “Everybody loves Sonny. Everybody loves Rajai around here. Their presence adds a lot more dynamics.”
And then there’s Hahn. He didn’t make the starting rotation to start the season, but he’s pitched at least six innings and he’s had a quality start of at least six innings in each of his four starts. That includes Sunday, when he went six innings, allowed eight hits but no walks. Two of the four runs he allowed were unearned.
“He managed some damage, for sure,” Melvin said, suggesting that the right-hander would only have given up two runs were it not for a bad-hop single. “When you don’t score any runs, and each run looks magnified on the other end … but I thought he managed pretty well.”
The start left Hahn four-for-four in giving the A’s quality starts including Sunday’s six innings in which he allowed eight hits but no walks while allowing four runs, two earned.
When Manaea comes off the DL probably in a week or so, someone will be squeezed out of the rotation, and it’s more likely to be Jharel Cotton than Hahn base on recent performances.
For the third time in the series, Josh Reddick reached first base on a catcher’s interference call. Like Stephen Vogt before him, A’s catcher Josh Phegley was a little perplexed. “Those are three base runners we don’t need to give up,” he said.
The A’s had an open spot listed for Thursday’s start in Minnesota, and Melvin said Cotton will throw in that one. He may be pitching to stay in the rotation, because he’s allowed five or more runs in three of his five starts this season and owns as 2-3 record and 5.00 ERA.
Matt Joyce was given Saturday off after being hit Friday in the toe by a pitch. Melvin said he wanted to give Joyce another day off, but instead decided that Jaff Decker needed one more. That made Joyce the only left-handed bat in the Oakland lineup against Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel and he became just the third lefty to reach Keuchel for a hit with a fifth-inning single.
The final three Astros runs came with Marwin Gonzalez homering off the right field foul pole against A’s rookie Frankie Montas. Montas has allowed nine runs in his last 9.2 innings. “He’s got good stuff and the big leagues is tough sometimes,” Melvin said. “You can’t just get by on a fastball. We still expect big things out of him. Sometimes it takes a while to get your bearings.”