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A's looking for rotation to help lead turnaround

Gray, Hill are 1-2 punch, impressive prospect Manaea shows promise
MLB.com

MILWAUKEE -- The Oakland Athletics have hopes, seemingly not unreasonable hopes, that the performance of their starting rotation can be improved, adjusted, solidified.

"We would like to think so," said manager Bob Melvin, whose club dropped a 5-4 decision to the Brewers on Tuesday night at Miller Park. "We thought in Spring Training that would be a strength of ours. Obviously, we've been going to the bullpen pretty early at times this season, whether it's due to injury or guys just not getting deep in the game for us."

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MILWAUKEE -- The Oakland Athletics have hopes, seemingly not unreasonable hopes, that the performance of their starting rotation can be improved, adjusted, solidified.

"We would like to think so," said manager Bob Melvin, whose club dropped a 5-4 decision to the Brewers on Tuesday night at Miller Park. "We thought in Spring Training that would be a strength of ours. Obviously, we've been going to the bullpen pretty early at times this season, whether it's due to injury or guys just not getting deep in the game for us."

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The best news Oakland had on this front recently was the return of ace Sonny Gray from a trapezius injury. Gray delivered five solid innings on Sunday, and the pitching perspective immediately looked brighter for the A's.

Video: OAK@HOU: Gray looks effective in return from injury

"Sonny [Gray] threw very well for us, five innings, next time we'll bump up the pitch count," Melvin said. "We've been looking forward to getting him back, and then Sonny and Rich Hill pitching in the 1-2 spots."

Hill has been reliable and more over the first two months of the season, going 8-3 with a 2.25 ERA over 11 starts. He missed his last start with a groin injury, but Gray and Hill are scheduled to pitch back-to-back against Cincinnati this weekend.

Beyond that, Henderson Alvarez, a proven Major League starter coming back from shoulder surgery, is progressing again after a setback in his injury rehabilitation. The A's have no definitive timetable for his return, but he appears to be close to resuming a rehab assignment.

Beyond that, the A's look for a return to form from two young pitchers who were substantially better last year than they have been so far this season.

"We expect [Kendall] Graveman and [Jesse] Hahn to pitch a lot better," Melvin said. "They had track records last year of getting a lot deeper in games. At some point, we need to take as many innings off the bullpen, the way they've been having to pitch recently."

One more hope is for top pitching prospect Sean Manaea, who was the losing pitcher on Tuesday night against the Brewers. For most of the night, the A's issue in this game was not starting pitching, but their inability to do anything against Milwaukee starter Zach Davies. Davies held Oakland hitless through 6 2/3 innings before Billy Butler hit a two-run homer.

You could see the considerable promise that Manaea has, as he worked seven innings, his longest start for the Athletics. But as a pitcher making the eighth start of his big league career, mistakes would be made. Manaea made just two, but that was too many; a two-run homer by Chris Carter in the second and a three-run shot by Carter in the sixth.

"Really one of his better games; it just came down to two pitches," Melvin said. "I mean, he got deep into the game, he gave us seven innings. What was it, six hits and a walk? So he was pretty efficient. Pitch count down (97). He seems to be a lot more comfortable. Again, it just comes down to two pitches that left the ballpark on him."

Manaea said both pitches in question to Carter got more of the plate than he intended. The first one was meant to be away. The second one was meant to be up and in. Neither of them reached their intended location.

"Those two mistakes I felt like really killed me," Manaea said. "It's something I've got to keep working on. This whole thing is a learning process, and I'm trying everything I can to get better at those things."

Reaching seven innings was an accomplishment. But it was difficult for Manaea to do any cartwheels about that.

"From that standpoint, it was pretty cool," he said. "I just wish I had done a better job limiting the runs."

The A's need more seven-inning starts, not only to move into contention in the American League West, but to preserve their bullpen. The 'pen has been a source of stability this season. But with the starters last in the AL in innings per start at 5.3 through 57 games, the potential exists for the bullpen to be overworked even though the coaching staff does whatever it can to guard against it.

"You know, we don't pitch guys three days in a row, typically," Melvin said. "We monitor them, we feel like very carefully, as far as the risk for injury. The work we have every day, who is available and who isn't, hopefully at this point, [knock wood] we don't feel like it's too much. But we don't want to stay on this pace, obviously."

For the A's season to move in the right direction, the starting pitching will have to improve. This is not asking for a miracle, but it is asking for a change.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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