One of the best surprises in the Oakland A’s 2020 season took an unfortunate turn on Saturday, as pitcher Burch Smith exited the game with an apparent injury.
Update (8:00 p.m.): It’s a right forearm strain. Per Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle: “He will get an MRI Monday. Injured list likely but team believes it’s muscular issue, not structural and the hope is he doesn’t miss too much time.”
The A’s acquired Smith in a quiet trade last winter, and through one-third of the season he’s been one of the hottest pitchers in the majors. On Saturday he got the chance to face his former team, the San Francisco Giants, from whom he was traded to Oakland in the first MLB deal between the local rivals in three decades.
The outing began the same as his dominant previous work, as he breezed through a 1-2-3 frame with two strikeouts and painted all kinds of corners with his mid-90s fastball. At that point he’d retired 34 of the 39 batters he’d faced this year. However, things began to go wrong in his second inning.
The first two batters reached base, on a double by Evan Longoria and a single by Wilmer Flores. Smith struck out Hunter Pence after a long battle, and worked a 2-2 count to Darin Ruf, but Ruf got ahold of a high fastball and hammered it over the left field wall for a three-run homer.
Smith retired the next batter on a flyout, then called for manager Bob Melvin and the trainer. Lou Trivino immediately relieved him and appeared to get extra time to warm up on the mound, signifying that the move was injury-related.
It’s not yet clear what the issue may have been (update: right forearm strain), and Smith didn’t display any visible signs of discomfort. However, a look at his velocity offers a hint of the telltale sign — after pumping 95-96 mph in his first inning, he was more like 93-94 in his second frame, and his final pitch (the flyout) was a fastball at just 91.9 mph. Any kind of unexplained drop in velocity is always concerning, especially when it’s immediately followed by the pitcher pulling himself from the game.
Update: Elbows and forearms are the first things that come to mind when velocity suddenly dips like that, and that’s indeed the case here. It’s easy to assume the worst with this particular body part on a pitcher, but let’s wait for more info before we panic. It’s worth noting that Smith had Tommy John surgery in 2015.