OAKLAND — The A’s traded away two quality starters and feature a bullpen filled with inexperienced arms. Yet one month through the season, pitching is what continues to keep them a competitive group.
Outings like the one turned in by Cole Irvin in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Guardians at Oakland Coliseum have become the norm. The left-hander went toe-to-toe with Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, tossing six solid innings of one-run ball as he departed in a tie ballgame after retiring six of his final seven batters faced, including striking out the side in his last frame.
“Big performance by Cole,” said A’s manager Mark Kotsay. “He pitched out of trouble. I’m really happy with how he managed the game and got us into the sixth inning. Overall, the starting pitching is getting us deep into games with a chance to win.”
Irvin’s strong effort capped a month of April that saw Oakland’s rotation post a 3.81 team ERA through 21 games, with its 106 1/3 innings pitched ranking as the third-highest mark by a starting staff in the American League. Irvin has been an integral part of that success, now having allowed just five earned runs in 22 1/3 innings over his last four starts to lower his ERA to 2.93 for the year.
Perhaps Irvin’s biggest area of growth this year has been his calmness when dealing with heavy traffic on the bases. Last year, Irvin’s .324 batting average against with runners in scoring position was the highest in the Majors and fifth-highest in Oakland history. Entering Saturday, though, opponents were just 3-for-16 (.188) against him in such situations.
That ability stayed true against Cleveland. Despite allowing six hits and two walks, Irvin was able to negate that with three double-play balls. He also escaped a bases-loaded jam unscathed, coaxing a pair of flyouts in the third.
“I think experience has a lot to do with that,” Irvin said of his improvements with runners on base. “Being in it a few times and understanding it’s OK to let one run score on a ground ball that gets a double play. Just trying to simplify it and not stress myself out a little too much. I think I learned a lot last year in situations of pitching with guys on base. Executing pitches today was the biggest part.”
Given the rebuilding nature of this A’s club, getting through April with a record of 10-11 should generally be viewed as a positive. Of course, there is always plenty of room for improvement.
After a hot start on offense through the first 10 games, A’s bats have gone cold, with situational hitting now a growing frustration. Going hitless in eight at-bats with runners in scoring position on Saturday, the A’s are now 8-for-65 (.123) in such situations over their last 10 contests. Even against a Cy Young-caliber pitcher in Bieber, Oakland had its chances. In the third inning a bases-loaded opportunity with only one out was squandered after Billy McKinney struck out and Seth Brown grounded out, indicative of the offense’s struggles on the afternoon.
“If you assess the last week or so, it’s a combination of running into good pitching and our at-bats with runners in scoring position,” Kotsay said. “That could be a little better. We continue to talk about it and grind on it. You’re going to go through peaks and valleys in a season.”
The expected growing pains with a defense still learning to mesh with one another are also showing, as the A’s have now committed at least one error in nine of their last 10 games.
On Saturday, it was a rare error from A’s No. 4 prospect Nick Allen, who is regarded as a future Gold Glover with elite defensive traits at shortstop, that proved costly. With Oscar Mercado at the plate in the ninth with one out, Allen, who was playing second base, was unable to field a grounder that potentially could have led to an inning-ending double play. Two batters later, Richie Palacios broke a 1-1 tie by roping a two-run double off Dany Jiménez, whose streak of eight scoreless innings to begin the season was snapped with two unearned runs.
Though Mercado’s ground ball was made a bit more difficult after it deflected off Jiménez’s glove, Allen maintained it was a play he should have been able to make.
“It had a little spin on it but I definitely could come through it and make the play,” Allen said. “That’s a play we need to make to win the ballgame, and it just didn’t go our way. Today we had a couple [defensive plays] that I definitely could be better on. But we’re moving on.”