Big Unit visits A's: 'Stuff you dream about'

Acquired in historic deal with Giants, Smith arrives at camp ready to contribute in '20

February 16th, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- Hall of Famer Randy Johnson made a surprise visit to A’s camp Sunday, and for a few minutes, it felt like he had stepped into a time machine back to 1995.

Johnson stood on the dirt of one of the practice fields at the Lew Wolff Training Complex and watched a tall, lanky left-handed pitcher with long flowing blondish hair play catch. It was , the exciting young pitcher expected to slot into the A’s rotation this season. The same one who has drawn comparisons to Johnson not just for his looks, but also his downright nasty stuff on the mound.

“When [Johnson] saw him warming up and playing catch, he was like, ‘Wow! This takes me back like 25 years,’” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “The long hair and kind of the same stroke. The mechanics look similar. He got a chuckle out of that.”

This wasn’t the first interaction between Puk and Johnson. Melvin, who managed Johnson in Arizona from 2007-08, brought the legend in to speak to the 24-year-old two Spring Trainings ago. However, Johnson was a bit more involved with the rest of the A’s pitchers this time around, specifically the club’s other two left-handed starters in and .

Johnson stood in during Manaea and Luzardo’s bullpen sessions, even giving Manaea a few pointers on throwing his slider midway through the bullpen.

“Being a tall lefty, it’s kind of hard for us to get the ball down on the glove side,” Manaea said. “He was just telling me a couple of things about that and towards the end of my bullpen, I felt like that helped a little bit. I’m excited to test some of those things out.

“He felt like he had two different sliders. We talked about being able to manipulate it and know when to throw it, reading hitters. It was awesome.”

After the session was complete, Puk, Manaea and Luzardo all gathered in a room inside the complex for more of an intimate chat with Johnson. The trio had a chance to ask questions and learn about the mentality that made the five-time Cy Young Award winner so successful.

“It was awesome. We picked his brain a little bit and had some conversations,” Luzardo said. “Definitely learned some stuff, mentality-wise and preparation-wise, that I didn’t really know about. The way he kind of viewed the game and how he looked at it when he went out to pitch. He had that killer mentality, which is awesome to hear and talk about.

“Just seeing how we’re all different pitchers, yet it takes that same mentality. If you have that killer instinct, it’s something helpful.”

Johnson is one of a few valuable resources available to young A’s pitchers this spring. Oakland legend Dave Stewart has been in camp since report day, while the club also got a visit from Al Leiter on Sunday.

“This is the stuff you dream about as a kid, being able to pitch like these guys,” Manaea said. “Now that we can talk to them, it’s unbelievable.”

Burch Smith arrives hungry
flew out to Arizona early in order to get ahead of the curve before officially starting camp with the Giants. They were good intentions, but they stalled once he was designated for assignment by San Francisco Feb. 10. After a stressful few days, Smith has a new home after the A's traded for him Saturday, and he arrived to Hohokam Stadium on Sunday morning, ready for a fresh start.

"I was a little surprised by the timing. It was a decision that [San Francisco] made, and that's the way it goes. Business decision," Smith said. "It's good to be here. This is a really good team that was in the playoffs here, and I'm happy to be a part of this and see if we can keep winning."

Smith struggled in seven appearances with the Brewers last season as he was designated for assignment with a 7.82 ERA. But he found success once he arrived to the Giants. The right-hander switched some things up in San Francisco and recorded a 2.08 ERA with six strikeouts and four walks over 10 appearances.

"I kind of made some adjustments. A lot of it was my mentality and being more aggressive," he said. "There was also some new stuff like where I'm having the catcher set up and targets. It was nice to have the success I had in the Minors transfer over."

Smith arrived to A's camp recognizing plenty of familiar faces, including Puk, who he's worked out with in Tampa Bay the past three offseasons. He even served as a source of advice when the left-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018. Smith also comes in having made a bit of history as he was involved in the first trade between the A's and Giants since 1990.

"I saw that yesterday. That's funny. Maybe that's a good omen," Smith said. "I don't know what it will amount to, but it's funny that I was the first one in 30 years."