OAKLAND – The A’s bullpen essentially has held an open audition for any combination of relievers that can get the job done consistently.
The search continues following Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox, the ninth time in their past 12 defeats that the A’s have lost by one run. In this one, it was Fernando Rodriguez on the mound when things went south, as he gave up two runs (aided by his two-base throwing error with two outs) in the seventh that broke a 2-2 tie.
But you can swap in different names – Evan Scribner, Fernando Abad, Dan Otero, Angel Castro – it’s been a revolving door of relievers that have fallen victim to the late-inning disaster this team inevitably finds itself in. Through 38 games, the A’s already have used 15 relievers. That’s more than they used in each of the past two years, and this season is less than six weeks old.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Seventh inning haunts A's in loss to White Sox]
Rodriguez had shown a spark of hope since being recalled May 7. He had fixed a flaw with his leg kick. He was pumping his fastball in the mid-90’s for strikes. Manager Bob Melvin had talked of Rodriguez being a guy who had earned the right to take the ball in the late innings of close games.
But every time someone in the bullpen seems to emerge, they’ve quickly stumbled through an outing that takes the situation back to the unsettled mess it’s been all season.
Rodriguez, taking over for Jesse Chavez to start the seventh, retired the first two hitters. Then Adam Eaton dropped a bunt to the right side, Rodriguez threw the ball down the right field line to send Eaton around to third, and the familiar seventh-inning blues struck the A’s once again.
They’ve given up 37 runs in the seventh inning this season in 38 games, the most in the majors.
“He gets two quick outs and has an opportunity to get three quick outs and then kind of unraveled a little bit afterwards,” Melvin said. “So we’re still obviously searching for what the right answer is in the seventh inning.”
The school of thought is that when closer Sean Doolittle gets activated from the disabled list, which could happen sometime in the next two weeks, the bullpen roles will fall into place leading up to him in the ninth inning. Tyler Clippard can handle the eighth, and perhaps someone will emerge as a reliable seventh-inning presence.
But what shape will the A’s be in by the time they get their All-Star closer back? Saturday’s loss dropped them to 11½ games behind the first-place Houston Astros. And though the calendar still reads May, they’re digging themselves one heck of a hole to climb out of.
A side note that suddenly seems quite relevant given the A’s current bullpen woes. Pat Venditte, the ambidextrous pitcher who turned heads during spring training, retired all eight hitters he faced Saturday in Triple-A Nashville’s 18-inning loss to New Orleans. Venditte, a 29-year-old who has never cracked the majors, lowered his ERA to 1.09.
The switch pitcher certainly is on the front office’s radar, though the A’s would need to bump somebody from the 40-man roster to squeeze him on to the 25-man big league roster.
In that same marathon game for Nashville, Barry Zito started for the Sounds and gave up four runs on five hits over 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five and walked three. His ERA sits at 4.84 after eight starts.