Montas dominant in brief spring debut

February 27th, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- As opposed to last Spring Training when he was battling for a spot on the Opening Day roster, the only question for this time around is what slot awaits him in the A’s starting rotation. But that doesn’t mean the hunger is gone.

Despite the extra breathing room afforded to him, Montas brings the same drive that earned him a spot on the team last year. In an effort to get a head start this offseason, the right-hander played for Leones de Escogido in the Dominican Winter League and posted a 1.44 ERA over 25 innings.

The early sharpening of Montas' tools was evident in his first Cactus League outing Wednesday. Montas looked dominant in the A's 16-3 win over the D-backs, turning in a scoreless first inning that saw him pound the zone for strikes on nine of his 15 pitches. The outing included a strikeout and fastball that touched 99 mph.

“I feel like it takes a little bit of pressure off,” Montas said of having a rotation spot secured. “But I still think like we’re all fighting for a spot. We have a lot of good pitchers in here. I’m not trying to get comfortable.”

Part of Montas’ availability to participate in winter ball was enabled by a limited workload in 2019, due to his 80-game suspension for a performance-enhancing substance. An outstanding first half that saw him go 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA over 15 starts was suddenly clouded. But despite the disqualification from postseason play, Montas did get a bit of redemption in his return from suspension by helping the A’s get to the playoffs with six innings of one-run ball in a crucial late-September win over the Angels.

“We’re looking for him to replicate what he did last year and what he did in the start he had late in the season after sitting out for so long,” Manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s eager to contribute to his team for a full season. He wants to be one of the high-end starters we have.”

Much of Montas’ continued success will hinge on the continued use of his splitter, a pitch he began throwing in games last spring before making it his dominant pitch during the regular season. Among his four pitches, the splitter was the least thrown in 2019 at just 18.2 percent, but it was also supremely effective, as he held opponents to a .160 batting average with it. Thrown at an average of around 86 mph to complement his blazing fastball, it’s the pitch that transformed him from flamethrower to pitcher, and one some believe can even make him a Cy Young Award candidate for 2020.

“He’s always had the slider,” Melvin said. “The split has kind of set him apart and brought his confidence to a level that matches his talent.”

Offense breaks out
The A’s weren’t sweating their 0-5 start to the Cactus League, but at some point, they were hoping to get that first win out of the way. The offense ensured that would happen with an early onslaught on Wednesday.

Highlighted by Matt Chapman’s first homer of the spring, a two-run blast to left off D-backs reliever Kyle Crockett in the third, the A’s bats broke through with 10 runs through the game’s first three innings. Ramón Laureano also delivered a two-run single as part of a six-run first inning.

Chapman’s homer was an impressive feat, considering he hit it off his front foot, but perhaps equally as impressive was Matt Olson’s prediction. Watching from the on-deck circle, Melvin said Olson walked over to the bench and predicted the exact outcome right before the home run.

“I don’t know we have anybody who hits that ball off his front foot, maybe not off the barrel of the bat, and it ends up going out,” Melvin said. “Actually, Oly called it. Right before, he turned around and said it would be a breaking ball homer right before that pitch. They seem to know each other pretty well.”

Machin’s versatility on display
The A’s were excited about Rule 5 Draft pick Vimael Machin’s versatility entering camp, and they continue to test out that attribute as games progress. After appearing in games at second base and third base, Wednesday marked Machin’s debut at first base.

Machin is among five players looking to capture the second-base job, but the ability to play multiple positions will also make him a strong candidate for a utility role with the club, especially with the extra spot available to teams this year, now that active rosters are expanding from 25 to 26 players.

“I watched him take ground balls at first today and he was completely comfortable with them,” Melvin said. “He seems to have an understanding of all the different positions. It’s one thing to play them all. It’s another thing to be comfortable and do it well.”

Machin also had a nice day at the plate, finishing 2-for-3 with a double and two RBIs.

Up next
Left-hander A.J. Puk makes his second Cactus League outing Thursday, as the A’s face the Rockies at 12:05 p.m. PT. Puk will increase his workload after he was nearly flawless in a scoreless inning of work against the Cubs in his spring debut, sitting around 95 mph with his fastball and registering a strikeout. Kyle Freeland is scheduled to start for Colorado. Fans can listen live on and A's Cast.

Both Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are expected to be in the starting lineup behind Puk.