OAKLAND — Before A.J. Puk’s name was even announced, the Oakland Coliseum crowd stood up and cheered as he jogged in from the bullpen on Wednesday night.
Staked to a two-run lead against the New York Yankees, the Oakland A’s No. 2 prospect fired his first major-league pitch: a 98.2 mph fastball for a strike to Mike Tauchman. A day earlier, upon occasion of his first big league call-up, Puk told a gathering of Bay Area media that would be juiced when he first stepped on a major-league mound. All but one of his of his 10 pitches were 98 mph or harder.
While his outing didn’t last long, the No. 6 pick in the 2016 draft showcased just a bit of the electric stuff that’s had him in ranked among the top prospects in all of baseball for the last two years. Eighteen months removed from Tommy John surgery, Puk gave A’s fans at least a taste of the future in a 6-4 win.
“My heart was racing, and I was trying my best to calm down,” Puk said. “All day yesterday and today, I was kind of waiting.”
Puk had not pitched in 18 months when he made his first rehab start at Stockton in June. On Tuesday, he called it the best day of his life. That may have to be amended, now.
With his parents, three siblings, aunt, agent and youth pitching coach in the stands, Puk had started warming up as Blake Treinen allowed a single to Gio Urshela in the top of the seventh. After Treinen got Gleyber Torres to ground out to third to end the frame, and as Oakland went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning, Puk continued throwing.
Finally, with a crowd standing to cheer, he entered for the eighth. “I definitely heard it,” Puk said.
“Usually, I don’t really take too much notice to applause for someone coming in the game,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It was pretty significant. You couldn’t help but notice that. There’s certain guys here that our fan base has been looking forward to seeing. He’s definitely one of them.”
The 6-foot-7 lefty is ranked as the No. 45 prospect in all of baseball this season, and earlier in his career— before missing a season with surgery — he’d been among the top 20.
“For his size, to throw downhill at that angle, that’s why guys that size are effective, when they throw that hard,” said catcher Josh Phegley. “He’s everything guys were talking about.”
When he stepped on the mound, Puk was greeted by Phegley. The rookie took his cap off, straightened it and the two spoke briefly about signs. They’d talked about Puk’s repertoire before the game.
Puk was indeed amped, touching 100. MLB’s StatCast read his fastball as a slider, but it wasn’t because of any great movement (though it still had plenty of late cut); it was because the pitches had been flipped in the StatCast system. Not every debut can be legendary.
While he didn’t locate well, Puk still showcased hard, late life, low in the zone. He only threw one slider, and Phegley said later that, in hindsight, they should have used it more.
“The shape of it, it’s hard, it’s short and it’s really sharp, so it plays off of his heater really well, for next time,” Phegley said. “These guys were jumping all over his heater. We throw more of those sliders early, we get some takes next time, and the heater’s more effective … He throws it really steep, and then it breaks off. At 90, it’s kind of like a cutter, but it does have more depth than a cutter. It’s a good pitch. When you’re throwing that hard, as a hitter, you’re not going to decipher that until you start your swing.”
Melvin had said on Tuesday that he wouldn’t hesitate to put Puk into big situations, and against the best team in baseball, he did just that.
Puk walked Tauchman, but got a pop fly to a sprinting, sliding Jurickson Profar in short right field. After allowing a hard single to right center by Mike Ford that was bobbled by right fielder Chad Pinder, Puk was pulled. The crowd of 22,017 cheered him just as loudly coming off the field as on.
Thanks to Liam Hendriks fanning D.J. LeMahieu and sending the dangerous Aaron Judge down swinging on six pitches, both runners were stranded. Puk was the first person to greet Hendriks in the dugout.
“That was huge,” Puk said. “It was my mess, and he came in and shut the door.”