The Oakland A’s settled some of their Opening Day roster questions on Saturday, but one still remaining involves who will fill in for the injured Mike Fiers as the fifth starter.
One candidate for that job is top prospect A.J. Puk, and the lefty did everything he could to prove he’s ready for it in the A’s latest Cactus League game. He spun four scoreless innings and was nearly perfect, leading the A’s to a 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers.
Puk missed all of 2020 to a shoulder injury, after previously sitting out all of 2018 for Tommy John surgery, and Saturday marked only his third appearance since returning this spring. After struggling with his command last time out, one of his goals in this game was to prove once and for all that he could be ready to throw five innings in a regular season start next week, which would mean completing at least four today.
Not only did Puk achieve that objective, he did so with authority. He faced the minimum through those four frames, allowing just two batters to briefly reach base — one groundball single was later eliminated in a double play, and an infield error led to a runner who was later picked off.
Puk: 4 ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks, 0 BB, 1 hit, 12 batters faced
Granted, the Rangers didn’t have their best nine on the field today. They’re already probably a last-place team as it is, and the only expected MLB starter who was playing was catcher Jose Trevino, one of five players from their lineup I’ve even heard of. But still, they were a group of pro hitters and they had no answers for a dialed-in Puk.
The southpaw reached 94 mph with his fastball, which is still below his powerful norm but wasn’t a problem in this game. He’s been using his two-seamer more than ever this month, notes insider Martin Gallegos. Most importantly, he felt good about his mechanics as he gets back into his groove post-surgery, and said the following, per Alex Coffey of The Athletic:
“Even if my velo doesn’t come back, I’m confident with [the] stuff I have. I’ve thrown more two-seamers than I have my entire career. I’ve always told myself I want to become a pitcher, and it’s easy to become a thrower with 98 in the back pocket. Now I’m working on becoming a pitcher”
Manager Bob Melvin offered a similarly glowing evaluation, per Athletics Farm:
“Excellent. Throwing strikes, repeating his delivery. I’m really not that worried about his velocity ... Good breaking ball, good changeup. That’s the kind of guy we’re looking for. And he’s definitely capable of performances like that.”
The battle is down to Puk, fellow top prospect Daulton Jefferies, and offseason acquisition Cole Irvin. All of them are pitching absolutely out of their gourds right now, with the following combined line in their spring auditions the last few days.
Jefferies, Irvin, Puk, last starts: 14 ip, 0 runs, 20 Ks, 2 BB, 4 hits
Good luck picking between that trio. They faced 45 total batters and struck out 44% of them. Do you think they all want the job?
Is AJ Puk like 8 feet tall? pic.twitter.com/xsYkMgqIu7— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 27, 2021
The bullpen also got some more tuneup time. Lefty Adam Kolarek tossed a couple innings, allowing just an RBI double for the Rangers’ only run.
Setup man Sergio Romo struck out the side, settling any question about whether he’s ready to go. He did get a visit from his trick knee on the way off the mound, but Melvin said it’s not new nor is it a problem, per Shayna Rubin of the Mercury News, following by joking, “I think his trick was he didn’t want to go out for the next inning.”
Lowrie & Laser
In addition to the roster cuts made by the A’s this morning, the club also told veteran Jed Lowrie that his comeback attempt has been successful and he’s made the team. The professional hitter celebrated in exactly the fashion you’d expect, by going out and lacing a double into the opposite-field gap.
That drove in a run in the 2nd inning, and a couple batters later Ramon Laureano plated two more with a triple. Laureano later doubled in another run in the 7th.
There’s not much to say about the lineup at this point except that it’s never going to be more ready for April 1 to arrive. All the stats will be wiped back to zero, but it’s time to see what they can do in games that count.
Two more spring games to go, and they’re both against the Giants in the annual Bay Bridge Series, held this year in Arizona instead of its usual Bay Area venues.