James Kaprielian making his first Major League start at Fenway Park felt a lot like destiny.
Drafted 16th overall by the Yankees in the 2015 MLB Draft, Kaprielian had visions of dominating the rival Red Sox while wearing pinstripes for many years to come. Of course, things didn’t exactly work out that easily. Tommy John surgery in ‘17 set him back. Then he was traded to the A’s in a deal for Sonny Gray later that year.
It required a long injury-filled journey to get to his first big league start, but Kaprielian -- Oakland’s No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- finally made it to the mound at Fenway on Wednesday. Pitching in front of his father, who was a nervous wreck as he sat near the A’s dugout, the right-hander worked around a couple of jams to earn his first win in a 4-1 victory over the Red Sox, allowing one run on four hits and three walks with six strikeouts over five innings.
“To make my first Major League start at Fenway is pretty special,” Kaprielian said. “It’s a special place. I’m walking the same hallways that Babe Ruth walked and all sorts of legends. Being able to sign the wall and just be a part of it is unbelievably special.”
Kaprielian showed impressive poise on the mound. Working through some expected first-inning jitters, the 27-year-old righty managed to escape a bases-loaded situation with no outs by only allowing one run in what ended up as a 31-pitch first inning. His swinging strikeout of Hunter Renfroe on a 2-2 sinker to end the first began a stretch of retiring 10 of the next 12 batters faced.
“Complete turnaround,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “You know there are probably going to be some nerves. To end up giving us five innings and just one run, that’s a tough one to predict after the first inning. You gotta give him a lot of credit for finding it in what can be a difficult environment.”
Kaprielian again found some trouble in the fifth by allowing runners at the corners with no outs. This time, with the A’s getting the bullpen going, he worked out of it without allowing a run by striking out Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers to end the frame.
Though Kaprielian’s father did his best to will him through the inning with his loud cheers in that fifth, it may have actually been his mother, Barbara, who provided the biggest assist.
After Kaprielian misfired a throw to second base on a potential double-play grounder by Alex Verdugo that instead gave the Red Sox runners on first and third with no outs, he took a pause and stepped off the mound to gather himself. Rubbing up the new baseball he received from home plate umpire Ryan Wills, Kaprielian looked up at an empty seat in between the A’s dugout and home plate. That’s around the same spot his mother would situate herself for each of his games throughout high school and early into his college career at UCLA.
Barbara passed away in June 2014 at the age of 58 after a 14-year bout with breast cancer. But on Wednesday night, Kaprielian said he felt her presence at Fenway as he navigated through those rough waters.
“It’s the same spot my Mom would always sit,” Kaprielian said. “For me, that’s where I collect myself and gather my breath. It’s always been that [way] since college. She’s with me every single pitch. Once that last out happened, I couldn’t [help] but think of my Mom there.”
Even as he grinded through an outing that saw frequent traffic on the basepaths, Kaprielian still managed to show off some of the enticing stuff that made him a top prospect. Of his 95 pitches, he threw 58 strikes, including 45 of the swinging variety. Struggling to find command of his fastball in the first, he relied heavily on a sharp slider and changeup, two pitches which he combined to throw 43 times and which generated nine whiffs (swings and misses).
Once he gained better control for the four-seam heater -- which averaged 93 mph and maxed out at 94.5 mph -- Kaprielian used it heavily towards the end of his start. It was a key pitch in that decisive fifth, when he blew a 94 mph fastball by Bogaerts for the second out of the inning.
“We started establishing that changeup pretty good in the third and getting some good swing and miss,” Kaprielian said. “I was struggling with fastball command, which you can’t do in the big leagues. Those pitches helped me out and got me out of some jams. They were two crucial pitches for me tonight.”
The A’s offense backed Kaprielian with four runs, including Matt Olson’s towering solo shot in the sixth. Kaprielian then handed the game off to the trio of Burch Smith, Lou Trivino and Jake Diekman, who finished off the night with four scoreless innings of relief.