Luzardo embracing 'adrenaline' of 'pen role

June 3rd, 2021

SEATTLE -- When made his highly anticipated arrival to the Majors in 2019 as the top prospect in Oakland’s farm system, he immediately carved out a role as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen. Two years later, the left-hander might be pitching his way back into a similar role.

After firing three scoreless innings of relief with six strikeouts to keep the A’s within striking distance for an eventual 12-6 win over the Mariners at T-Mobile Park on Tuesday night, Luzardo maintained what has been a pristine ERA since returning from the injured list on Sunday. In his first two relief appearances since his return, the 23-year-old lefty has retired 12 of 15 batters faced, allowing just two hits and one walk while striking out seven across four innings pitched.

Manager Bob Melvin, who became the winningest manager in Oakland history with his 799th victory with the A’s on Tuesday, referred to Luzardo’s stuff coming out of the bullpen as “borderline dominant” over the past week.

Even that might be an understatement.

Without the need to pace himself on the mound pitching in shorter bursts, Luzardo is able to unleash a truly nasty arsenal of pitches. His average fastball velocity, which already ranked among the top five left-handers in the game entering Wednesday at 95.3 mph, ticked up to an average of 96.6 mph on Tuesday and maxed out at 98.6 mph. But that’s only half of what made him so impressive.

Of his 46 pitches on Tuesday, Luzardo, who usually relies heavily on his sinking fastball, actually threw more offspeed pitches against the Mariners, with 25 pitches that were either a curveball or changeup as opposed to 21 fastball/sinkers. All six of his strikeouts were also finished off with the curveball or changeup as the putaway pitch.

“Coming out of relief, I know I don’t have to go through the lineup three or four times like in a start,” Luzardo said. “I’m going to see them once, maybe twice if I get into trouble. I could use all my pitches more and expose my weapons a little more.”

Luzardo said the increased usage of the curveball was a result of the lefty-heavy lineup that was deployed by Seattle. The changeup, however, is a pitch he said he’s always tried to place an emphasis on throwing more ever since his callup in 2019, but he admittedly had shied away from in recent years. The changeup looked as sharp as ever on Tuesday, especially against left-handed hitters as it evaded a swing from Kyle Seager for a strikeout in the fifth.

“I’ve always said I want to start doing left-on-left changeups a little bit more,” Luzardo said. “I was comfortable against Seager with it and it worked out well. Maybe I’ll start mixing it in more. I know it’s a good weapon, I just never really trusted it as much.”

Building up his arm strength after a left hand fracture kept him out for nearly a month. Luzardo’s end goal is to eventually work himself back into the starting rotation. But there’s a certain rush that he enjoys while pitching in relief. The numbers certainly translate well, as he now holds a 2.81 ERA in 25 2/3 innings pitched across 11 career relief outings.

“The adrenaline coming out of the 'pen, you can’t match,” Luzardo said. “Starting, you have adrenaline, but it’s different. You feel like you’re getting your feet wet at the beginning and then you get in a groove.

“Coming out of the 'pen, you have to just be in a groove right away. I like warming up in the 'pen and the adrenaline and atmosphere. Running in from the outfield, it’s just a different mentality. You have to have that dog mentality. Just come out there and be good right away. I like to bring that from the bullpen.”

A’s reach vaccination goals

Prior to Wednesday’s series finale against the Mariners, Melvin revealed that the A’s had reached the 85% vaccination threshold, which allows them to relax some COVID-19 protocols. This means players and coaches can now sit in the dugout without a mask.

“We’re proud of our group that we were able to get to that,” Melvin said. “We’re allowed to do a lot of things now that we weren’t before. Stuff on the road. Going to the ballpark individually. Being able to dine out indoors. It certainly makes for a better feeling.”