The Oakland A’s slump lasted exactly two games.
The A’s bounced back from two rough days in the desert to beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 on Wednesday, in the first of two contests at home in the Coliseum.
The green and gold put in an all-around strong performance, with every area of the roster contributing. They got a brilliant scoreless outing from starting pitcher Jesús Luzardo, enough runs from the offense thanks to power and clutch hitting, error-free defense including some big plays, and another save by their dominant bullpen setup crew.
In particular, this was the best outing we’ve seen so far from the highly touted rookie Luzardo. He worked into the 7th inning for the first time in his career, keeping the D’Backs off the board and striking out seven along the way. Only twice did he let a runner into scoring position, and the only time they reached third base it was because of a wild pitch and a balk, rather than their own hitting.
After Luzardo’s career-high 92 pitches, the bullpen came in to record the final eight outs. Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, and Liam Hendriks got it done with only two hits allowed, though Soria did let one run across — more because of Tim Locastro’s elite speed than his own pitching.
On the offensive side, the A’s outfield once again led the way. In the 1st inning they got a two-run double from Robbie Grossman, and in the 3rd a two-run homer by Mark Canha. That was all the scoring they’d need, and as an encouraging bonus both drives came with runners in scoring position. Matt Chapman scored on each of those hits, and also contributed a Platinum level double play in the field.
This was the fourth start of Jesús Luzardo’s career, and it was the best we’ve seen yet as the lefty continues the journey toward his lofty ceiling.
It’s not just that he put up zeroes. The D’Backs didn’t even come close to scoring off him, despite putting a runner on base in all but one of his innings. On top of that, this was the longest outing of his career — not just in the majors, but as a professional.
Since Luzardo had surgery before he was drafted, he spent his minor league time rehabbing from that and cautiously building up his young arm. The restrictions on his workload meant he only completed six innings on two occasions on the farm, putting Wednesday’s 6⅓ frames at the top of his list. The 24 batters he faced also tied his pro career high (he’s not yet used to the third time through the order), and his 92 pitches were just one shy of the high he set last August in Triple-A.
Luzardo: 6⅓ ip, 0 runs, 7 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR, 4 hits, 92 pitches (58 strikes)
That’s a great line, but it goes deeper than those basic stats. Arizona swung and missed 14 times against him, including multiple instances on each of four different offerings from his arsenal (4-seam, sinker, change, slider). Those misses represented 15.2% of all his pitches and 31% of all his swings — that latter whiff rate matches his season mark and ranks him in the top quarter or so of MLB pitchers in terms of missing bats (including relievers).
When Arizona did hit the ball, it went nowhere. They only managed three pieces of hard contact against him, and only one of those went for a single. The other two were sharp lineouts to center, both of which were hauled in without much trouble. Everything else was weak, though a few more found holes for hits.
Only once did Luzardo get into anything resembling a jam, in the 6th inning, and we’ll get to that in a moment in the next section. Otherwise, it was individual runners on first base in every frame except the 2nd, with only one of them even getting the chance to go to second.
Luzardo has shown signs of improvement pretty much every time out, and when something goes wrong he’s adjusting quickly and fixing it in his next start. With that kind of IQ and pitchability, along with his 97+ mph heat, control, command, and the change and slider we saw in this game, he’s still only scratching the surface of what he can do. This is what the combination of elite stuff and elite makeup looks like, and it’s why he was so highly rated as a prospect.
By the 6th inning, Luzardo was locked in cruise control, but the D’Backs finally mustered a whisper. Fortunately, Oakland’s defense helped stifle any chance of it turning into a rally.
The first two batters reached base, on a walk and a grounder with eyes. That brought up No. 3 hitter Starling Marte, and a chance for Arizona to battle back into the game. Marte bounced the 2-2 pitch toward Matt Chapman, and that gave us a prime example of the value of Chapman’s Platinum Glove defense.
The grounder itself was routine. Most third basemen could have turned a double play on it, so credit goes to Luzardo for inducing it at the perfect moment. However, most third basemen would have gone around the horn for a 5-4-3. Chapman instead fielded the ball to his left, while simultaneously moving to his right to go touch the bag at third to force the lead runner, and then turned and threw the opposite direction of his body’s momentum and delivered a one-hopper directly to Pickin’ Machine Matt Olson at first base to beat the runner there.
