ST. PETERSBURG -- The trade rumors involving Frankie Montas continue to swirl over the first week of the regular season. For now, he remains a member of the A’s. He’s still their ace, and he’s still filthy.
Squaring off opposite Shane McClanahan in a battle of Opening Day starters, it was Montas who came away from the duel on top, setting a tone for the A’s 4-2 victory over the Rays on Wednesday at Tropicana Field. Like he usually does when he’s at his best, the right-hander showcased a devastating splitter and slider to produce plenty of off-balance swings.
“After his Opening Day start, we talked about building that confidence,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “He went out tonight and he had his good stuff. Split down below the zone. Fastball had real life to it. He got deep into the game for us, and that was much needed. It was a great night for Frankie.”
Following a night in which the A’s bullpen had to pick up 8 1/3 innings, Montas provided a nice breather for a fatigued relief corps. He pitched into the seventh, limiting Tampa Bay’s offense to just two runs (one earned) on five hits with six strikeouts across 6 1/3 innings.
Montas’ slider was particularly wicked on this night. Of the 15 whiffs generated from his 89 total pitches, seven of those swing-and-misses came from the slider. A sure-fire sign that the pitch was on point showed in the sixth, when he slung it across the zone against Randy Arozarena and caused the Rays designated hitter to fling his bat halfway across the infield grass for a swinging strike three to end the frame.
“I knew it was working,” Montas said of his slider. “But, to be honest, that one wasn’t even one of my best sliders of the day. I feel like [Arozarena] was probably just sitting fastball and was in swing mode.”
When the Rays did manage to make contact against Montas, most of it was weak, outside of a solo shot surrendered to Ji-Man Choi in the fourth. In fact, the 19 balls hit in play against him only averaged an exit velocity of 85.1 mph.
"He's really good,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Montas. “It seemed like after the first time through, it felt like he got his offspeed pitches in a spot where he was comfortable throwing them at any point in the count. Very talented pitcher, great stuff, and felt like he got a little stronger as the game went on."
Hanging onto the early lead provided by Sean Murphy’s booming three-run homer to right-center in the third, Montas handed it off to a trio of A’s relievers to shut the door. Kirby Snead, Zach Jackson and Lou Trivino held Tampa Bay scoreless the rest of the way, with Trivino bouncing back from a blown save on Tuesday to notch his first save of 2022.
Despite the lack of household names, Oakland’s bullpen continues to get the job done, with arms like Snead and Jackson emerging as strong candidates for Kotsay to utilize in high-leverage roles over the late innings.
“The guys that pitched tonight for them, they all featured really good stuff,” Cash said. “Snead that came in, Jackson who was in there, Trivino has done it for a long time now. And it was all started by Montas."
Six games through a daunting 10-game road trip to begin the season, the A’s are not looking like a team that just lost a surplus of star players over the past month. Now guaranteed at least a series split with a chance for a series win over the 2021 American League East champions on Thursday.
As for Montas, he realizes the trade rumors will persist. That just comes with the territory when you have an arm that shines as bright as it did on Wednesday night. By now, he’s learned to drown out the noise and focus on helping the A’s try to surpass the low expectations they’ve been given by outsiders this year.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Montas said. “Whatever happens is gonna happen. If I’m still here, I’m gonna give a hundred percent every day I step on the mound. If I pitch somewhere else, I’m gonna do the same thing. I don’t let those things bother me.”