Programming note: Tuesday night's A's game against the White Sox can be seen on MLB Network, starting at 7 p.m.
OAKLAND – The call came unexpectedly and threw Rich Hill into surprise preparation mode.
He found out just seven hours before the A’s season opener Monday that he would be taking the mound in place of Sonny Gray, who contracted food poisoning. Hill wound up struggling, failing to make it out of the third inning and putting the A’s behind the 8-ball in an eventual 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
Afterward, the left-hander wasn’t about to use the late notice of his first career Opening Day start as an excuse.
“It was an honor to have the opportunity to start on Opening Day,” Hill said. “It solely falls on me, the inability to go deeper in the game, for us not to come out on top in that one.”
It wasn’t an easy task he was given for his first start in an A’s uniform. Starting pitchers are extremely routine-oriented, accustomed to taking specific steps to prepare them for their day of work every fifth game. To get the call from manager Bob Melvin at about 12:30 on Monday afternoon that he’d be starting that night had to be a jolt, despite Hill’s reluctance to admit it.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Hill not sharp, A's lose on Opening Night]
But regardless of the circumstances, he treated a charged-up sellout crowd at the Coliseum to a wild ride. His first pitch of the night nailed Adam Eaton in the arm. He hit Jose Abreu later in the inning with a 3-2 pitch. Hill managed to keep the Sox off the scoreboard through the first two innings, but there was a feeling that things could spin out of control at a moment’s notice.
He was gone by the next inning, as the White Sox scored four times, aided by a two-out error that scored two and Hill’s own error on a pickoff throw. The most telling numbers of Hill’s night – 66 pitches and just 36 strikes over 2 2/3 innings. That’s not a formula for pitching deep in games, and it’s something that has to change for Hill, who also was hurt by erratic command throughout spring training.
He’s not expected to dominate, but the A’s need their 36-year-old veteran – signed to a one-year, $6 million contract – to be a reliable innings-eater. He didn’t believe his spotty command Monday was the result of being too pumped up for his first Opening Day assignment, in front of a stadium packed with fans pulling for his new team.
“I think maybe a few of the pitches, overaggressive I would call it,” Hill said. “It was just the deep counts, again, the inability to go deep in the game, and that’s disappointing for myself, and obviously the reason why we lost the game.”
In another troubling reminder of spring training for the A’s, shaky defense reared its head again at a costly time. Aside from Hill’s wild pickoff throw in the third, the A’s committed another error with two outs on a ground ball that should have gotten Hill out of the inning. Shortstop Marcus Semien ranged up the middle to gather in Melky Cabrera’s grounder but threw wildly to first. Mark Canha tried extending for the ball while keeping his foot on the bag, and it got by him, allowing two runs to score and putting the A’s in a 4-0 hole they wouldn’t climb out of.
The error was charged to Canha. Perhaps it should have gone to Semien.
Does it matter?
Neither of them handled the play properly.
“That’s what happens when you give extra outs, you can’t do that,” Melvin said. “We learned that last year, we learned it this spring. And in close games it typically ends up being a play like that, a play or two defensivel y that you should make … The one in the corner with the pickoff, and then we don’t execute the one play that cost us two runs, cost us the game.”
That’s two troubling aspects from spring training – Hill’s lack of command and poor defense – that bit the A’s in their season opener, resulting in a one-run loss that provides unwanted reminders of 2015.
And that’s a road Melvin and his team have no interest in traveling down again.