OAKLAND — The A’s have developed a penchant for walk-off victories in recent years, and Friday night at the Coliseum certainly felt like the stage was set for their first one of 2022.
In a back-and-forth contest between the A’s and Guardians that featured four lead changes and a combined 17 runs on 21 hits, Oakland entered the bottom of the ninth trailing by one run. Kevin Smith’s leadoff double against closer Emmanuel Clase looked like the appetizer to some late-inning heroics, but instead, he was stranded on third base as the potential game-tying run.
“Ultimately, it was an exciting game,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “We ended up on the wrong end, but our team fights. They showed a lot of character in battling back. Both teams did. We had a chance in the ninth and couldn’t capitalize on it.”
In a game that had plenty to digest, here are three takeaways from the A’s 9-8 loss to the Guardians.
1. Offense explodes in Jed’s return
The A’s bats had gone cold for over a week, entering Friday having been held to two runs or fewer in seven of the previous nine games. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that on the night Jed Lowrie was reinstated from the COVID-19 injured list and returned to the starting lineup, the offense found its groove.
Lowrie is considered somewhat of a hitting savant by his peers. Just as impactful as his loss in the batting order was his absence from the A’s clubhouse, where he often serves as a beacon of knowledge for all hitters, young and old.
Even though Lowrie went hitless against Cleveland, his presence was felt in the first inning, when he impressively fouled off seven pitches from starter Aaron Civale in an 11-pitch battle that resulted in a walk. The long plate appearance seemed to wear down Civale. One pitch later, Sean Murphy clobbered a cutter from Civale to deep center for a three-run homer.
“Super happy to have that guy back,” said A’s third baseman Sheldon Neuse, who went 3-for-5 with three RBIs, including a two-run triple. “The guy hits. He’s always hit. You’re just waiting for him to hit a double. It’s just a matter of time.”
2. Puk finding his role
It wasn’t too long ago that A.J. Puk ranked as the top overall prospect in the A’s system with expectations of developing into a No. 1 starter. Struggles with injuries and command issues have set him back the last couple of years. But now, the left-hander is working out of the bullpen and producing his best work at the Major League level.
Tasked with holding the A’s deficit at one run, Puk came on in the eighth and shut Cleveland’s lineup down for two innings of dominance. Puk showed off a power fastball that maxed out at 97.2 mph and was used as the putaway pitch to all four of his strikeouts, retiring six of his seven batters faced. Lowering his ERA to 0.96, Puk is now unscored upon in five of his first six appearances this season.
“A.J. is throwing the ball great,” Kotsay said. “He continues to thrive in his role right now. He’s continuing to gain confidence and we really like how the ball is coming out of his hand. He’s attacking and getting ahead of hitters, and his slider is really sharp right now.”
Puk’s slider was responsible for five of his eight total swing and misses on 32 pitches. It’s a pitch he said he tinkered with near the end of Spring Training and is bringing immediate positive results.
“I made an adjustment moving over to the first-base side of the rubber and that’s helped out a lot,” Puk said. “It’s given it a lot more depth. It’s been good so far.”
3. Rare off-night for Montas
It likely won’t happen much more often this season that the A’s score nine runs and lose with Frankie Montas on the mound. The ace right-hander had allowed two runs or fewer in each of his previous three outings. But on Friday, his command issues were evident. His four walks issued matched his total for the season coming in, and he was delivered a huge blow in the third on a two-out grand slam by Andrés Giménez that put Cleveland ahead by a run.
“Frankie battled himself tonight a little bit,” Kotsay said. “Went away from his two-seamer and threw a little more four-seam fastballs because he had better command of it. He made a mistake over the middle and they capitalized. He battled through a tough outing, which shows his fight, and gave us a chance to win.”