For the first time in four years, I did not attend Opening Day at the Coliseum this year. It was probably for the best, as Athletics’ fans aspirations for a championship run was tempered by the Yankees 15-run pummeling of the green and gold, sending our “ace” Barry Zito after recording only four outs. Of course, I was more interested in Game 2’s matchup, pitting New York veteran Mike Mussina against our true frontman, Rich Harden. Before the game, we were dealt a blow bigger than the previous day’s loss: SS Bobby Crosby was out with a gashed finger, forcing into the lineup Marco Scutaro, who has to fight for a roster every spring but seems to come up with key hits throughout the season.
Top 1. Harden immediately gets into trouble, walking Damon, and Jeter follows with a double to left. With the meat of the order looming, I’m sure most fans were thinking of the previous night’s debacle. But Harden was up to the challenge. After an eight-pitch duel, the kid struck out Sheffield. ARod: struck out swinging. Giambi: struck out swinging. The crowd was electrified on the final swing of Giambi’s at bat, and we remembered why this team is a title contender after all.
Top 3. Mussina and Harden cruised into through the second without incident. The top of the 3rd appeared to continue the trend, as Harden set down Cano and Damon. Unfortunately, after going down in the count 0-2, Jeter worked a walk, and Sheffield sent a line drive just over the glove of Swisher in left, plating the Yankee captain. Rodriguez followed with a shot to left, but a nice throw from Swisher to the plate held Sheff at third, and ARod got hung up between first and second base, ending the inning without further damage.
Bottom 3. In the first two innings, Oakland scarcely put good wood on the ball. Nick Swisher changed that. Down 1-2, he got just enough to take Mussina deep to right field. Scutaro then reached on a Cano error and advanced to second on an Ellis single. Kotsay put another on the board with a single to right, scoring Scutaro. With two aboard and Chavez and Thomas due up, the A’s had a golden opportunity to extend their lead, but Mussina worked out of the jam.
Top 4. Harden didn’t hold the slim lead for long. As in the previous frame, a walk instigated the trouble. A free pass to Giambi led off the inning, and a double by Matsui put the runners at second and third. Posada’s ground out to shortstop drove in Giambi but held Matsui at second. Williams popped out, then Cano smacked a liner to center that Kotsay hauled in.
Bottom 4. The A’s hit Mussina around a bit in the 3rd, but Johnson, Bradley, and Kendall are set down on five pitches in the 4th. I was really disappointed with this. Facing a 38 year-old pitcher, you want to run up that pitch count. I was happy that Swisher came back the next inning with a nine pitch at bat to make the Moose work.
Top 6. The tie score lasted into the sixth, where ARod led off with a single. Harden retired Giambi and Matsui, with Rodriguez moving to second on Giambi’s ground out. Posada posted his second RBI of the game with a single to right, and the Yankees took back the lead 3-2. Another base hit followed. Harden out. Duchscherer in. The Duke sat Cano down on three pitches, and prevented New York from getting back to the top of the order.
Bottom 6. Kotsay popped out to start the 6th, which brought Chavez to the plate. To this point, the $66 million man was hitless on the season, looking foolish in his first two at bats against Mussina. But this time, Chavy hit a rocket down the right field line, tucking it around the fair pole. It was a vintage Chavez homer, not a towering drive, but a line shot barely 30 feet off the ground at its highest point, and the game was tied again. Next up was Thomas, who walked. I hoped this was the sign Mussina was about to crack, but he settled down to get Johnson and Bradley.
7 and 8. The battle of the bullpens. Duchscherer worked a scoreless 7th, and Kennedy survived a baserunner in the 8th. At the plate, the A’s stranded a baserunner each in the 7th and 8th.
Top 9. Street on to keep the game tied at 3-3. The rain that held off for most of the evening now started to come down. With one out, Damon doubled over Bradley in right. Street got out number 2 and kept Damon at second base on Jeter’s grounder to short. The A’s closer battled back from 2-0 to run the count full on Sheffield before yielding a walk, bringing Rodriguez to the plate. Once again, I couldn’t help but think of Opening Day, specifically ARod’s grand slam. But Street slammed the door on the potential rally, as Rodriguez grounded into a force out.
Bottom 9. In another debatable move, Torre brought in Proctor to keep the A’s in check. He immediately walked Bradley on four pitches. Kendall bunted the Gamer to second, prompting Torre to walk Swisher intentionally to set up the inning ending double play. Fill-in SS Scutaro had other plans however. Marco took Proctor’s 1-1 offering over Matsui’s head in left, scoring Bradley, and sending the A’s fans home happy.
The A’s managerial strategy has been the subject of a book and numerous articles, and there were two instances in this game which highlighted the organizational philosophy.
Bunting: Torre bunted Jeter with no outs in the 7th and Damon on first. It was successful, but it took the bat out of one of their best hitters, who the A’s hadn’t gotten out yet. Jeter is also pretty fast, so the double play shouldn’t have been a big concern, and even if he doesn’t get a hit, they still have Sheffield and Rodriguez coming up, who are more than capable of driving in a runner from first with an extra base hit. Furthermore, I don’t think the Yanks bullpen is so good that a one-run lead in the 7th is a guaranteed victory. On the other side, the A’s called for Kendall to bunt with no outs in the 9th and Bradley on first. Oakland’s situation was quite different than the Yanks. One run would win the game, and Kendall is a serious double play threat. He’s also a good bunter. If successful, then the winning run would be on second with one out and Swisher at the plate. The A’s should have expected, however, that New York would walk Swisher to bring up Scutaro. No, he’s not a scary hitter, but I think the bunt was the right call, and it worked out perfectly.
Bullpen: The game went to the 9th inning tied, and the A’s brought in their closer to keep the Yankees off the board. In this situation, runs are a premium, and it makes sense to bring in your best relief pitcher (who is not always a team’s closer). Street worked in and out of trouble, and kept the score tied. The Yankees chose to bring in Proctor in the bottom of the ninth, instead of going with their best reliever (Rivera), likely because he happens to be their closer and is “supposed” to only pitch with the lead. Furthermore, they also decided against keeping their second best reliever (Farnsworth) in the game.
I can’t say whether the bunting issue was a significant reason that the A’s won the game, but I’m pretty sure that the bullpen usage did play a large role.