Puk 'looks like he's back' in blazing return

August 11th, 2021

CLEVELAND -- Ideally, the A’s would have sent out to the mound for his first appearance back from the Minor Leagues in a lower-leverage scenario. But as A’s manager Bob Melvin put it before Tuesday’s game, “sometimes, you just have to see how it works out.”

Called up from Triple-A Las Vegas earlier in the day, the flame-throwing left-hander was immediately thrust into a critical spot during Tuesday night’s 4-3 win over Cleveland in 10 innings at Progressive Field. Entering in the sixth inning with Oakland facing a one-run deficit, the 26-year-old responded in impressive fashion, making quick work of Cleveland’s hitters with two strikeouts in a scoreless frame that required just 11 pitches.

Puk, ranked the A’s No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline, looked much different than he did the last time he pitched in the big leagues. In his only appearance for the club on April 5 just prior to landing on the injured list with a left biceps strain, Puk fared well with 3 1/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers. However, with a fastball that averaged just 93.7 mph that night, his stuff looked far from the tantalizing repertoire he’d shown prior to undergoing shoulder surgery in 2020.

On Tuesday, Puk looked all the way back to his old form. Of his 11 pitches -- eight of which were strikes -- 10 were fastballs that maxed out at 98.2 mph and averaged 97.1 mph. Puk pulled out an 84.5 mph slider for his only non-fastball of the outing, using it as the putaway pitch to freeze Owen Miller on a called strike three for the second out of the inning.

The return to form for Puk was certainly a familiar sight for fellow A’s reliever Burch Smith, Puk’s offseason workout partner over the past few years, who also contributed mightily to Tuesday’s win with 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief.

“He looked great,” Smith said. “I told him, this is the first time in a while that I’ve seen him look back to himself. He just looks way more confident. The stuff was there, obviously, too. He looks like he’s back.”

Puk pointed to the new lower arm slot that he developed during his time in the Minors over the past month as the key for his velocity returning to what it once was. Now that he’s quickly gotten his feet wet again in his return to the big leagues, Tuesday’s strong outing could help his case for elevating his standing in a dominant A’s bullpen that entered Wednesday holding a 1.75 ERA in 82 1/3 innings pitched dating back to July 7, with opponents batting just .180 over that stretch.

“It’s the arm angle that looks a lot freer for him,” Melvin said. “It just doesn’t look like he has to work as hard to get it straight over the top. I know he says he feels better with it. For a first look, I can understand why he feels good with it.”