OAKLAND — The A’s bullpen is devoid of the heavy veteran presence that has so often existed in recent years. However, that lack of experience has not hindered the club’s ability to win ballgames. In fact, it’s enhanced it.
Given the closeness of what was only a two-run lead provided on Stephen Piscotty’s two-run homer in the fourth and Irvin’s relatively low pitch count of 87 after five strong frames, it seemed logical that squeezing out at least one more inning from the left-hander would be the way to go for A’s manager Mark Kotsay. But early on in his tenure, the first-year skipper has shown an eagerness to thrust his lesser-experienced pitchers into situations that could potentially build confidence.
That’s why, instead of keeping Irvin out there, Kotsay went to his bullpen early on Sunday afternoon. Zach Jackson and Dany Jiménez did not pitch in the big leagues last season. Kirby Snead entered 2022 with only 7 2/3 innings of Major League experience. However, the trio has been among the many relievers going through a trial by fire in high-leverage spots this year, and those three rewarded Kotsay’s faith in them by finishing off the Rangers with four scoreless innings.
“Another great pitching performance,” Kotsay said. “Through these first 17 games, our pitchers have done an amazing job of giving us a chance to win every day. Cole went out and threw a great five innings. Turned it over to the bullpen, and again, these guys down in the bullpen are gaining confidence, which is a good sign.”
Here’s a look at the three arms who closed this one out:
Inheriting a two-run lead from Irvin to begin the sixth, Jackson made quick work of the heart of a potent Texas lineup. Retiring Corey Seager, Mitch Garver and Adolis García on 14 pitches, the right-hander’s 1-2-3 inning afforded Kotsay the chance to send him back for a second inning.
The seventh was equally impressive. Jackson set down the next three batters in order, ending his outing with a 95.5 mph fastball down in the zone that froze up Willie Calhoun for a called strike three.
After recording his first career save earlier in the homestand against the Orioles, Jackson experienced the first multi-inning outing of his career and was flawless.
Snead’s season debut did not go well. Pitching in the raucous environment of Philadelphia on Opening Day, the nerves were clear from the rookie as he failed to keep the game close by allowing two runs and struggling with command. Since then, though, the left-hander has not allowed a run in five consecutive appearances, including his scoreless eighth against Texas.
Marcus Semien’s two-out double was the only blemish in Snead’s strong inning, which included a strikeout of Eli White on a slider. He got through the eighth on just eight pitches.
“They’re pitching like they have experience,” said Piscotty, whose homer on Sunday was his first since July 10 of last year, which also came against the Rangers. “There’s no doubt about it. Today, especially, [the relievers] were just in total command. It’s fun playing defense when it’s going like that.”
Perhaps the biggest emergence in this A’s bullpen has been Jiménez. With Lou Trivino on the COVID-19 injured list, the right-hander has established himself as a reliable go-to option in the ninth inning.
Though Jiménez only throws two pitches, both appear dominant. His upper 90s fastball is complemented by a curveball that Statcast actually classifies as a slider. Kotsay has stated in the past that the pitch is a hybrid of the two pitches. Whatever the official title, it’s a nasty pitch. Entering Sunday, Jiménez had thrown that “slider” 59 times (57.3 percent of the time) and had generated a 60.9 percent swing-and-miss rate, with opposing batters hitting just .125 against it.
When Jiménez found himself in a two-out jam with runners at the corners in the ninth, he went back to that trusted slider on an 0-1 count to Calhoun. The result was a lineout to Christian Bethancourt at first base, which ended the game and secured Jiménez’s third save of the year.
Now 3-for-3 in save opportunities this season, Jiménez has not allowed a run in his first seven appearances, which should make him a possible closer option even when Trivino makes his way back.
“I’m tipping my cap to Dany right now,” Kotsay said. “He’s done a tremendous job. He gets a little bit of traffic and still keeps his composure. Today, I still felt he threw quality pitches. The contact wasn’t great, and thus, giving him that chance to get out of that inning, I felt confident in.”