'Excited' Spence strong in spot start for ailing staff

With 3 starters on IL, A's Rule 5 Draft pick makes first MLB start in KC

May 18th, 2024

KANSAS CITY -- has been asked to do almost everything out of the bullpen in his first season with Oakland. He’s had 10-pitch innings and 72-pitch relief outings, and on Friday, he made his first Major League start.

And like he’s done so many times this season, Spence took the ball when called upon. This time, he gritted through a season-best 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball in a spot start during the Athletics’ 6-2 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.

Spence wasn’t announced as the starter until a few hours before first pitch, but the 26-year-old righty found out Thursday night that he would be toeing the hill as a starter for the first time as a Major Leaguer.

“I was excited,” Spence said. “Getting the opportunity to start is something I’ve always wanted to do. I tried not to change too much, have the same routine I did in Spring Training and last year in Triple-A. I just tried to stick with what I know.”

Spence, the first overall pick in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft, used that experience early. The Royals notched three hits in the first inning, sparked by a Bobby Witt Jr. double, but Spence rebounded to retire 11 of the next 15 batters, notching four strikeouts with an effective slider-cutter combination.

“I thought Mitch did a nice job tonight,” A's manager Mark Kotsay said. “That first inning he hung a breaking ball to Witt … but to only give up one run in 4 2/3 and throw [77] pitches, which is right around his max this year -- it was a great outing for him. It was kind of as expected. I thought he would be able to do that and keep this lineup in check.”

The A’s had just called on Spence to throw 20 pitches on Monday in Houston, but he stepped up on short rest and gave Oakland a chance to win when it needed it most. With three starters from the Opening Day rotation now on the injured list (Alex Wood, Paul Blackburn and Joe Boyle), the A’s will need to rely on Spence, and others, for valuable innings out of the starter spot.

Spence proved he could do that during his most pivotal at-bat of the night. With Witt at the plate with one out and a runner on second in the fifth, Spence ended his outing with a nine-pitch battle that concluded with the Royals’ budding superstar flying out to left field.

“I think in that situation, he’s obviously probably their most dangerous hitter,” Spence said. “I just tried to throw him pitches that would get him to either swing and miss or get weak contact. So I threw him a lot of sliders, and after throwing three or four in a row, I thought he was probably looking for it -- so I threw a fastball. And luckily, I got him to hit a weak fly ball.”

That slider generated six whiffs on 17 swings, and also generated five called strikes -- both game highs for any of Spence’s pitches. T.J. McFarland came on in relief and sent the Royals into the sixth with only one run on the board.

“[Spence] has shown us his grit all season pitching out of that bullpen,” Kotsay said. “We’ve had to lean on him a little at times. It was a great at-bat [the face-off with Witt], and a great execution of a pitch to be able to walk off the mound and still feel good about that outing there.”

Spence’s spot start was good enough to help snap the A’s now season-high six-game losing streak, but the bats that carried Oakland to a .500 record in early May continued their mid-month slump.

It wasn’t until Shea Langeliers crushed a 421-foot homer to center with one out in the ninth inning that the A’s got on the board. It snapped a 45-inning homerless streak for an Oakland club that entered Friday third in the American League with 55 homers. But despite the blast, the A’s have failed to score more than two runs in five straight games, and batters 5-9 in the lineup went a combined 0-for-15 on Friday.

The Athletics believe the top of the lineup can manufacture runs, but it’s pitchers like Spence who will be called upon to get the club through this stretch, and potentially be a part of future plans as well.

“It’s something we will look at, for sure,” Kotsay said when asked if Spence will get another turn in the rotation. “Right now we will go day to day and see how Mitch feels after this [before determining] if we are going to go forward with him [as a starter].”