CLEVELAND -- Frankie Montas established himself as the top pitcher in the A’s rotation earlier in the season. Now he’s starting to pitch like one of the best in the entire league.
The Indians were the latest club to be stymied by the right-hander. Montas kept Cleveland scoreless over six innings in Wednesday’s 7-2 win -- Oakland's sixth straight victory -- at Progressive Field, allowing just five hits and two walks as he racked up nine strikeouts and lowered his ERA to 2.40, fourth-lowest in the American League.
“He just continues to show more confidence on the mound,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “When you throw that hard and have good command of your breaking stuff, it’s going to be tough to hit him.”
The splitter Montas added to his repertoire in the offseason has been the key to his success, but that pitch seemed to be missing in the first inning. He only threw the pitch once in the opening frame, which resulted in a booming single to the right-field wall by Francisco Lindor, as he found himself in an early jam with only one out and runners on second and third. This was the type of situation Montas struggled to control in the past, but in 2019, he has been able to pitch his way out of these jams, like he did on Wednesday by striking out Jake Bauers and getting Jose Ramirez to fly out.
“I wasn’t really feeling comfortable with [the splitter] the first couple of innings,” Montas said. “But then I started feeling it.”
Montas found the split in the second and made life easier for himself. He threw it 23 times over his final five innings and generated 11 swing-and-misses, five of those finishing off strikeouts. It continues a trend for Montas, as he struck out a career-high 10 batters in his previous outing at Detroit.
Even with a 98 mph fastball at his disposal, Montas does not fancy himself as a strikeout pitcher. The increase in punchouts on Wednesday was dictated by the situations he found himself in when the Indians had runners in scoring position. Montas knew how aggressive Cleveland hitters were after facing them in Oakland earlier this month, and took advantage of that by challenging them with off-speed pitches around the strike zone.
“Once he would speed us up with his fastball, then he would go to that [splitter] and it really gave us trouble,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Especially when we’d get runners in scoring position, because that’s when he would go to it more. He starts pitching backward. That gave us a really tough time.”
It was a different style from Montas’ early outings this season in which he’d induced a large number of groundouts, transforming him from flamethrower to true pitcher. Still, he entered the day with the second highest ground-ball rate in the Majors at 53.5 percent, and fittingly finished off his outing with a double play ball on Oscar Mercado to end the sixth.
“He did a really good job of keeping this lineup off balance,” A’s catcher Nick Hundley said. “It’s a tough one for him to face with all the lefties, and he used all his pitches well. Six scoreless against that lineup, you’re pleased with that.”
Montas has found success against any lineup thrown at him. He’s allowed three runs or fewer in all 10 of his starts this season and two runs or fewer in each of his last five.
The win was the sixth straight for the A's, pending the completion of their game against the Tigers on May 19, which was suspended due to inclement weather and will be completed on Sept. 6. Oakland led that game, 5-3, in the seventh inning at the point it was suspended.
Hundley and Mark Canha each homered to provide Montas with some support, as the A's ended a nine-game road trip with 21 home runs over the stretch.
“He’s got some power and our bench guys all could potentially be everyday players,” Melvin said. “You’ve seen his production over the years with consistent at-bats.”
Back to .500
If you’re going to be serious about making a playoff run, the conversations start when you get to .500. Wednesday’s win extended Oakland’s season-high winning streak to six games and pushed the club to 25-25, back at .500 for the first time since April 26.
“This is the type of baseball we expect to play,” Hundley said. “We pitch well, been playing good defense and have the ability to drive the ball up and down the lineup. This is the team we envisioned being and need to bring that every series.”