The first half of the year was quite the mixed bag. The team was mired by “representative product” veterans who lacked the punch and the fire for the A’s to compete for most of it, resulting in the A’s rocketing down to the bottom of the American League standings and leading all of baseball in errors and squandering winnable ballgames. It was a team that could instill hope in the hearts of fans while playing at home, but withered like a water-starved daisy playing on the road. But in recent weeks, as spring turned to summer, the A’s have undergone significant changes, calling up their most promising prospects and cultivating a new team identity. They have become more fundamentally sound on defense and have more depth and variation from the top of the lineup to the bottom.
Not that anyone could tell from these last two games.
If he was feeling any jitters during the first start of his big league career, it didn’t show, as Paul Blackburn was impeccable in his big league debut. With his low 90’s fastball, curveball, and changeup arsenal, Blackburn wasn’t going to succeed purely on his innate talent, as he would need deception and execution on his side. And for the entirety of Blackburn’s first chance in the show, he did nothing but deceive and execute. The Braves managed all of five baserunners, three on hits and two on walks/HBPs, one unearned run, and struck out four times in six innings against the righty, and all the contact the Braves made was fairly weak. The lone extra base hit the Braves hit was cut off in the outfield well before the ball reached the warning track, and every batter for Atlanta rolled over on several of Blackburn’s offerings.
Blackburn was calm and collected throughout his entire start, but was able to buckle down even further all but one time the Braves had ducks on the pond. Each of his four strikeouts came with a runner on base, and the Braves were never able to string together multiple hits in any inning. Blackburn’s only free passes occurred in the first inning, when he hit one batter and walked Matt Kemp on four pitches, but sandwiched those subpar at-bats with weak ground balls and a strikeout to ensure the Braves never really threatened to score. The one run that did cross the plate for Atlanta only reached base on a rather inexcusable error from Franklin Barreto at shortstop, on a play wherein the Braves’ catcher hit a routine ground ball to the top prospect and gave Barreto plenty of time to make the play, but the young infielder’s throw nearly ended up in the first base dugout. If one were to nitpick, Paul Blackburn wasn’t that efficient with his pitches, as he was up and over eighty pitches in the fifth and was encroaching upon one hundred pitches by the time he got the third out in the sixth, but considering the last-minuteness of his callup and considering the context of Blackburn’s start, it would be hard to ask for any more
The A’s offense was almost as anemic as it was last night for the first three innings of this game against R.A. Dickey of the Braves. The A’s had a baserunner in each of the first three frames, but a mix of incompetence and poor sequencing prevented any of those runners from advancing. Further incompetence and poor sequencing stagnated an A’s rally in the fourth inning. After Khris Davis reached on a walk following a strong at bat and Yonder Alonso hit a bloop single that landed just between Atlanta’s left fielder and shortstop, Ryon Healy hit his second single of the day on a ground ball up the middle to easily score Davis, and tie the game at one apiece. Matt Olson continued his hot streak at the plate and notched a single of his own to load up the bases, but Josh Phegley was quickly on the ropes after falling behind 0-2 and wound up beating the ball into the ground for an easy double play to end the inning. In the following inning, the A’s left runners on the corners when the third out was recorded.
Barreto’s defense at shortstop proved costly for the A’s today. In addition to his throwing error that eventually paved the way for the Braves’ first run in the second inning, in the seventh inning, with Doolittle freshly in the game in relief of Blackburn, Barreto made an unofficial error. On a ball that was popped up between short and left, Barreto was ranging out and Matt Joyce was breaking in, both athletes calling for the ball. While Joyce was late in charging for the shallow fly ball, the outfielder does take precedence over the infielder on a play like this, but Barreto didn’t hear or notice the sprinting Joyce and the two players collided right as the ball hit the leather of Barreto’s glove, causing the ball to fall harmlessly between them (thankfully both players were A-OK). The batted ball went as a single, but semantics don’t change the fact that it was poor A’s defense that put the runner on base, and the gifted baserunner once again crossed the plate after Dansby Swanson doubled on a line drive into the left field corner to give the Braves a late 2-1 lead. Another run in the eighth inning, off of Ryan Madson, made it 3-1. Given how Paul Blackburn had pitched and the various wasted opportunities at the plate for Oakland, that the A’s were trailing was frustrating.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Jed Lowrie led off the inning with a superb at bat that ended in a walk after eight pitches. Khris Davis then hit the following pitch, a chest-high 98-MPH heater right down the heart of the zone from reliever Arodys Vizcaino, very high and deep to center field for a game tying two-run home run. Hope, for but a moment, was restored.
Hope is a mistake.
Santiago Casilla came into the tie game in the ninth and looked impressive, but was once again let down by Barreto’s defense at shortstop. A strike out to start the inning was followed by a ground ball to shortstop that was bobbled by Barreto that allowed the batter, Danny Santana, to reach first. Santana stole second (his third stolen bag of the game), and then scored on Dansby Swanson’s second consecutive run scoring double into the left field corner. The Braves once again had the lead, 4-3, going into the bottom of the ninth.
Franklin Barreto, looking for some redemption leading off the ninth inning, struck out swinging for the first out of the frame. Two more quick outs followed and the game was over. The A’s lost a winnable baseball game, much like the team did throughout much of the first half of this season, which is now officially behind them.
Paul Blackburn deserved better in his first career start, and the A’s lose the second straight game to start their six game home stand. They will try to salvage the final game of this series tomorrow behind Sean Manaea.