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Between them, they had precisely two career MLB appearances and one surname. Nevertheless, on 3rd May, Bryce Miller of the Seattle Mariners and Mason Miller of the Oakland Athletics combined for one of the better pitching duels of recent years.
Through five innings, Bryce – making his Major League debut, no less – was on for a perfect game. And even though he gave up two hits and a run in the bottom of the sixth inning, he still finished his debut big league performance with six innings pitched, only those two hits, no walks and ten strikeouts. He was excellent.
Mason, though, was better. Given the lead in the sixth, he went out and posted a 1-2-3 top of the seventh, including strikeouts of Eugenio Suarez and Teoscar Hernandez. Now through seven innings, he is only six outs away from a no-hitter in only his third career outing, putting him into Bumpus Jones territory.
He is, however, also at 100 pitches. And this is the modern era, where that number is not so much a landmark as a barrier. A’s skipper Mark Kotsay took Mason out of the game after that, turning the game over to his – let’s generously call it – extremely unreliable bullpen. Even forgetting the prospect of the no-hitter for a moment, that bullpen only needed two scoreless innings to win the game.
They did not get it. Of course they did not get it. And the worst thing about the blown save and subsequent was the sense of inevitability that preceded it.
Were the predictable bullpen collapse and yet another in-division loss to an empty stadium on their way to a historically poor record not bad enough, injury was soon added to the injury. Four days later, Miller started again and threw six innings of two-run baseball, yet was moved to the injured list the morning after with an elbow strain, and has yet to pitch again.
He was removed from a potential hist0ry-making no-hitter to protect himself from injury, only to immediately get injured. And the bullpen blew it.
6-23 at the time of the Miller Squared pitching duel, the A’s have since gone 6-23 in their next 29 games as well. Their 12-46 record is by far the worst in baseball – only the 17-39 Kansas City Royals are even remotely close – and despite plenty of chopping and changing to the line-up, there is simply not enough talent at the Major League level to do much about it.
Even now that the horrors of the early-season pitching have been curtailed – the team’s 5.54 ERA over the last 30 days is still comfortably the worst in the majors, but at least down from the over-8.00 marks of before – the fortunes have not improved. For all the focus on the pitching, the offence does not score, either, ranking last in the majors in batting average and second-last in runs scored. Most of the intriguing future talent is still in the minors – for now, the Major League club is trotting out line-ups of other team’s misfits, and they still are not fitting.
It seems self-evident to say that nothing else fun has happened, either. But perhaps it could.
In 1980, the notorious Billy Martin put a fallen Oakland back on the map. The A’s had gone 54–108 the previous season for the second-worst record in baseball, and as payroll and attendance dwindled, so too did the results. Stop me when this starts to sound familiar.
Martin revitalised the A’s by integrating a devil-may-care style of baseball. In Billyball, as it became known, the only true failure was cowardice in the face of the enemy. Rickey Henderson’s ascent to the greatest base stealer in the sport’s history was catalysed by Martin, who empowered him to run at every opportunity, and while also teaching the fundamentals of the game, Martin demanded an intensity that made the team fun to watch again. It worked, too – the fans game back, the revenues went up, the buzz returned, and the team got back to contention in relatively short order.
To be sure, lead-off hitter Esteury Ruiz (already with 27 steals on the season) is doing his best Rickey impression this year. But beyond that, the comparison quickly starts to struggle. It is not a defence of the deeply-flawed Martin – whose bellicosity gave way to outright bullying far too often – to want to at least channel some of the invention and passion that provided an identity, lure, and self-fulfilling developmental platform that got the team out of its self-inflicted hole.
Between Messrs Martin and Beane, the Oakland Athletics have been through multiple Billies of inventiveness, of working the margins, of finding market inefficiencies and making the total greater than the sum of the parts. Success is never a guarantee. But nor is it a requirement. Just as long as there is a good faith attempt at it.