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J.B. Wendelken steps up amid tough series in Houston

3 Bright spots as Oakland A’s are swept on road by Astros

Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

That was a rough series in Houston. The Oakland A’s got swept in three games, and it showed. The once-hot rotation teamed up to allow 13 runs in 11⅔ innings, the lineup managed just two runs in the first two games combined, Lou Trivino allowed a crucial homer to a No. 9 hitter, and Blake Treinen blew a save in the finale and then walked in the walk-off run. Even though two of the losses were by only one run, it still felt like the A’s were thoroughly beaten.

It may serve as some solace that the Astros are an elite team, and are probably the favorites to win the World Series this year. There’s no shame in being beaten by that, especially on the road. But the A’s are trying to contend as well, so at some point those sour grapes aren’t enough and they need to consistently beat even their greatest opponents. In the meantime, here are three bright spots from the otherwise crappy Houston series.

1. J.B. Wendelken steps up

On Sunday, starter Mike Fiers didn’t make it out of the 2nd inning. He received a mountain of bad luck in the 1st, from a missed call by the ump to a couple BABIP singles on weak grounders, and what could have been a scoreless four-batter frame turned into a five-run rally capped by a just-barely homer into literally the first row of seats.

Oakland still nearly won the game, though, and a big reason why was J.B. Wendelken. The right-hander came in to relieve Fiers and kept the Astros in check long enough for the lineup to mount a successful comeback. Houston later responded with their own re-comeback against the A’s setup crew to win anyway, but Wendelken is the main reason it was ever a game in the first place.

It only took one batter for Wendelken to make his mark. He entered in the 2nd with the bases loaded and two out, facing a 6-4 deficit. This was a moment when the game could have gotten out of hand, when even one single could have been damaging, but Wendelken struck out catcher Max Stassi to end the threat and keep things close.

With the A’s desperate for some bulk innings after Fiers’ early exit, Wendelken next went to work against the stars of Houston’s lineup. In the 3rd he froze George Springer and Jose Altuve for another pair of called strikeouts, and in the 4th he fanned Carlos Correa. The call on Springer was a bit generous, but it was still a beautiful curveball around the inside corner that buckled the hitter’s knees on a 1-2 count. Altuve watched a fastball painted onto the low-outside corner, and Correa swung through a fastball down the middle.

All told, Wendelken pitched through the 5th inning, retiring 10 of the 11 batters he faced. The only hit against him came off the bat of Alex Bregman, in the form of a weak little flare that landed just a couple inches inside the line for a fair ball. The only truly hard contact against him was a sharp groundout by Michael Brantley.

The 3⅓ innings were a career-high for Wendelken. Twice before in past seasons he’d gone three scoreless, but even those were low-leverage mopup duty. This time he pitched relevant innings in a close, undecided game, and his performance put Oakland in a position to win — even though they eventually fell short for other reasons unrelated to him.

Wendelken also pitched on Friday in the series opener, though with more mixed results. In the 7th inning he allowed a flare single to Springer, and then a smash by Altuve for an RBI double. It was just an insurance run at the time, but it ultimately proved to be the game-winner. Even then, though, Wendelken responded by striking out Bregman, Brantley, and Correa in order to end the threat, and at some point it’s impressive just to make it through those five names with only one piece of hard contact.

Many folks see Wendelken as a breakout candidate this summer, not only here at Athletics Nation but among the greater fan base and mainstream media too. He returned last year from Tommy John surgery and put in a promising effort (16⅔ ip, 1 run), and he’s got nice numbers so far in 2019 as well (10⅓ ip, 13 Ks, 0 BB). Add it all up, and here’s his combined line since his surgery:

Wendelken, 2018-19: 1.00 ERA, 27 ip, 27 Ks, 5 BB, 1 HR, 14 hits, 2.13 FIP

His fastball is averaging 95 mph, up a tick from where it sat before his surgery, and he can dial it up to 97 or even 98. His changeup has always drawn praise, and he’s got that curveball to mix things up too. The stuff is there, and he’s been putting it to good use for a while now. Hopefully Sunday’s clutch performance was another sign of his arrival as an impact bullpen arm.

Oh, and he’s good with the fans too.

2. Laureano starts hitting

We talked about Ramon Laureano at length after the Boston series, in which he authored several mind-blowing highlights to help drive a few A’s victories. However, even despite those heroics, the center fielder was still off to an overall slow start at the plate. Through 10 games he stood at 6-for-34, with strikeouts in 40% of his plate appearances and just one walk.

Against the Astros, Laureano went 6-for-12. The point isn’t that he crushed the ball — in fact, the hits were mostly singles, with one double mixed in. Some were legitimately hit hard, while others were softer and more fortunate. But all of them were hit, at all, because he only struck out once in these dozen at-bats. Can’t benefit from BABIP until you have some BIPs.

Laureano’s strikeout rate is now down to 32% and falling fast. After nine Ks in his first four games, he’s fanned just six times in his last 30 trips to the plate, mostly against contending teams with top-notch pitching staffs. The positive regression in his batting average is nice, but the important part is the root cause that he’s simply started making consistent contact again.

3. Role players show signs of life

We’ve already seen some fireworks from the big names in the A’s lineup. Khris Davis is swatting dingers, Matt Chapman has a 149 wRC+, and Stephen Piscotty basically won a game on his own against the Red Sox the other day. Marcus Semien, Chad Pinder, and Mark Canha have also contributed, and we just talked about Laureano.

But on Sunday, a couple of the lower-profile role players began to make noise. One of them was Robbie Grossman, who entered the day with a .464 OPS. He went 3-for-5, including his first homer of the year plus an RBI double, and the breakout got his wRC+ up to 100. He’s here to set the table at the top of the lineup and we’re still waiting to see that (2 walks, .294 OBP), but at least he has begun contributing something. (And in the finale against Boston last week, he knocked another RBI double and also threw out a runner from LF.)

Next up is catcher Josh Phegley. He only played once in Houston, in the finale, but he also blasted his first homer of the year. It didn’t go particularly far for a dinger, just 369 feet into the Crawford Boxes, but for what it’s worth he reached triple-digits in exit velocity. More importantly, it turned a 6-5 deficit into a 7-6 lead, and would have served as the game-winner if the A’s bullpen had held up. Earlier in the day, Phegley also singled ahead of Grossman’s long ball.

Over his last three games, Phegs is 5-for-10 with a homer, double, walk, and two strikeouts. He told me the following after the Boston finale last week:

“I’m just trying to get my rhythm and timing back,” said Phegley, who entered Thursday’s game just 2-for-13 on the young season. “I felt good in spring with my swing, but just going to Japan, all the off-days, and then we only played two games over there. Kind of fell back into old habits there for a minute, but we got it ironed out, and against the left-hander [Eduardo Rodriguez] like that, had a good approach and got two big hits.”

The A’s have a lot of big bats, but the scariest lineups are the ones that can get you anywhere from the 1-thru-9 spots. That top-to-bottom effort helped keep them in Sunday’s finale, with five of the team’s eight runs driven in by the two unlikeliest sources.

It wasn’t a good series in Houston. Sweeps are never fun when you’re on the wrong end of them. But the breakout-candidate reliever showed more signs of breaking out, the dynamic young CF made serious strides, and the role players began to step up. That’s better than nothing. In conclusion, here’s a sweet catch from Piscotty.

Now brush off the losses, and go get back in the win column (and above the .500 mark) against a Baltimore Orioles squad coming off a historically awful 2018.