OAKLAND -- The A’s have long anticipated the emergence of A.J. Puk as an anchor to their starting rotation since drafting him sixth overall in the 2016 MLB Draft. After multiple setbacks, he might finally be ready to live up to that tantalizing potential.
It’s been a long road for Puk, who in between an impressive stint with the A’s in 10 appearances as a reliever for their playoff push in 2019 has had to battle through Tommy John surgery in 2018 and a shoulder surgery last September that prevented him from pitching at all during the regular season.
Called up prior to Monday’s game from the club’s alternate training site to provide aid for a taxed bullpen that worked 16 2/3 innings over the past four days, Puk admitted to feeling some nerves as he took the mound for his first Major League game in nearly three years.
“I’ve been thinking about this moment for a while,” Puk said. “I was pretty relaxed. I know the work I put in to get back out there. Knowing I did what I had to do to get back, there’s a calming effect to that.”
Puk’s strong outing certainly felt like a prelude to a move into the starting rotation, though A’s manager Bob Melvin said the lefty is likely to remain in the bullpen for now as he continues to build his pitch count. Entering the game with runners at the corners and two outs in the third, he began his appearance by striking out 2020 World Series MVP Corey Seager on an 87 mph slider to prevent further damage with the A's already trailing 7-0.
Concerns arose about Puk’s velocity during Spring Training. He was sitting 93-94 mph with his heater through three Cactus League outings, which was a significant decrease from the 97.1 mph he averaged in ‘19 for the A’s. His velocity fastball actually ticked up a bit on Monday, maxing out at 95.6 mph and averaging 93.7 mph throughout
“All of a sudden, it ticked up today,” Melvin said. “He saved us. We needed those innings out of him. Not only did we get them, but he was pretty economical and got results.”
There were some areas where Puk quickly identified he’d like to improve. Command was an issue at times as Puk allowed three walks, but the lefty worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth with a strikeout of Edwin Ríos and finished with four punchouts and just one hit allowed.
“I just want to keep attacking hitters and cut down on the walks,” Puk said. “Throw more strikes. It was a battle out there and I was able to get the job done.”
Of his 65 pitches, Puk threw 35 strikes, including 22 of the swinging variety. He also showed off a wipeout slider that was used as the putaway pitch on two of his four strikeouts. With A’s starters having trouble getting clean innings early in the season, Puk might not have to wait much longer to make his first Major League start.
“As far as at the big league level, that’s as well as he’s pitched,” Melvin said. “And it came in a time when we needed him.”
Aside from the positive signal with Puk, Monday’s loss continued what has been a brutal stretch for Oakland. They have not led at any point through their first 45 innings played (across five games, all losses) and have been outscored 45-10 in five games. Allowing 10 runs to Los Angeles, they became just the third team since 1901 to allow at least eight runs through first five games of the season, joining the 1995 White Sox and 1974 Padres.“
Even the defense, which is usually top-notch, was an issue on Monday. With two outs in the second inning, two-time Gold and Platinum Glove Award winner Matt Chapman was unable to field a short grounder from Mookie Betts that could have ended the inning only allowing one run. The play was ruled a single to load the bases, but it was one that the A’s have grown accustomed to seeing the star third baseman make over the past few years. One batter later, Seager made it a big inning with a booming three-run double to center off Montas to make it 4-0 at the time.
“We haven’t done anything well,” Melvin said. “Defensively, usually we’re really good. So far, we have not been. It goes with everything else that has been going on. It seems like everything that could go wrong has to this point.”
After getting swept by the Astros in their season-opening four-game series, the A’s 0-5 start to the season matches their worst start since moving to Oakland in 1968. The 1979 and 1987 A’s also started the year 0-5 before winning their sixth game of the season. Neither of those teams reached the postseason.
“It’s frustrating,” Melvin said. “It just plays off of what we’ve done the last four games. Got behind early in the game and didn’t have an answer. It’s more of the same as far as what we’ve seen.”