OAKLAND — As of the first week of August, Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin said that Dustin Fowler was still the A’s center fielder of the future. That was after he went 3-for-32 and was sent back down to Triple-A.
With the emergence of Nick Martini over the two previous weeks, Fowler — who was hitting .231 — was sent back down for some extra seasoning. After missing a season with a knee injury, he had been holding back. During his second stay in the minors, Fowler hit .379 in 25 games, earning a September call-up.
By the time Fowler returned, though, it wasn’t Martini who had taken his presumptive job. It was 5-foot-11, 24-year old Ramon Laureano. Since being called up the first week of August, Laureano has hit .299 with a .869 OPS, turned in defensive gem after defensive gem. On Thursday, when Oakland needed a bounce-back win against the New York Yankees, Laureano went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles while leading off for the first time, and starting in center field.
“He deserves what he’s getting, and nothing’s been given to him,” said manager Bob Melvin. “He’s earned it.”
Fowler began the season as the No. 5 prospect in the system. Laureano was No. 16.
On Laureano’s first day on the job on Aug. 3, he stepped up with two outs and runners on first and second in the 13th inning wearing an 0-for-4 collar. He took a first-pitch slider for a strike, chased a breaking ball out of the zone and then on the fourth pitch of the at-bat against reliever Buck Farmer, lined a walk-off single to right center to score Martini. That earned a shower of tomato juice and beer.
Two days later, he went 3-for-4 with a stolen base and an RBI single. The next week, on Aug. 11, he uncorked a 92 mph, 310-foot throw from center field to double off the Los Angeles Angels’ Eric Young Jr. at first.
With all those highlights, Laureano — who hit .297 in his first experience at Triple-A Nashville — struggled at the plate over his first 11 games, hitting .250. He started seven games, and never hit higher than eighth.
Since Aug. 20, Laureano has started 14 games, hitting .327 with three home runs, six doubles and eight RBIs. In late August, designated hitter Khris Davis visited him at his locker and looked at the silver chain around his neck. “You’ve got to get gold. You’re a big leaguer now,” Davis said.
His response? “I haven’t gotten my first paycheck yet.”
“When he first got here, we were hitting him down in the lineup, and made some great plays in the outfield, had some good at-bats and worked his way up to where he is right now,” Melvin said. “Nothing’s been given to this kid, really his whole career. He’s earned every bit of it, and he’s continuing to earn playing time here.”
On Wednesday against the Yankees, he led off for the first time. An understated rookie on a team led by an understated defensive wizard in Matt Chapman, Laureano took it in stride.
“I felt good,” Laureano said. “It’s just a different number, but the same approach.”
Against Luis Severino, who came in with 17 wins and a 3.32 ERA, with 199 strikeouts to just 41 walks, Laureano smoked a 109-mph double to open the proceedings, adding another double and scoring in the sixth, leading the way in an 8-2 in.
When asked about Mike Fiers — the starter who joined the team mere days after Laureano — and his performance on Wednesday, Laureano was much more effusive.
“Oh, my god, yeah, he’s so great,” Laureano said. “Keeps everybody level. He did a tremendous job today, just keeping the ball down, making adjustments from his last outing. He was using his changeup in hitters’ counts, so he was pretty good at keeping the ball low.”
Since Fowler returned at the end of August, he’s played in just two games, with one start. Nick Martini — who was sent down six days ago — still has four more days left until he can return to the majors, per the collective bargaining agreement. Laureano has taken advantage.
Since Laureano was called up, Oakland has gone 20-8. The team that was once 12 games back of the Houston Astros and chasing the Seattle Mariners for the second AL Wild Card spot spent a brief moment in first place, and has overtaken Seattle, now leading the Mariners by 5 1/2 games.
“We just keep the same attitude, everybody’s still hungry,” Laureano said. “We take every win that we get, keep battling, keep preparing for the next day. We’re more hungry every day. Even when we win.
“It’s cool to contribute on a team like this. I’m just glad I’m here. I’m just another guy trying to get a ring on my finger, and I keep working, keep learning, and hopefully, keep helping the team win.”