Andujar makes good first impression in Oakland debut

May 25th, 2024

OAKLAND -- had no easy assignment for his first Major League at-bat in nearly eight months, going up against none other than likely future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.

Stepping into the batter’s box in the first inning Friday at the Coliseum, Andujar watched two breaking pitches go by for balls. On a 2-0 count, he pounced on a 91.8 mph fastball up in the zone from Verlander and drilled it into left field for an RBI single that was scorched 110.8 mph off the bat -- the second-hardest hit of his career -- and provided the A’s an early one-run lead.

In a 6-3 loss to the Astros that got away early after Ross Stripling was tagged for a six-run fourth following a perfect first three innings, Andujar’s 3-for-4 effort with two RBIs in his 2024 debut provided hope for an A’s offense that ranks fourth in the Majors with 66 home runs but has struggled to manufacture runs in other ways.

“This is exactly what he was showing us in Spring Training,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “I’m impressed with just him coming back today and coming through in RBI opportunities. He’s a hitter, and it’s nice to have his bat in the lineup.”

Andujar generated palpable excitement in the A’s camp for what he might bring to this lineup. Claimed off waivers from the Pirates last November, he hit .357 with a 1.110 OPS and a team-best five home runs in 14 Cactus League games, leading Oakland to believe it might have just discovered a diamond in the rough. During the final week of Spring Training, however, MRI results revealed a torn meniscus in Andujar’s right knee.

“His spring was unbelievable,” Stripling said. “He put in the work. It certainly was heartbreaking when we lost him going into the start of the season.”

Given a recovery timeline of at least four to six weeks post-surgery, Andujar rehabbed vigorously. About seven weeks later, he began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Las Vegas on May 16. The bat remained hot, as he hit .389 (7-for-18) with four doubles, six RBIs and a 1.032 OPS in five rehab games.

His immediate insertion into Friday’s starting lineup as the cleanup hitter speaks volumes as to how high the A’s are on his potential to provide an impact. Prior to the game, Kotsay noted the fact that the 29-year-old slugger did not strike out in 43 plate appearances this spring, demonstrating impressive bat-to-ball skills that the A’s could use, particularly in situations with runners in scoring position.

“He’s just a professional hitter,” Kotsay said. “He takes a good at-bat. He’s got a two-strike approach. He impacts the baseball and hits it really hard when he gets a good pitch to hit. All those intangibles led to him really leaving an impression.”

It wasn’t long ago that Andujar enjoyed a breakout 2018 campaign with the Yankees that saw him finish runner-up to Shohei Ohtani in American League Rookie of the Year voting. Since then, though, injuries and defensive struggles kept him from being able to replicate that level of performance.

Andujar did show some encouraging signs of recapturing some of that form in 2023 by slashing .338/.404/.536 with 16 homers, 30 doubles and 86 RBIs in 103 games with Triple-A Indianapolis. Those strong numbers in the Minors earned him a big league opportunity with the Pirates, which he responded to by slashing .302/.351/.528 over 17 games in the final month of the regular season.

It took longer than he hoped, but Andujar now appears set for his first shot at regular playing time in the big leagues over an extended period for really the first time since that ‘18 season. Three hits in his first game -- including two off Verlander -- is a good start.

“I’ve been working hard in my rehab,” Andujar said. “The coaches helped me a lot. I watched a lot of videos. I feel comfortable at the plate right now.”