SEATTLE – Rich Hill has been around his new A’s teammates for almost two months now, but you could argue his arrival came Saturday night.
The A’s got their first real look at how dominant the lefty can be when he’s dialed in with his full arsenal. Hill had the Mariners swinging out of their cleats during a 10-strikeout performance that highlighted Oakland’s 6-1 victory at Safeco Field.
“It’s one of the most underrated things in baseball, getting to call a game for a guy like that, when he has everything working,” A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said.
Hill’s timing couldn’t have been better. His bullpen came in having already logged 20 1/3 innings over the first five games, or more than four full innings on average per game. The A’s needed a starter not named Sonny Gray to eat up some innings. Hill’s effectiveness, not to mention the A’s ability to score early and build a cushion, allowed manager Bob Melvin to use just two relievers – Ryan Dull and Marc Rzepczynski – over the final three innings and give his late-inning workhorses a night off.
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“This was a big game for him and for us,” Melvin said. “We really needed someone to get deep in the game for us. He gave some of the guys in the bullpen a break. I know confidence-wise it was a big game for him.”
Since the start of spring training, Hill has had trouble commanding his fastball and breaking stuff together in the same game. Melvin, Vogt and Hill himself all credited his ability to establish his fastball for strikes as being the key Saturday to setting up a roundhouse curve ball that generated swings and misses all night.
Hill threw a whopping 52 curves among his 99 pitches, and he used it effectively early in the count and as a punch-out pitch. He mixed in a couple sliders and the rest were fastballs clocking in the 89-91 mile-per-hour range.
He struck out the side in the sixth, and his 10th and final strikeout happened to be the 500th of his career.
“He was dropping different arm slots. He was throwing it in different spots of the plate,” Mariners catcher Chris Iannetta said of Hill’s curve. “He was throwing it backdoor to righties, and he dropped down to lefties. He was throwing the fastball out of that lower arm slot, too. He was definitely using everything he had.”
Hill held the Mariners to five hits and one walk over his six innings. He walked one and hit two batters, but Iannetta’s second-inning homer was the only blemish on the scoreboard. Aside from that round-tripper, no Mariner advanced as far as third base against him.
His defense complemented his work with an outstanding all-around game, led by shortstop Marcus Semien. Semien made a terrific diving play up the middle to start an inning-ending double play, and he left his feet to snare Nori Aoki’s liner in the ninth. Right after Aoki’s liner, second baseman Jed Lowrie ranged left to corral Ketel Marte’s grounder and threw to Rzepczynski covering first, who did the splits and managed to catch the throw and keep his foot on the bag.
Semien is hitting just .176, but he’s put together a couple of excellent games with the glove so far.
“The work he puts in, he deserves to have some good games and get going confidence-wise,” Melvin said.
Hill preferred taking all praise and re-directing it toward the pitch-calling of Vogt. But inside, it had to feel good for the lefty to come through with his new team after lasting just 2 2/3 innings on Opening Night. That start came on surprise notice when Gray got sick.
“We’ve known that he can do that, and it’s just a matter of him going out and doing that,” Vogt said. “Especially on a night when the bullpen was a little thin, for him to go out there and pick us up, that shows where the veteran leadership comes in with him.”