ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The picture of politeness away from the mound, Rich Hill had steam coming out of his ears in the bottom of the first Friday.
Handed a four-run lead by his A’s teammates in the top half, Hill’s command deserted him to begin his night. It didn’t help he was getting squeezed by home plate umpire Brian Gorman.
Hill yelled at himself emphatically after getting a return throw from catcher Stephen Vogt. After another pitch missed, he snatched Vogt’s throw out of the air with his bare hand, still fuming.
“He’s a great teammate,” shortstop Marcus Semien said. “I like that fire he shows.”
Hill’s temper simmered down, but his competitive edge never did in a 6-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that snapped the A’s five-game losing streak. He took the mound knowing how bad Oakland needed a strong effort from him.
The A’s hadn’t had a starter complete four innings in any of their previous four games. The bullpen, pressed into such heavy duty of late, has been leaking oil just like the rotation. Hill responded by holding the Rays to three runs and four hits over six innings. After walking three in the first, he issued just one more free pass the rest of his outing.
He rang up his fifth victory of the season, tied for fourth in the American League. Most importantly, when handed a sizeable early lead, Hill made it stand. And watching early leads evaporate had been the most demoralizing aspect of the A’s losing streak.
“When the hitters go out there and put four runs up in the first inning, we’ve got to shut it down,” Hill said. “After I gave up two in the first inning, I was disappointed in myself. But I didn’t stop fighting.”
His effort provided the glue to a satisfying all-around effort as the A’s won for just the second time in seven tries on this nine-game road trip. The offense was there with four home runs, led by Danny Valencia, who went deep twice for his first homers of the season.
His first-inning shot off Jake Odorizzi struck the second of four catwalks that ascend toward the roof of Tropicana Field. The ball ricocheted all the way back to shallow left field.
“We were trying to do it today in BP,” Valencia said. “KD (Khris Davis) was doing it, and I was like ‘Man, I wanna hit one up there.’”
But Valencia’s single biggest play of the night came at third base, when he made a diving snag of Evan Longoria’s liner with the bases loaded in the ninth and one out. The A’s led by three, but closer Ryan Madson was wobbling, and Longoria’s laser would have scored two had it gotten through the infield.
“The whole game he seemed he was pulling the ball,” Valencia said of Longoria. “I felt like every at-bat he was gonna hit the ball to me. Just anticipation for me.”
That play only mattered because the 36-year-old Hill (5-3) provided the steadying effort on the mound the A’s so desperately needed. His ERA is 2.68, and with No. 1 starter Sonny Gray struggling to find his form, it’s scary to think where the A’s rotation would be without Hill. He is 5-0 with a 1.76 ERA on the road, becoming the first A’s pitcher since Kevin Appier and Gil Heredia in 2000 to win his first five road decisions.
After retiring Kevin Kiermaier to strand a runner at third to end the sixth, his final batter, Hill let out a shout as he walked off the mound with the A’s still owning a three-run lead.
“We signed him for a reason,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s a reason he’s pitching at the top of the rotation.”