A big part of the Oakland A’s future arrived on Tuesday, and it helped them earn their fourth straight win in the present day — in particularly familiar fashion.
Top prospect Jesus Luzardo threw five scoreless innings in his first career MLB start, and Stephen Piscotty broke a 9th-inning tie with the A’s second walk-off grand slam of the season for a 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers at the Coliseum.
The left-hander Luzardo didn’t dominate but still breezed through Texas’ lineup. He retired his first six batters in order, and by the end of his five frames he’d struck out five batters while allowing just four baserunners, without ever allowing multiple runners on at the same time or letting any Ranger past second base.
However, his opponent was every bit as good, as Rangers star Lance Lynn held Oakland’s lineup similarly in check into the 7th inning. He allowed just a solo homer to Matt Chapman in the 7th, which tied the score at the time after Texas had scratched out a run against the A’s bullpen.
Finally, in the 9th, Oakland put together their most promising rally of the evening, loading the bases with nobody out. Former Athletic Jesse Chavez entered to try to squeeze out of the jam, but Piscotty greeted him on the first pitch by driving the ball 414 feet over the wall in center field — bringing back memories of Opening Day a couple weeks ago when Matt Olson launched a walk-off slam of his own.
The A’s acquired Luzardo during the 2017 season, and since then his stock has risen to the top of the national prospect charts, as high as No. 6 at FanGraphs. Some setbacks delayed his arrival, including minor injuries in 2019 that pushed his MLB debut back to September, and a positive coronavirus test this summer that interrupted his preseason training, but on Tuesday he finally took the mound for the 1st inning of an MLB game as part of the starting rotation.
The results were the reasonable best-case scenario: Five full innings, not perfect but still scoreless, and with plenty of missed bats.
The lefty set the tone early by retiring the first six batters he faced, including three swinging strikeouts and three weak batted balls. Texas reached base in the 3rd, first with a solid single and later by working a 10-pitch walk, but they were never on at the same time due to a nice defensive play to eliminate the initial runner (more on that later).
The next two frames went similarly, with one runner reaching but getting stranded. The 4th brought a double by Todd Frazier, and the 5th a walk by Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who managed to get aboard twice against Luzardo (including the earlier single).
Luzardo: 5 ip, 0 runs, 5 Ks, 2 BB, 0 HR, 2 hits, 76 pitches (48 strikes)
The strike percentage is a bit lower than we might expect from him moving forward, but he still induced 10 swings-and-misses — that’s a strong 13% of all his pitches, and nearly a third of all the swings against him. He also got the benefit of a few loud outs, but even those were all grounders, and overall he did a great job keeping it on the ground with only two of his 11 batted balls going in the air.
In terms of stuff, Luzardo pounded the zone with his sinker and four-seam fastball, working comfortably at 97 mph in the early innings and topping out at 98.5, though he did lose a couple ticks as the game went on. His changeup earned several whiffs, and while his slider was a bit wild it still got the job done a few times.
Two of the first three clips in that video are the changeup earning a swinging Strike 3, once in the dirt and once placed perfectly in the far corner of the zone. In between those two offspeed highlights you can see Luzardo blowing a 97 mph high heater past one of the best hitters in the league in Joey Gallo. Next up he locates a slider on the edge of the zone for a backwards K, and then he wraps up by pumping 96 mph up and in to tie up the batter for his final strikeout.
Scout who's watching A's game tonight says there's no doubt Luzardo is a No. 1 or 2 starter in the league, and another tells me health and durability is his only concern, but, "He's good." Yeah, you could say that with five scoreless in his first ML start.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) August 5, 2020
It’s difficult to imagine a realistically better first impression. There’s obvious room for improvement, as he works his way up to even longer outings and tightens up the breaking ball, but this is what you hope to see from a top rookie with hopes of stardom — five innings of missed bats and zeroes on the board.
Rangers take the lead
Unfortunately, once Luzardo left the game, the Rangers found home plate almost immediately. Yusmeiro Petit got the first two outs of the 6th, but Gallo reached on the kind of shift-busting bunt that we always love to see from Matt Olson. It paid off, as Frazier lined his second double of the game to drive him home. 1-0 Rangers.
Despite that Texas run in the 6th, the theme for most of this game was a pitcher’s duel. While the Rangers posted goose eggs against Luzardo, the A’s did the same against Rangers starter Lance Lynn.
The right-handed Lynn enjoyed a career-best season in 2019, finishing fifth in the AL Cy Young voting, and he didn’t allow a run in his first two starts of 2020 during a dozen innings of sheer domination. That continued for most of Tuesday, as Oakland managed just one baserunner in the first four frames — later eliminated in a double play.
The A’s drew a couple walks in the 5th and a soft single in the 6th, but they were still searching for third base by the time Texas scored off Petit to break the scoreless deadlock. Even the loud outs they made were mostly low-percentage contact, like sharp grounders or lazy flies and popups.
Finally, leading off the 7th, Oakland broke through. The extended rally clearly wasn’t coming against Lynn, so instead they turned to their signature: The long ball.
It didn’t clear the high wall by much, but it was no joke, an opposite-field blast at 106.7 mph off the bat. More importantly, it was someone other than Ramon Laureano, Mark Canha, or Robbie Grossman getting the big hit, as Matt Chapman resumed his customary role of Chaptain America.
That was all they got off Lynn, but it was enough to keep pace with one of the top starters in the league and turn the game into a battle of the bullpens. So far in 2020, that’s been a fight the A’s can win, and they did so once again.
