Underdog A’s, Angels open with high hopes

OAKLAND, Calif. — It was just three seasons ago that the Los Angeles Angels won the American League West and the Oakland A’s finished second, earning a wild-card playoff berth.

Since then, the A’s have owned the West’s cellar with 68 wins in 2015 and 69 in 2016. The Angels, meanwhile, sank to third place in 2015 and fourth last year, when they went 74-88 and finished 21 games behind the first-place Texas Rangers, who won their second division title in a row.

The A’s and Angels will face each other Monday on Opening Night at the Oakland Coliseum in the first game of a four-game series. Both teams appear to be long shots to challenge the Rangers, Houston Astros or Seattle Mariners for the division crown. Yet the A’s and Angels are optimistic they can reverse course and make playoff runs after two rough seasons.

“Nothing better than Opening Day,” A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said. “It’s a national holiday, or should be. Everybody’s in the same spot in the standings. Everybody’s got a chance to win the World Series, and we feel no different . We have some of the best fans in baseball. Oakland fans love us and we love them. We’re going to give them a good team to cheer for this year.”

The A’s added three new starters to their lineup during the offseason, signing third baseman Trevor Plouffe, right fielder Matt Joyce and center fielder Rajai Davis, who played for Oakland from 2008-2010.

The Angels added four new starters: second baseman Danny Espinosa, catcher Martin Maldonado, left fielder Cameron Maybin and first baseman Luis Valbuena, who will open the season on the disabled list due to a hamstring injury.

“You just look around the clubhouse and we improved in a lot of spots,” Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun told the Orange County Register. “That gets me excited.”

Of course, having two-time and reigning American League MVP Mike Trout in center field is another reason for the Angels to be optimistic. Trout hit .315 with 29 home runs, 100 RBIs and 123 runs last season.

With Sonny Gray (right lat strain) on the disabled list, A’s right-hander Kendall Graveman will make his first career Opening Day start. Graveman turned out to be the Athletics’ best and most reliable starter in a young rotation last year when Gray battled multiple injuries. Graveman made 31 starts and finished 10-11 with a 4.11 ERA.

“You can’t speak enough about what he did last year,” Vogt said. “He made every start. He stepped up for us. The second half he really kind of came into his own and realized, ‘Holy cow, look how good I can be when I stick to what I do best.’ He really took ownership of what he strives in doing and has been very, very consistent. I’m excited to see what he can do this year.”

The Angels will counter with right-hander Ricky Nolasco, who will make his fourth career Opening Day start. He started on Opening Day for the Minnesota Twins in 2014 and for the Miami Marlins in 2009 and 2013.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia chose Nolasco over two more high-profile candidates, Garrett Richards and Mike Shoemaker. But Richards missed most of last season with an elbow injury and underwent stem cell treatments to repair damage to his ulnar collateral ligament. Shoemaker’s season was cut short when he was hit in the head by a line drive on Sept. 4 against the Seattle Mariners and underwent surgery. He went 0-1 with a 5.29 in five Cactus League starts.

Nolasco went 1-1 with a 3.52 ERA in four spring starts. He was 4-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 11 starts last season after being traded by Minnesota to the Angels on Aug. 1.

“I think Ricky will handle the Opening Day hoopla,” Scioscia said. “I think he’ll go out there and give us a chance to win.”

Nolasco is 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA in seven career starts against the A’s. Graveman is 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in six career starts against the Angels.