— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) August 20, 2019
OAKLAND — When a nine-year-old A.J. Puk went to the Perfect Game facility in his hometown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was already a strong two-way youth player, but he wanted to learn the art of pitching.
”I didn’t know anything, other than just ‘Pick up the ball and throw,’” he said. His instructor: Travis Mueller, a former star at Upper Iowa who never made it out of independent ball. He tutored Puk for the net nine years.
Puk became one of the best two-way prep players in the nation, and the envetual No. 6 pick in the 2016 draft out of Florida. After Tommy John surgery robbed him of an opportunity to be a part of the Oakland A’s starting rotation last season, the club’s No. 2 overall prospect was officially called up Tuesday morning.
“Training wheels are off,” said manager Bob Melvin. “Looking forward to seeing him out there.”
Puk learned of his promotion when he was called into the manager’s office from the bullpen via walkie talkie on Sunday night. Triple-A Las Vegas pitching coach Rick Rodriguez was waiting, and told the low-key Puk he’d need to learn how to speak up.
Puk is quiet, but boasts a powerful, high-90s fastball, good downhill plane and a 6-foot-7 frame that can be disconcerting for hitters. It’s why he’s been rated as one of the top 25 prospects in baseball for the last two years.
“He’s developed into, up to this point, the guy that we kind of expected him to,” Melvin said. “He really was having an absolutely terrific spring when he did go down the year before. He was on the verge of probably making our rotation at that point.”
Sixteen months ago, Puk underwent surgery after snapping his ulnar collateral ligament during his first big-league spring training. He wound up rehabbing with several other A’s pitchers and farmhands who had to undergo the same procedure, including Jharel Cotton. The rehab group down in Arizona also included Heath Donica — who had surgery the day after Puk — and Grant Holmes, another long-haired ginger hurler, who was recovering from a platelet-rich plasma procedure. They kept each other accountable.
“All the guys down there were great,” Puk said back in January, during the A’s preseason media day. “It’s kind of nice having guys go through the same things as you are, so you can check in with them, stay up on each other. It was a good environment. It was helpful.”
Every day, something new hurt as he got used to the basics of pitching again. Each milestone he reached — bending his arm, throwing his slider, throwing off the mound and throwing to batters — was a confidence boost.
“You’d bend your arm and it’s not feeling great, and then you start playing catch, and ‘Oh, I can do this,’” Puk said on Tuesday.
Heading into the 2018 season, he was invited back to major-league spring training, and though he didn’t do much, it was an indication of how highly the organization still thought of him.
In June, he worked his way back up to Stockton for his Single-A re-debut — his first time throwing in a live game in almost 20 months. He allowed one run in two innings — a homer — while striking out four and throwing exclusively high-90s fastballs.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” Puk said on Tuesday from the Oakland Coliseum home dugout. “And now, this.”
Puk eventually worked up to using his slider and a show-me curve that he uses to change eye level. Eventually, he’ll add his changeup back in — it’s not game-ready yet — and return to being a starter, an integral part of Oakland’s long-term plans.
For now, though, he’s a reliever — which required some adjustment, as he queried his teammates at all levels during his rehab about their warmup and daily routines. In nine games out of the bullpen at Triple-A, he struck out 16 in 11 innings and allowed a .175 batting average against, allowing just three walks.
“You draft these guys and you follow them through spring training and through their minor league careers and there’s a reason that we’ve handled this guy the way we’ve handled him,” said Melvin. “Obviously, he’ll be a starter at some point down the road, but at this point in time, he’s in the bullpen. He’s been conditioned for this and now he’s in the big leagues.”
Both Puk and trade deadline acquisition Jake Diekman are effective against lefties and righties, and Melvin is comfortable using the 24-year-old left-hander in any situation, with a cap of two innings, though he probably won’t pitch on back-to-back days. If he does, he’ll get two days of rest.
“I’m not afraid to use him in a big spot,” Melvin said. There should be plenty, as the A’s are a game out of the second American League wild card, hosting the best team in baseball — the New York Yankees.
Watching from the stands on Tuesday will be Puk’s parents, his two brothers, his sister, his agent Scott Boras, an aunt, and Mueller.
“He taught me a lot, since I was nine,” Puk said. “He was one of the building blocks of my career from a young age. It’s awesome having him here with me the whole ride.”
The A’s were happy that catcher Dustin Garneau cleared waivers.
During his brief stint with the team after Josh Phegley’s injury, he went 5-for-17 at the plate with two doubles and seven RBIs, and after being designating him for assignment upon Phegley’s return, Oakland will be able to keep him in the system.
“Dustin fits in really well here,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We were happy that he could sneak through and there’s a good chance we see him in September. He understands and knows out pitchers, understands how we do things here. I’m glad we were able to keep him.”
The A’s released right-handed pitcher Marco Estrada on Tuesday. His back issues — dating back to 2016 in Toronto — continued to plague him. Though he tried to rehab, the pain and stiffness were too bothersome, and he couldn’t get stretched out to where he’d be an effective starter. He last pitched in the Major Leagues in April.
“After every start he really struggled,”Melvin said. “Unfortunately, that was the case and I tried to stay away from that one as much as I could because I knew that it was going to be a stretch to be able to get him out to start again. This is a position we had to be in. We needed roster spots and we wish him the best.”
Sean Manaea threw 91 pitches and felt great in his rehab start on Sunday, striking out six in five innings, allowing two hits and two runs with a homer and a walk. He’s since thrown a side session, and felt good coming out of that. Melvin said he feels “really good,” but is not sure what the next step is.
The ace left-hander has not pitched in the big leagues since last August, and underwent shoulder surgery in September. In four Triple-A rehab starts, Manaea has thrown 21 innings, struck out 31 batters and walked just five, while allowing 10 earned runs in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.