OAKLAND -- Spencer Howard made only one mistake in his return to the mound on Sunday, but it was an unfortunate one to make.
After a 1-2-3 third inning against the A’s, following opener Garrett Richards, Howard gave up a leadoff single to Sean Murphy. The mistake was a fastball middle and inside to Stephen Piscotty, who launched it 419 feet into the left-field bleachers.
It would be the only runs scored, as the Rangers fell, 2-0 to the A’s in the series finale. Texas took the first two games of the series to finish 3-3 on the West Coast road trip.
“[Piscotty’s] a good fastball hitter,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “I think that's the bottom line. He never comes off the fastball, and Spencer’s got two really good breaking balls. As a pitcher, you just kind of tip your cap and maybe not throw a fastball there that he can hit. I mean, it came down to one swing and unfortunately we didn't do anything offensively.”
Howard said he was trying to throw a fastball inside, which he did, but he said he should’ve thrown it more up or down to get a swinging strike from Piscotty. Instead it was exactly the pitch he was looking for and he made Howard pay.
Howard -- who was activated off the 10-day injured list before the game -- has now given up five home runs in five innings of work this season, but said he felt sharper in this appearance than he did in his first start against Toronto. His mechanics feel a lot “more sound overall” and his fastball touched 97 mph twice.
“I thought the stuff looked good,” Woodward added. “It was just that one pitch. He'll eventually get to where, if the stuff looks like that and he executes, he's going to put up a lot of zeros. Right now, I feel like he's been a little snake bit to where he makes one mistake, or maybe even not a mistake, but it's a good piece of hitting by their guys. But the stuff looks good, though. I like what I saw.”
Despite Howard’s one mistake, the Rangers’ bullpen shined in the loss.
Richards tossed two scoreless innings as the opener, and with Howard pitching just two before reaching his limit, the Rangers needed more arms to step up. Albert Abreu struggled, walking three of the four batters he faced, and forcing Woodward to go to Brett Martin to get the remaining two outs in the inning.
Martin rose to the challenge, notching back-to-back strikeouts to work out of the bases-loaded jam and keep the game within reach.
“[It was big], especially against right-handed hitters,” Woodward said. “He’s good against anybody, it doesn’t matter. He just executed. That was the key here. He comes in in those spots, and he's got a slow heartbeat. He's been that way ever since 2019, the first year I had him. That's the thing that stands out.”
Woodward added that Martin's increased usage of his curveball, which he only used 21.1 percent of the time last season, adds to his ability to execute. Of the 11 pitches that Martin threw to Sean Murphy and Christian Bethancourt, five were curveballs and all five were strikes.
“I love that he's using his curveball more,” Woodward said. “He's getting some bad swings on it, attacking the strike zone within and finishing guys with it. It just adds more elements and to be able to get a punch out like he did there against probably their best hitter in Murphy.”
Though the Rangers couldn't come out with a win, the bullpen’s progress over the series was encouraging after a tough start to the season. In the three games in Oakland, Rangers relievers only surrendered two runs. Both of those runs were given up by Howard, who is technically a starter and will likely transition back to that role.
“I think everybody as a whole just has a little bit more confidence,” Howard said of the pitching staff’s hot streak. “It feels more like midseason form, if that's what you want to say. Everybody has a role and we’re going out there, eating innings and punching tickets. That's really what you want to see.”