A.J. Puk took the mound Saturday afternoon with his fate in his own hands. Could he put together four clean innings against the Texas Rangers — a game the A’s won, 5-1 at Hohokam Stadium — to get him back in the running for the fifth starter spot?
Consensus is spring training numbers don’t matter much. But with time in camp limited and options to fill that fifth starter role down to him, Daulton Jefferies and Cole Irvin, all eyes in the Oakland A’s staff were affixed on Puk’s third spring appearance against the Texas Rangers.
On Saturday, Puk delivered four scoreless innings with three strikeouts, no walks and one hit allowed. He threw 45 pitches. To compare, Jefferies has 20 strikeouts in 13 innings this spring, while Irvin — a new face — topped a cherry on top of his strong camp by striking out 10 of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ regulars on Friday night. Jefferies will pitch again on Sunday.
It’s a tight race, but the competition is only healthy. No decision will be made Saturday on that fifth starter spot, and manager Bob Melvin said how the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers line up — their first two match-ups — could be a consideration when deciding.
“It’s a good competition and you like to see this, because there’s more pressure on these guys at this point,” Melvin said. “You want to see how they respond. We have to make a decision regardless. But it’s good to see these guys stepping up and performing well when there’s pressure on them”
Puk said he felt “calm, relaxed” this time out. He knows he’s competing for a spot, but is working on himself primarily.
“Whatever the team decides,” Puk said after his start. “I know Jefferies and Irvin have done their thing…I’m always confident in myself, each time I take the rubber coming off the injury, each time I get more and more confidence. Keep feeling better and better each time.”
Puk’s performance on Saturday was the economical, efficient performance Melvin was looking for from Puk, who’d had some up-and-down performances thus far. Recuperating from shoulder surgery he had in September, the 25-year-old made a delayed start this spring. He made his first start mid-way through camp, allowing two runs over two innings with a 93mph fastball velocity high. That’s a few ticks off the 97mph average he threw during his 2019 debut.
Melvin and Puk have said they aren’t concerned about the lost velocity. Puk has plenty of deception, and his height is a factor in making the 93-94 mph fastball play up, Melvin said. Still, Puk has been blending more two-seamers into his mix.
“I’ve thrown more two-seams than I have in my entire career,” Puk said. “Even if my velocity doesn’t come back to having 98 in my back pocket, I’m still confident in the stuff I have. I’m just working on becoming a pitcher.”
Puk’s spring objectives differ a bit from Irvin’s and Jefferies’ goals. While they’ve been trying to stick out from the crowd, Puk is simply trying find his rhythm, confidence and mechanics again.
“After they told me I got put on a five-day rotation, I knew I had five outings in spring,” he said. “That first outing, I really wanted coming back from the injury to feel good. Second outing I wanted to work on my mechanics.”
In his second outing last week, Puk’s command was off by a wide margin. He gave up five runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Irvin and Jefferies made their case. Puk, who Melvin dubbed the ideal candidate to take the rotation spot, needed to answer.
“All he has to do is look at last night,” Melvin said before Saturday’s game. “Cole was under the same circumstance. You get a chance to start a game and run over there trying to make a team and look at the lineup that he had to face last night. All he has to do is look at that. A.J. has the stuff to perform really well, he just has to minimize his thoughts and make pitches. Not think too far into it even though he knows what’s at stake today. If he can focus on every pitch and repeating it, with his stuff he should do fine.”
The fifth starter will be crucial for the first two weeks of the season, as the A’s won’t have a day off until April 11 — 10 games (and two full rotation turns) into the regular season. In any event, Puk has shown significant improvement this spring because of his full bill of health. He’s gone through Tommy John and shoulder surgeries in a span of four years. In seasons past, Puk was more guarded and cautious with his health. Now he’s pitching with more ease and breeze.
“We’ve seen a different guy this spring,” Melvin said. “And the fact he’s fully healthy and not guarding anything, talking to him after, the injury isn’t an issue. And sometimes that can weigh on your mind. When you have his stuff you’re going to look confident, when you’re command isn’t there and searching for a strike you look not as confident.”
At least this spring, Puk is looking confident as ever.
Jed Lowrie: Double machine
A few hours after learning he’d made the A’s, Lowrie put on a show of doubles against the Rangers.
Working from the left side of the plate against Rangers right-hander Kyle Gibson, Lowrie launched two near-identical doubles into the right-center field gap.
Lowrie will be the A’s everyday second baseman, Melvin said. A slight surprise, since Lowrie hasn’t played anywhere near a full season since his last stint with the A’s in 2018. A knee injury sidelined him with the New York Mets in 2019, and he missed the entire 2020 season. He had surgery in October on his left knee and took a week into Cactus League games to get his running progressions.
Still, Lowrie wasn’t surprised that he’s been so agile at second base this spring.
“I think, given the procedure that I had, it wasn’t anything major, it was just a cleanout,” Lowrie said. “It took me a while to rehab it just because of the nature of the whole situation, but this is the opportunity that I asked for, and now I’m looking forward to getting back out there and helping this team win.”
Sergio Romo’s fifth son, Lucas, was born last week. The right-handed reliever returned from paternity leave on Friday and made his fourth outing on Saturday.
He struck out the side with his slider looking particularly deadly, with a trick-knee that had him limping most of the way through. Melvin said that’s not uncommon for Romo, who’s dealt with the trick knee before.
“I think his trick was he didn’t want to go out for the next inning,” Melvin joked.
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Author: Shayna Rubin