'A good step': Top prospect Miller gets stretched out in relief

September 27th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Looking beyond this rebuilding 2023 campaign, the A’s envision a future with  as their bona fide ace. For now, however, the focus is getting the rookie right-hander across the finish line.

An ulnar collateral ligament sprain in his right elbow brought Miller’s rapid ascension to a screeching halt in May. Once that happened, the A’s were just hoping they would get their top overall pitching prospect back on a big league mound before the end of the season.

After spending nearly four months on the injured list, Miller was reinstated on Sept. 6. The A’s have taken an ultra-cautious approach by keeping him on a strict pitch count.

So far, Miller has come away from each outing post-injury feeling healthy, including Tuesday night’s 11-3 loss to the Twins at Target Field. Taking over for starter Paul Blackburn in the fourth inning, Miller worked his longest outing since coming back from the UCL sprain, allowing two runs on one hit and two walks with three strikeouts in three innings.

“It was a good step, for sure,” Miller said. “I’ve been trying to get back to three innings this whole time. To finally be efficient enough to do that was encouraging.”

Miller’s only true blemish was the result of a 2-1 fastball that Alex Kirilloff sent the opposite way for a two-run homer to left in the fifth. Other than that, the 25-year-old completed three innings on 46 pitches (28 strikes), just below his hard pitch count of 50. The stuff remained electric, featuring a fastball that maxed out at 99.2 mph and averaged 97.9 mph.

“Even that [sixth] inning, he touched 99 [mph],” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said of Miller. “I think he got stronger from his first inning to his third. You look out there and you know he wants to continue going, but this [pitch limit] is what we committed to.”

Miller’s second-to-last pitch -- a 99.2 mph fastball to Edouard Julien -- was indeed his fastest of the night, which is an encouraging sign when gauging his stamina throughout an outing.

Of course, Miller would love to be pitching free of restrictions. At the same time, he understands the organization’s decision to limit his workload.

“I’m trying not to let it change anything,” Miller said. “I’m just trying to get back, feel healthy and confident. Trying to do that all at the same time, some days are better than others. But I feel like I’m trending in a good direction right now.”

Before the injury, Miller showed flashes of brilliance, none brighter than his seven scoreless innings on 100 pitches against the Mariners on May 2. Perhaps next season, Miller will get an opportunity to prove he can build up into that type of workhorse. Step one of that process, though, is ensuring he gets through his final outing of 2023, which will likely come Sunday at Angel Stadium.

“I feel like I have more to give, which is good,” Miller said. “Looking to next year, that’s what we want. I’m happy about that. Right now, just going out and dominating for the innings I do get is the goal.”

While Miller will pitch again this year, Kotsay indicated that Blackburn’s start was likely his last of 2023. If so, the followup to his All-Star campaign a year ago ends on a sour note. The right-hander was tagged for five runs -- most of which came off the bat of Matt Wallner’s grand slam in a 40-pitch first inning -- on four hits and four walks over three innings.

On what was a drizzly night in Minneapolis, Blackburn revealed to Kotsay after the four-run first that he was unable to stabilize his footing due to the wet mound.

“He was sliding a little bit,” Kotsay said. “At that point, he probably should have had the mound taken care of, but he chose to go through it. … That’s not characteristic of him at all, especially the lack of command. We figured something was off, and we find out later that he was sliding.”

If Blackburn’s season is indeed over, he finishes posting a 4.43 ERA in 21 games (20 starts) with 104 strikeouts and 43 walks in 103 2/3 innings.

“There’s a couple of things I did worse that I need to go in the offseason and anchor out,” Blackburn said. “But I feel like I made some strides from last year. You’re always trying to do better than you did the year before, and a lot of factors go into that. This year, there are a lot of things I did better.”