SAN FRANCISCO — It’s too early to officially declare Sheldon Neuse’s 2022 season as a breakout year. Through 18 games, though, his bat certainly looks like the real deal.
Neuse’s hot start at the plate continued in the A’s 8-2 loss to the Giants on Tuesday night at Oracle Park. The third baseman collected a pair of hits — including an RBI single off Carlos Rodón in the third inning — to produce what is already his fifth multi-hit performance of the season.
Given his offensive track record throughout the Minor Leagues, Neuse emerging as a threat with the bat really shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the hitter the A’s anticipated they would one day see at the Major League level when he routinely ranked as one of the organization’s top prospects from 2017-20.
It took a trade to the Dodgers in 2021 and his reacquiring this March after he was designated for assignment by Los Angeles and claimed off waivers, but Neuse finally appears primed to fulfill that potential.
“Sheldon is taking advantage of his opportunity right now and really playing well,” manager Mark Kotsay said. “I think we saw glimpses of it in his first go-round here. Now, we’re getting to see it consistently.”
Neuse’s previous big league stints in ’19 and ’21 came with limited playing time and underwhelming numbers on offense. In what is really his first shot at everyday playing time at the highest level, the 27-year-old infielder has responded with a .327 batting average that ranks 14th-best among American League hitters.
The one area that really has yet to show up for Neuse in the Majors is his power. The ability is certainly there, evidenced by his 62 homers and 101 doubles over five Minor League seasons. Neuse chalks up the lack of power so far to his penchant for getting himself into two-strike counts, which this season has actually worked in his favor as 10 of his 17 hits have come with two strikes, including both hits on Tuesday night. Of course, getting behind in the count is not a predicament he’d like to find himself in too often over the course of the season.
“I’m definitely feeling comfortable in the box, especially with two strikes,” Neuse said. “Seems like every at-bat has been with two strikes, so I’d like to get out of that. I don’t want to be in that position. But I’m getting some pitches early and fouling them off. Once that starts coming around, I’ll be able to get out of some of those counts and start driving the ball in the gap.”
Leading the A’s in batting average, hits (17), on-base percentage (.397) and OPS (.801) through the team’s 18 games, Neuse has ensured that even when Kevin Smith returns from his leg injury later this month, there should be a secure spot for him in Oakland’s lineup, whether it be at another infield spot or designated hitter.
“He’s been great,” said A’s second baseman Tony Kemp. “If he can just stay there, shoot, he’ll be an All-Star this year. He’s playing good baseball and he’s hard on himself. He’s a good player.”
Neuse remains an outlier in an A’s offense that has gone rather cold over the past week. Following Tuesday’s defeat, Oakland has now been held to two runs or fewer in six of its last eight games.
Perhaps it’s not entirely a coincidence that the A’s lineup has also been missing the veteran presence of Chad Pinder and Jed Lowrie, both of whom have been on the COVID-19 injured list since April 18. Just as big as their absence in the batting order is what is missing inside the A’s clubhouse, as both players can provide guidance for the many inexperienced hitters who currently make up the roster. It goes without saying, the A’s could use their return as soon as possible.
“Anytime you lose some guys that have a proven track record out of your lineup that are veteran guys with influence in that lineup, those guys have established careers,” Kotsay said. “It’d be good to get them back into the lineup and get them back in the clubhouse. From a leadership and group standpoint.”