OAKLAND — A main area of concern for the A’s entering 2022 was their starting rotation. After losing a pair of top arms in Spring Training, lesser-experienced pitchers were going to have to step up and shoulder a bigger load than expected.
Two weeks into the regular season, what could have been viewed as a weakness is looking more like a strength. Oakland’s starting staff finished the day second in the American League in innings pitched with 64, just two shy of the Mariners for the league lead.
“It’s a good sign,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “Last year’s staff led all of baseball in innings pitched as well. These guys are going out there and they’re successfully executing their game plan. Anytime you can get your starters into that sixth inning, it really helps and gives us a chance to win each game.”
Jefferies’ path to Major League success was a bit delayed early in his career due to multiple arm injuries. Now fully healthy, the 2016 first-round MLB Draft pick continues to show the promise that made him a highly-regarded prospect in the A’s organization over the past few years.
Though usually more of a pitcher who relies on contact, Jefferies showed an ability to miss bats with his five-pitch mix against the Orioles, generating a career-high 13 whiffs on his 83 total pitches (54 strikes). Of his five strikeouts, four were of the swinging variety.
This came on a night when Jefferies said he didn’t feel great command for any of his pitches. Instead, he relied on veteran catcher Christian Bethancourt to help guide him through an outing in which Baltimore’s only run scored was a result of a ball that kicked off the glove of Elvis Andrus for an error in the fifth.
“Bethancourt came up to me after the third inning and told me to relax,” Jefferies said. “We had a really good game plan going in. We knew that they were going to be hacking, and [we] just tried to stay in the bottom of the zone as much as possible.”
In years past, pitchers like Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt were looked to for guidance as leaders of the rotation. Despite both now being gone, that same close-knit dynamic remains with this starting staff, now headed by Opening Day starter Frankie Montas.
Often huddling together during games to discuss what they’re seeing from each other on the mound, much of the early success can be attributed to the closeness between the starting pitchers that has formed. The results certainly show it. Following Wednesday, Oakland’s starting unit had issued just 16 walks in 64 innings for an average of 2.25 walks per nine innings that ranked second-lowest in the AL.
“It’s awesome,” Jefferies said. “We lost those outspoken guys in Manaea and Bassitt, but Frankie has stepped up. He’s that leader that we love. We’re all just young and hungry guys. If I see something, I’ll say something. We’re just trying to create a really positive environment, a competitive environment, and give our team the best chance to win.”
A performance like Jefferies’ has certainly been enough for the A’s to win on most nights this season given the early outburst of offense that led the Majors in runs scored (60) through its first 12 games played. Though they actually out-hit Baltimore, 7-5, A’s hitters could not capitalize on opportunities, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and leaving a total of eight runners on base.
Oakland nearly had an early lead in the second on a double by Seth Brown that was originally an RBI after Billy McKinney appeared to score on a head-first dive into home plate. However, after a challenge issued from Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, the call was overturned, keeping the game scoreless at the time.
Perhaps an earlier start played a role in the bats getting shut out for the first time this season. The original start time of 6:40 p.m. PT for Wednesday’s contest was pushed up a few hours to 3:07 p.m. PT on Tuesday night due to concerns of rain in the forecast. Whatever the case, this game was one the A’s would quickly like to brush to the side.
“Just one of those days,” McKinney said. “I felt like everybody had pretty good at-bats, we just couldn’t get the runs across the board. It stinks on a day like today because our pitchers did so well.”