Irvin spins gem with career-high 8 IP, 9 K's

'He’s not a seat warmer anymore,' Melvin says of A's lefty

May 5th, 2021

The A’s entered the 2021 campaign with a starting rotation they believed could rank among the best in baseball by year’s end.

was not supposed to be part of that equation.

Acquired in January from the Phillies in what was viewed as a move to provide Minor League pitching depth, Irvin has done more than hold his own as a fill-in rotation member. Tossing a gem in Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over the Blue Jays -- a win that improved Oakland’s American League-best record to 19-12 -- the left-hander is performing like the best pitcher in a talented group of A’s starters.

Nobody could have predicted Irvin would still be pitching in the A’s rotation one month into the regular season. It required beating out a pair of top prospects in Daulton Jefferies and A.J. Puk during Spring Training just for him to make the club. Now, after tossing eight dominant innings on Tuesday night -- the longest start of any A’s pitcher this season -- his 3.09 ERA across six starts leads the starting staff. He allowed just one run on three hits and a walk with a career-high nine strikeouts.

“He’s not a seat warmer anymore,” A’s manager Bob Melvin joked. “He’s been consistent the entire season. On a day we were down some guys in the bullpen, eight innings, I either fell asleep or had a lot of confidence in him. Probably the latter.

“He just continues to get better and better and pitch with more confidence. That’s not an easy lineup for a lefty to go through.”

Even during his impressive stretch over his previous three starts in which he went 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA, there was skepticism over the validity of just how good he pitched given that it came against struggling offenses in the Rays, Orioles and Tigers.

There’s no questioning this dominant performance, pitching with an early four-run cushion provided in the second by Jed Lowrie’s two-run double and Mitch Moreland’s two-run homer and shutting down one of the league’s most potent offenses.

Familiarity played into Irvin’s impressive night. Though it was his first career outing against Toronto, the 27-year-old lefty often matched up against the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio in Minor League games as he came up through Philadelphia’s system. So by the time they stepped in the box to face him at the Coliseum, Irvin said he had a good idea about how to attack them.

On Tuesday, that trio of young Blue Jays stars went 1-for-9 against Irvin, with Guerrero -- who is emerging as an early-season AL MVP candidate -- failing to reach base in a game for just the second time this season.

“I’ve pitched them so many different ways already and I’m a different pitcher now than I was then,” Irvin said. “I was able to take what I’ve done in the past and apply it in a different way. I knew that they knew I had a good changeup. I had to find ways to open that up and be able to use it.”

Mixing up his four pitches, he found a way to effectively use that changeup. Irvin threw it 28 percent of the time, generating five whiffs with it, the most he got on any of his pitches.

Facing the minimum through five innings, Irvin showed no fear by constantly attacking the zone with fastballs inside. Entering the night with a first-pitch strike percentage of 72.6 -- which ranked third-highest among Major League pitchers -- he pumped first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 26 batters he faced, throwing a total of 71 strikes on 102 pitches.

“Getting strike one is extremely important,” Irvin said. “My youth baseball days, when I learned how to pitch, the first thing was have a good fastball you could throw to both sides of the plate and a good changeup. I’m always trying to get ahead in the count.”

Toronto’s lone run came off the bat of former A’s shortstop Marcus Semien, who drove an RBI double to left-center in the sixth. It was the type of hit that is often the telling sign of a pitcher starting to fatigue. For Irvin, it was the opposite.

Channeling the anger from the past that he said he carries with him on the mound from hearing people tell him he’s not good enough to pitch in the Majors, Irvin locked in even more by not allowing a hit the rest of his outing.

Feeding off the roar of the Oakland faithful, he utilized the adrenaline to register his two highest velocities of the night on the putaway pitches of his final two strikeouts of the game, a 94.3 mph fastball to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to end the seventh and a 94.1 mph heater to Danny Jansen to finish the eighth.

“I pitch with that mindset of knowing there’s someone out there that doesn’t think I should be in a big league uniform,” Irvin said. “It’s still grinding me and making me work harder every day. I want to get my first complete game and have multiple in my career. As I progress, maybe the goals change. But I’m still pitching with that mentality and I don’t want to lose that.”