This 5-3 DP is a play Chapman makes more than any other 3B in the majors, and it’s one of many ways he can unusually change the landscape of an inning. The extra 90 feet didn’t end up mattering in this case, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how it could. A wild pitch, a sharp single, a well-placed bunt, or any number of other methods could score that runner from third but not second, even with two outs already on the board.
Instead, Luzardo got another assist from his teammates for the third out. Christian Walker followed with a sharp liner to center, the second-hardest batted ball allowed by the lefty, but Ramon Laureano was able to track it down. It wasn’t an insane web gem, but between Laser’s speed and an excellent route to the ball, he made it look easier than it was. This contact falls for a hit 63% of the time, but not tonight. (See the catch at the end of the Luzardo reel video above.)
In an interesting twist, Luzardo was not the least experienced person involved in the pitching process. Umpire Malachi Moore, who made his MLB debut in Monday’s game in Arizona, worked the plate for the first time.
Moore’s most notable call of the evening was a balk on Luzardo, when the pitcher barely flinched while reading signs but went back into his crouch instead of continuing up and coming set. The broadcast crew was mildly critical of the call, but the proper gripe is probably more with the rule itself than this application of it.
Welcome and congrats to Moore!
Lineup snaps funk
The A’s couldn’t score in the first two games because they went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position when they needed the clutch hit, and their only homer was a solo shot. On top of all that, they’ve struggled all year at doing damage early against opposing starters, putting pressure on them to mount late comebacks. They improved in all those areas on Wednesday.
Oakland jumped on D’Backs starter Merrill Kelly right away. They loaded the bases in the 1st inning, and Robbie Grossman continued his torrid season, pulling a double into the right field corner. The hit plated two runs, and likely would have brought home a third if it hadn’t bounced over the wall for an automatic two bases. He later walked twice and now has a 1.068 OPS.
The A’s struck again in the 3rd. Chapman doubled, and then Mark Canha followed with a two-run homer. It was more like a lazy flyout, but he hit it so hard that it carried just far enough to land atop the lip of the out-of-town scoreboard, mere inches into HR territory.
Mark's bat Gryffindor's sword— Oakland A's (@Athletics) August 20, 2020
to snakes pic.twitter.com/L3ZymtU4ce
That’s two hits with runners in scoring position, both off the starting pitcher within the first three innings. And the homer came with someone on base, helping to efficiently capitalize on the club’s power. Progress!
The outfield continues to carry this lineup. We knew they’d be good, but the infield was supposed to be the star power, and it still could be by year’s end — after all, it’s not like the infielders haven’t contributed at all, and Chapman did score half the team’s runs in this game. But all four were driven in by the outfielders (though Canha was technically DHing), and that quartet (Laureano, Grossman, Canha, and Stephen Piscotty) have been the engine of run production all summer as well as the authors of most of the dramatic clutch hits.
The bullpen’s success is no longer news, and that’s an excellent place to be.
In the 7th, Yusmeiro Petit relieved Luzardo and stranded his inherited runner.
In the 8th, Joakim Soria allowed a leadoff single to speedster Tim Locastro, who stole second, moved to third on a flyout, and scored on a sac fly. Almost any other runner would have been nabbed on the steal attempt by catcher Sean Murphy’s sizzling throw, but Locastro beat it. Laureano’s throw home on the sac fly was also good, but with Locastro blazing down the line it wasn’t even close.
In the 9th, closer Liam Hendriks went 1-2-3 for the save. He’s now 8-for-9 this year.
A’s bullpen: 2⅔ ip, 1 run, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 1 hit, 48 pitches (31 strikes)
That line is the bad version of the 2020 pen so far. And with a four-run lead at the outset, the biggest effect of the tally allowed by Soria was that it brought the score just close enough to gift a save situation to Hendriks.
Thursday brings the series finale, and the A’s will look for a home-and-away split. It’ll be a battle of lefties, with Sean Manaea against Robbie Ray. The former All-Star Ray led the majors in walks entering Wednesday.