Chris Flexen’s inning of regret, and ultimately defeat, started with a leadoff walk to a hitter who had just three hits in his previous 52 plate appearances. It was exacerbated when he lost a 13-pitch battle to Elvis Andrus and when his best pitch, the cutter, turned into his worst enemy. It finally ended with a five-run deficit the Mariners could never overcome.
Then again, given how A’s starter Sean Manaea dominated from his first pitch Wednesday evening, a one-run deficit might have been too large for the Mariners to overcome.
Using a sinking fastball that touched 98 mph and mixing in just enough of his sweeping curveball and changeup, the big left-hander tossed a complete-game gem, shutting out the Mariners in a 6-0 victory for Oakland.
Besides holding the Mariners scoreless for nine innings, which has now happened to the Mariners seven times this season, Manaea allowed only four hits while walking two batters and striking out eight to improve to 4-2.
It was Manaea’s second nine-inning complete game of his career. The other was his no-hitter of the Red Sox on April 21, 2018. He also threw a seven-inning complete game shutout this season.
Seattle split the series with the A’s and fell to 28-29 on the season.
“He’s got a different arm slot,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s a lower slot and he’s got big time extension down the mound so the ball does get on you. It may only say 90 to 93 mph on the radar gun, but it gets on you, along with some quality secondary pitches. So he was really good. He was on top of it tonight.”
Flexen pitched six innings, allowing five runs on seven hits with a walk and three strikeouts. All five of those runs and four of those hits came in a five-run third inning where Flexen’s pitches couldn’t avoid the barrel of the A’s bats.
After issuing a walk to Matt Chapman to start the inning, Flexen got Tony Kemp to fly out to left for the first out of the inning.
Andrus, who still looks odd wearing A’s green and gold instead of the red, white and blue of the Texas Rangers (where he spent 12 big league seasons) stepped to the plate. Flexen fired a first-pitch ball but picked up a called strike on a cutter and got ahead 1-2 when Andrus fouled off a fastball.
That’s when their one-on-one battle picked up. Andrus refused to chase a cutter well off the plate and then fouled off a curveball on the outside corner and a fastball on his hands.
Flexen went to his changeup — the fourth pitch in his repertoire — but it bounced into the dirt to push the count full.
But the two combatants were just getting going.
Andrus fouled two cutters on the inside half of the plate and fought off a 92-mph fastball boring in on his hands for the 10th pitch of the at-bat.
Flexen stayed with his cutter — his best pitch — throwing two more on the inside edge of the plate, trying to get in on Andrus’ hands. But both were fouled off.
The 13th pitch was anything but lucky for Flexen. The sixth cutter of the at-bat stayed right in the middle and Andrus pounded it into left field for a double.
“That 13-pitch at-bat really turned the game in their favor,” Servais said.
It put runners on the corners for the top of the order.
Leadoff man Mark Canha didn’t need 13 pitches to score both runners. He pounced on the first pitch — a curveball that couldn’t have been any more in the middle of the plate — smacking a line-drive single to center for a 2-0 lead.
Flexen came back to retire Jed Lowrie to provide a brief respite, but couldn’t end the damage.
A misplaced cutter on a 0-2 count turned into a single for Matt Olson. And another cutter in a similar spot to veteran left-handed slugger Mitch Moreland was blasted as a three-run homer into the unseasonably warm night for a 5-0 lead. The ball hit off the batter’s eye, about midway up the black wall that sits well behind the center field fence. MLB Statcast measured it at 444 feet.
Flexen finally put a tourniquet on the inning, striking out Sean Murphy looking.
“It definitely snowballed after he put up a great fight,” Flexen said. “I went right after him. He fouled everything off and he won the battle. He definitely changed the momentum there. And I did very poor job of executing after that. I don’t think that at-bat specifically had the effect of non-execution. I just missed a couple spots.”
He’d thrown 36 pitches in the inning, which is slightly more than the 20 combined pitches for the first two innings.
That the big hits came on the cutter was frustrating for Flexen. When that pitch is right, he’s effective. But it’s also been hit very hard at times this season.
Are teams looking for it, or is it execution?
“Definitely execution for me, I think whether someone’s looking for it or not, I mean, it’s gonna get hit,” he said. “But when it’s been hit big, it’s been very poor execution.”
To Flexen’s credit, he made an adjustment and gave the Mariners three more innings of work without allowing a run and only three base runners. With right-hander Justin Dunn being placed on the injured list before the game with shoulder inflammation and another looming bullpen start in the weekend series with the Angels, likely Friday, not burning through multiple relievers in the game was important. Servais hopes that Dunn will only miss one start.
“That’s what you have to do as a major league starter,” Servais said of Flexen. “We’ve been running our bullpen pretty hard here lately. You give up that big inning early in the game like that, you’ve got to kind of wash it away. I thought he did a pretty good job after that. He’s still a little frustrated with himself.”