OAKLAND -- In a month that has been difficult for the A’s to shake the tedious .500 mark, Monday marked the start of a series that could help them build some positive distance from the breakeven record.
The A’s believe they can get back to the playoffs in 2019, and it starts with beating lowly teams like the Orioles, who entered Monday with the worst record in the Majors. Mike Fiers did his part to set the tone for the three-game series with a strong performance in a 3-2 victory at the Coliseum.
Fiers’ slow start to the year seems like it happened in a completely different season at this point. After holding the Orioles to two runs (none earned) on three hits and two walks, with four strikeouts over 6 2/3 innings, he made it 10 consecutive starts in which he’s allowed three earned runs or less. Few pitchers have been as dominant as Fiers over the past two months. Since April 26, his 2.71 ERA ranks sixth among American League starters.
“I was dealing with some things early on in the season,” said Fiers, whose ERA sat at 8.28 through his first six starts. “I think I was throwing pitches different because I was dealing with some things. It was no excuse, because I told Bob [Melvin] I was good to go out every day. Starting off the season bad, I knew I had to pick these guys up. They signed me here to be a leader and win ballgames. I had to put it on myself and pitch better.”
The only trouble Fiers found himself in on Monday was a product of poor defense, as an errant throw by Matt Chapman in the second led to two unearned runs. Perhaps the Fiers from April would have crumbled and allowed the inning to worsen. But this version of Fiers brushed it off, limited the damage to the two runs and proceeded to retire 17 batters in a row before his removal in the seventh with two outs, after allowing a walk and a single.
The eagerness from Orioles hitters to swing early in the count led to Fiers’ ability to last deep into the game -- he was at 77 pitches through six innings and finished his night with 93.
Saving the bullpen has been Fiers’ calling card recently, as he’s completed at least six innings in eight of his past 10 outings. It’s a skill that he acquired well before his time with the A’s. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has watched Fiers pitch deep into games many times from their National League Central battles, when he was a coach with the Cubs and the right-hander was a Brewer.
“Mike's a good pitcher. He's done it for a long time,” Hyde said. “He's an innings eater. He really knows how to locate and pitch in with his fastball up. He has a nice hook and changeup -- I've seen him do this a lot of times. He just knows how to pitch.”
Hendriks shuts it down
Looking to give usual setup man Lou Trivino a break from high-leverage situations as he works through some struggles, Melvin called upon Liam Hendriks with the task of preserving a one-run lead. It was no easy situation -- he entered with two runners on and two outs in the seventh -- but Hendriks struck out Chris Davis to end that threat, and then turned in a perfect eighth to bridge to closer Blake Treinen, who earned his 16th save of the year.
Hendriks, who has been referred to as a “chameleon” by Melvin for his ability to adapt to different roles, has been consistently sharp in a bullpen that has seen several relievers go through some issues. He’s even been the opener at times, but he’ll likely get more opportunities if he continues to perform like he did on Monday, showing off a 97-mph fastball to slam the door in the late innings and lower his ERA to 1.59.
“There’s more pressure when you come in with runners on base,” Melvin said. “The extra velocity was good as a contrast from Mike. He’s been terrific.”
Semien keeps hitting
Enjoying a career-best hitting streak, Marcus Semien added another game to make it 14 games in a row after a 1-for-2 night that also saw him draw two walks and score two runs.
The walks might be more impressive than the hits. Semien's increased ability to get on base has established him as the everyday leadoff man, and those walks are leading to runs scored -- he scored in the first on Matt Olson’s double and again in the third after his first of two walks.
“He’s just become a complete player,” Melvin said. “He’s got leadership qualities. There’s a lot of things to like, and he continues to get better. I don’t see that slowing down, either. He’s very aware of what he needs to work on to get better.”
Semien has been consistent for most of the season, but over the 14-game hitting streak, he’s taken it to another level, batting .390 with four doubles, three home runs and 11 RBIs over that stretch.
“Just better direction. Better timing with the fastball and being able to take pitches out of the zone,” Semien said. “When you’re catching up to the fastball and getting in good counts, good things happen.”