Game 4, Athletics at Mariners
Taijuan Walker vs. Eric Surkamp, 7:10pm
Happy Felix Day! No, the King isn’t pitching today, but it’s his 30th birthday, and he should be praised and supplied with offerings as a result.
A year ago, Taijuan Walker pitched the M’s fourth game, the opener of a three-game set against Oakland. Like last year, he’s coming off a great spring, and appears ready to solidify the rotation behind Felix/Iwakuma. In last year’s game, Walker fell apart, setting the stage for a painful April/May in which he couldn’t strand runners and in which the M’s quickly fell behind their rivals, never to challenge them again. Of course, Walker improved dramatically throughout the year, and while he was never as consistent as we all (and he) would like, he showed flashes of the promise that made him a top prospect for several years.
This spring, there was talk of Walker abandoning his so-so cutter for more of a true slider. That sounded great to me, as it’s something I’ve been suggesting since his struggles last year. In games tracked by pitch fx this spring, though, the cutter he threw looked MORE cutter-like, even LESS slider-y than it did last year. Maybe he’s still tweaking it, and maybe he’s saving it for key spots in games that count, I don’t know, but that’s what I’ll be looking for tonight.
The M’s were 1-2 coming in to Walker’s first start last year, and while they’re only a game ahead of last year’s pace, the feeling around the team seems pretty different. Two dominating wins and a blizzard of long balls will do that to a fan base. The M’s blitzed Tom Wilhelmsen for a bunch of runs before he could record an out, and then did the same thing to closer Shawn Tolleson in Wednesday’s game. Why mention this, besides the fact that it was fun, and worth reflecting on? Because if you’ve heard of tonight’s A’s starter, Eric Surkamp, it may be because you may remember a moment a few weeks ago in Peoria when the M’s pulled a similar trick. Surkamp was in the bullpen, and entered a Cactus League game in the 5th inning. The first batter, Chris Iannetta, singles. Then he plunked Seth Smith. Dae Ho Lee worked a walk. With the bases thus loaded, Luis Sardinas pulled an 0-1 Surkamp fastball well over the wall in left field, and the M’s had scored 4 off of Surkamp before he’d recorded an out or knew what hit him. To be fair, Surkamp recovered, pitching three IP in total and actually striking out 5. But it showed a couple of things: the M’s offense is capable of scoring in bunches, and Eric Surkamp is still something of a marginal big league pitcher.
A draft pick of San Francisco coming out of NC State, Surkamp breezed through the minors racking up 10+ K/9 marks and low ERAs thanks to great command of middling stuff. He looked like an ace in the stat sheet, but scouts scoffed at his 88-90mph fastball, decent change and slow curve arsenal – they thought he was a classic case of a pitcher essentially built to frustrate low-minors hitters who simply didn’t have the pure stuff to get big leaguers out. This wasn’t that long after the big scouting/stat fights over Yusmeiro Petit, Josh Phelps, and literally any thing else they could fight about, so Surkamp bumped along as a guy rated in the top 10-15 prospects in a so-so Giants system. As with anything in baseball, there really are no absolutes or one true path to player acquisition or success – even Yusmeiro Petit, a decade after we all fought about what his lines in the Mets system *meant* turned himself into a useful pitcher for the World Champion Giants, even if he was never a solid #3 starter that statheads thought. Eric Surkamp stands as the closest thing to a black and white answer in the old scouts/stats debate. Score one for the scouts. In the majors, Surkamp’s K rate has tumbled, and worse, his walk rate has shot through the roof. Where was the pinpoint command? It may be the Surkamp’s been chased out of the zone, as he’s given up home runs and extra base hits when he throws strikes. That fastball that kept minor leaguers honest hasn’t worked at all in the bigs, and while his curve shows some promise, it’s hard to get to it when batters are slugging .550 off of your four-seam and sinker.
To his credit, Surkamp had a solid spring outside of that bad inning against Seattle – that was the only HR he gave up in 20 IP, and the only HBP too – but I’m still not quite sure why he’s making this start. Looking at the A’s depth chart, only 4 pitchers are listed in their rotation. Sure, many teams, Tampa for one, don’t *need* a 5th starter for a while, and are going with 4. But the A’s quite evidently *did* need a starter, and I’m not sure how/why they decided on Surkamp. It’s just a game, and they can get back to their main four, but Surkamp didn’t seem to be in the running. Part of it may be Jesse Hahn’s bad spring, and part of it may be the little gap between when Henderson Alvarez returns from injury (and their depth took a hit when Jarrod Parker got hurt again), but whatever the specific cause(s), this is less than ideal for the A’s.
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Seager, 3B
6: Iannetta, C
7: Gutierrez, DH
8: Lee, 1B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Taijuan Walker
Last night’s opening day in the minors was a great one in the M’s system. Tacoma won their opener after a back and forth battle with Albuquerque, winning 6-5 on a two-run single by Boog Powell who went 2-4. The M’s got some nice relief pitching from Mayckol Guaipe to close things out. Cody Martin starts game two tonight at Cheney. It’s going to be about 75-80. You should go.
The Jackson Generals got their second straight opening day shut-out, this one headlined by Edwin Diaz, who went six scoreless with 9Ks. Broadcaster Brandon Liebhaber said he was using his breaking sutff more than he did last year, and the results seem to show it – Diaz showed some potential last year in AA, but this was the kind of dominating performance he had in the California League and couldn’t seem to repeat in AA. Great, great start for one of the more important M’s prospects. Tyler O’Neill tripled in his AA debut and DJ Peterson had 2 hits. They beat Jacob Faria and Rays affiliate Montgomery, which is notable. Faria was dominant in AA last year, and utterly destroyed Jackson in August, throwing 7 shutout innings with 2 hits, no walks and 11 Ks. Nice to see the Generals figure him out. Big start tonight for Ryan Yarbrough, as he makes his first foray into the upper minors.
Bakersfield got a great pitching performance of its own, as Andrew Moore twirled 6 shutout innings, with 6 hits, 1 walk and 6 Ks. Unfortunately, the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead, as Ryan Horstman, the guy who gave up 0 runs last year, allowed 2 runs on a HR, and that was all Visalia needed, winning 2-1. The Blaze’s sole run came, encouragingly enough, on a solo shot by RF Austin Wilson. Between that and Moore’s high-A debut, I don’t care about the loss at all – this was still a great night. Michigan State product Anthony Misiewicz starts tonight for Bakersfield.
Clinton beat Kane County 2-1 behind a solid start from Lukas Schiraldi and two hits apiece by Luis Liberato and Braden Bishop.
One big link today: Ryan Divish and the Seattle Times sports section put together this incredible project looking back at Felix Hernandez’s career as the King turns 30 years old. I can’t believe it’s been 11 years since we got to see him make even the hardest, seen-it-all old scouts giggle in Tacoma. Happy Birthday, Felix.