Bullpen stays hot
The pen wasn’t perfect, as Petit did blow the tie and let Texas take a lead. But he also limited the damage to just the one run instead of letting it expand into a larger rally, and from there the relief corps was lights out.
Lefty T.J. McFarland needed only 14 pitches in the 7th, earning his first strikeout of the year (on his 14th batter) and inducing a couple balls on the ground as usual. The only hit he allowed was an infield single that was close enough to require a replay review to overturn the out.
Setup man Joakim Soria was even better. The righty needed only eight pitches to record a popout and two strikeouts, with seven of his offerings going for strikes. That’s not far from an immaculate inning.
With the score tied in the 9th, the home team called on its closer, Liam Hendriks. He allowed a couple well-struck fly balls, including one that went reasonably deep, but they were both lazy flyouts and he needed only 10 pitches to complete the inning.
They weren’t technically protecting a lead, but this might have been the pen’s most impressive day yet considering how efficient it was. In the final three frames they retired nine out of 10 batters with just an infield single on the side, and it only took 32 total pitches.
After an encouraging 11-run outburts on Monday in Seattle, Tuesday was another slow night for the A’s offense. This one was understandable because Lynn is a legit ace right now, but still, through eight innings they’d put together just seven baserunners, hit into a pair of double plays, and gone 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position. They’d only scored at all, much less reached third, because of Chapman’s dinger.
Thanks to their pitching staff, though, they only needed one big inning and they finally got it in the 9th. The Rangers called on Edinson Volquez out of the bullpen, and Oakland immediately jumped all over him.
Matt Olson led off with a four-pitch walk, immediately putting pressure on Volquez. Chapman followed with another timely contribution, this time singling on a soft liner to push the winning run into scoring position. Mark Canha then walked on five pitches to load ‘em up, his third walk of the game and 10th of the season (Olson leads with 11).
Even for a team struggling as hard as the A’s have been to find the clutch hit, a bases-loaded, no-out situation feels somewhere between confidence and inevitability. Up to bat was Robbie Grossman, the team leader in hits with runners in scoring position, but he popped out. Still, even with one prime chance down, victory felt tantalizingly imminent.
Next up was Stephen Piscotty. He was already having perhaps his best day of the season so far, getting one of the rare hits off Lynn and later drawing a walk, and all he needed to do was hit a fly ball at least medium-deep. The Rangers had seen enough of Volquez and brought in Jesse Chavez to finish the job, pitting the former Athletic against his old team in one of the highest-leverage moments possible.
Piscotty came through with his fly ball on the very first pitch from Chavez. It was immediately apparent that it would be deep enough into center field to get home pinch-runner Franklin Barreto, but then it kept carrying, and kept carrying, back, back, back ...
It only needed to be a sac fly, but instead it turned into a walk-off grand slam. It was Piscotty’s first homer of any kind this year.
Making it even more amazing is that it’s already the A’s second walk-off slam of the season, after Olson’s dramatic drive on Opening Day. It’s the ninth in Oakland history, but the first time they’ve ever done it twice in the same year. In fact, it’s only the 17th time that any team has done it twice in the same summer, per A’s info manager Mike Selleck, with the last being the 2018 Cubs, per insider Sarah Langs. And we’re only 11 games into the season.
The A’s have one of the best defenses in the majors, but it was off to a shaky start in the first handful of games — not unusual for the early days of a new season. On Tuesday they authored a couple of encouraging gems.
The first came courtesy of Luzardo. The rookie had made a couple of defensive miscues in his last outing, but it didn’t take him long to flip that script. In the 2nd inning he induced a grounder, but it came in the form of a high chopper toward no-man’s land. Luzardo sprung off the mound in time to snatch it out of the air, and turned and fired a strike to first base to nab the runner by less than a step.
Someone’s been doing his PFP work.
After helping his own cause on that play, Luzardo also got an assist from his teammates in the 3rd. Kiner-Falefa led off with a single and reached second on a productive out, but then he made a mistake by challenging two of the best defenders in the sport.
One of Luzardo’s pitches went in the dirt, but catcher Sean Murphy knocked it down and kept it in front of him. While the ball was loose around the plate, Kiner-Falefa tried to take advantage and swipe third base. However, Murphy reacted quickly, pouncing on the ball and firing a dart right on target. Matt Chapman got to the bag in time to receive the throw, block the runner with his body, and apply the tag, all in the same instant. It was an impressive play on both ends to grab an extra out.
Chapman came through again in the 4th, and is beginning to look like his normal self again after a couple early errors this year. With a runner on second, he made a diving stop to his left, got to his feet, and delivered a throw in time for the out. The stop saved a run from scoring on a would-be single, and the throw ended the inning rather than continuing with a man on third.
Sure, the throw bounced, but that’s always part of the accepted game plan when throwing toward Olson. The keys are to direct it accurately toward him and give it a favorable bounce, rather than short-hopping it, skipping it off to the side, or sailing it over his head. Chapman knows this, and that kind of cooperation is one reason these two elite talents are even better together than the sum of their parts.
The A’s defense is a big part of what sets them apart as a contender, so it’s nice to see it rounding into form. And hey, the Rangers added their own highlight too!
Wanna know how to look cool? Catch a fly in your hat without even standing up off your MLB bench.
These two teams do it again on Wednesday at 6:10 p.m., with Sean Manaea against Kyle Gibson. The A’s look to extend their four-game winning streak, in a season when every game is worth 2.7 times in the standings.
10.8 game winning streak!— Ben Ross (@BenRossTweets) August 5, 2020