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MESA, Ariz. — KC Sandstrom and Judy Lehman watch their favorite team, the Oakland A’s, play Cactus League games every weekend.
After taking a residency at Stanford University when the couple started dating, Sandstrom became infatuated with the team. As their relationship grew so did Judy’s conversion from her die-hard Boston Red Sox fandom into Oakland A’s fandom.
This weekend the couple sat in their normal seats at Hohokam, but came equipped with something different: a white board they’d quickly picked up at Walmart with a message for Mike Fiers scrawled across it in black pen.
Mike Fiers for president. Can I have a ball?
Judy Lehman and KC Samdstrom game out to support Mike Fiers.
“We appreciate his integrity, and that’s why we became bigger A’s fans.” pic.twitter.com/jZjQnKjE6w
— Shayna Rubin (@ShaynaRubin) February 23, 2020
Fiers saw the sign, nodded at them from the field and shouted that he loved it.
Sandstrom and Lehman were just two of a slew of A’s fans that showed their support for Fiers, who made his Cactus League debut on Sunday in an eventual 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants in a split squad game. The fans at Hohokam Stadium — both A’s and Giants — gave him a warm welcome.
“Not a surprise,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Our fans know what he’s going through.”
Fan reaction to Mike Fiers, today’s starter. Fan toward the end says he saved baseball. pic.twitter.com/vOh3rNVcUm
— Shayna Rubin (@ShaynaRubin) February 23, 2020
“I really like his integrity, so I became a bigger A’s fan,” Sandstrom said. “It’s good to stand for something…we don’t like (David) Ortiz anymore.”
Lehman came to her old team’s star’s defense briefly, but stayed firm. “Why play baseball if you’re going to cheat?” she asked.
The pair didn’t get a ball, but Fiers certainly noticed the sign.
“One (sign) said Mike Fiers for president,” Fiers said at his locker. “It’s always good to see positive responses.”
Fiers has seen his fair share of praise from the baseball world. Commissioner Rob Manfred hailed him a hero, attesting that he “did the industry a service” in his remarks to the press on February 18 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“For him to attach his name to it was really brave,” A’s fan Jonathan Espinoza, from Oakland, said from his seats at Hohokam. He’d been cheering Fiers when he walked out to the field.
“He didn’t do it with any intent to get anyone in trouble, he just wanted to get the game cleaned up. Because it’s been a known secret in the league for years, and they did nothing about it.”
Fiers off to a fast start
On the baseball side of things…Fiers pitched two perfect innings in his Cactus League debut. He threw all of his pitches — four seamer, sinker, slider, changeup, curveball — with one strikeout.
Fiers said he got an early start this year in an effort to prevent a repeat of his rocky first few starts in 2019. Fiers accrued a 7.68 ERA in five April starts before settling in to a sub-3 ERA each month through August.
The A’s trip to Japan in late March last season contributed to the team’s overall slow start, in which they stumbled through a 14-18 record by April’s end. Fiers said he started his throwing programs a little earlier in the offseason, too. But no mid-March interruption should help.
“Not having to go across the seas to pitch early I definitely think is going to help these guys, too. I know a lot of guys didn’t feel well, got sick over there,” he said.
“Last year it was more of a rush to get ready for Japan, whereas we’re at a normal pace right now,” Melvin said.
Marcus Semien’s focus
A light buzz will hover around Marcus Semien this year. The 29-year-old A’s shortstop is a season away from free agency, a critical point intersecting with the Bay Area native’s MVP-caliber peak.
Semien has little say in the matter, but he wants to stay with the A’s — his home town team where he’s found his best friends and comfort zone.
“The A’s let me fail here,” Semien said at his locker in Mesa. “I owe that respect to them, to let me fail and struggle and help me get better along the way.”
Extension talk aside, the main focus for Semien this year will be to try to replicate his 2019 season.
Here’s what he will try to replicate: Semien started all 162 games, slashed .285 /.369/.522 with a .892 OPS and 33 home runs. All career highs, all important numbers on paper.
Good on paper, too, is the A’s 2020 team — talented already positionally, juiced by young pitching additions. Semien is less focused on his production on paper, less focused on how this team looks on paper.
Now in his sixth year with the A’s — making him the longest tenured player in this clubhouse — Semien can appreciate that his personal growth is most embodied by team success.
He noticed that a uniquely focused eye sparked a more aggressive approach at the plate. He noticed that a leadoff role provided leverage for Semien to create a smaller zone, which allowed him to lay off more pitches.
“That leads to a lot of good things. You get ahead in the count, you get more pitches to hit. I have great hitters behind me so you don’t wan to get to the (Matt) Chapman, (Matt) Olson, (Mark) Canha, (Ramón) Laureano, all those guys.”
Semien came to camp this spring in a different mindset from his last. In 2019, Semien was still looking for that focus, that routine.
A new toy appeared in the batting cages that helped: a tennis ball tracker. The machine spits out tennis balls with different colored numbers; the player’s task is to discern each number and color.
“For me it’s a focus thing, using my eyes the right way,” Semien said. “I wish we had it in Oakland, but I use it every day here.”
Semien wanted to find his focus. This helped him take charge of his at bats and develop a new goal: to draw more walks.
Semien’s BB/K rate skyrocketed from .47 in 2018 to .85 in 2019, which ranked eighth in the his walk rate jumped from 8.6% to 11.6 % and his strikeout rate dropped from 18.6% to 13.7%. His goal is to bump his walk rate even higher. The optics of a walk may seem passive in nature, but Semien asserts that a high walk rate signals complete control.
“If you’re’ walking with an aggressive mindset, that’s the goal,” Semien said. “Aggressive mindset in that right down-the-middle zone. Just look at what the guy does, look at your strengths, and if he pitches in your hot zone instead of looking at where he has his success.”
A keen focus on the minutia earned Semien national recognition in the form of a third place finish for American League MVP. His future with the A’s — or any other team — might ask him to leap that high bar again.
Semien can’t dwell on that big picture. In order to win, he’ll stay focused on his personal goals.
Keep an eye on Luis Barrera
The outfield is overflowing with talent. And though the rotation is essentially set with Stephen Piscotty, Ramón Laureano, Mark Canha and Robbie Grossman due to resume their posts.
I detailed how Dustin Fowler and Seth Brown might be on the outside looking in here. But don’t forget about Luis Barrera as a key depth piece in the outfield.
Barrera, a left-handed hitter, went 3-for-4 against the Giants on Sunday and made some nice catches from his post in right field, including a diving catch off Jacob Gonzalez’s sure-fire gap double.
“Not only good at bats, but good at bats off lefties, too, and that’s what we’ve seen from him int eh past. He had quick hands, isn’t afraid to let it travel and doesn’t look like there’s a lot of panic in his game,” Melvin said.
A’s lose to Diamondbacks in split squad game
Only one half of the team was at Hohokam The other half lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks, 7-3, in Scottsdale.
A rundown of how the A’s scored their runs: Catcher Carlos Perez doubled to score Syke Bolte. Shortstop Ryan Goins had in RBI single and Seth Brown hit an RBI double to score Greg Deichmann.
Chris Bassitt gave up two earned runs, including a home run, with two walks and a strikeout in one inning of work. Paul Blackburn allowed four earned runs on seen hits in 1 2/3 innings.
Some top pitching prospects got on the mound in this one, too. Right-handed pitcher Grant Holmes allowed one run in two innings with three strikeouts. Right-handed pitcher James Kaprielian struck out two in one inning.