OAKLAND — For the duration of his short Major League career, Oakland A’s starter Chris Bassitt has been a serviceable big league starter. With a career 3.72 ERA, he’s struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings, and has a tidy 2.5 career WAR.
In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, though, Bassitt has been as close to an ace as the A’s have had, going at least five innings in each of his first three starts and posting a 2.12 ERA.
Despite allowing a pair of home runs in the first three innings in Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, Bassitt turned in the A’s third straight quality start and came one strikeout and one out short of his career highs. Oakland’s deepening offensive quagmire, though, cost him and the A’s their third straight win.
“He’s on fire right now,” shortstop Marcus Semien said of Bassitt. “We just couldn’t get any runs for him.”
Bassitt, 30, made just two mistakes on the day, but struck out nine in 7 2/3 innings on just 93 pitches and 69 strikes. It was his second nine-strikeout game of the season, and third of his career. Before this season, he’d struck out nine or more just once, and that was back in 2015.
Coming off the injured list following a liner to the shin in an exhibition game in Tokyo, Bassitt has now struck out out 31 batters in 24 2/3 innings for an average of 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings — by far the best rate of his career.
“He’s always had it in him,” said manager Bob Melvin.
After Bassitt underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2016, his road back saw his velocity drop precipitously. No longer a power righty who could hump it in at 95 or 96 mph, he had to learn how to pitch.
“When you’re throwing 89, 91, 92, you’ve got to kind of learn to pitch without a really good fastball,” Bassitt said. “Luckily, for me, my fastball came back, and I was able to kind of take what I learned from Tommy John and that whole process, and once I went back to throwing 95, 96 again, it makes life a whole lot easier. Do I think it’s going to keep up like this? I don’t think so, but at the same time, I think I can punch a lot of guys out. I’m just not ever trying to do it.”
Bassitt hasn’t made too many mistakes this year, but he made three over his previous two starts, all going for home runs. He made two more on Thursday.
In the first, Bassitt tried to bounce an 0-2 curve to Derek Dietrich, but he put it out for a two-run homer. In the third, he tried to throw a back-up 88-mph cutter to Eugenio Suarez with a full count, but the Reds third baseman socked a 415-foot solo shot to left.
“It’s kind of awkward to give up two runs in the first and you know it’s going to be a good day, but right away, i was like, ‘Phegs (catcher Josh Phegley), we’re good to go,’” Bassitt said.
After the two homers, Bassitt settled down, at one point setting down 10 Reds in a row. Bassitt knew his stuff was good, especially his ability to speed bats up with the fastball and take advantage with the high-60s curve, or get grounders with the sinker and cutter. He had it all working on Thursday.
“He got deep into the game, and he got better as he went along,” Melvin said.
Bassitt still had to get a bit of help from his defense.
In the top of the fifth, second baseman Jose Peraza bunted for a hit up the first base line. Josh Phegley tried to make the throw to first, but it sailed into right field. Pedraza scampered to second, and then turned to third. A one-hop throw from Stephen Piscotty took Chapman to his left, right into the path of Peraza, who was going to slide around the Platinum Glove third baseman. Chapman and Peraza collided, preventing Pedraza from touching third, and Chapman tagged him for the first out of the inning.
Chapman made another highlight play to get reliever Ryan Buchter out of the eighth. With two outs, Suarez, aboard on a flyball double that chased Bassitt, tried to catch the A’s Platinum Glove third baseman sitting back behind the bag. His delayed steal gamble didn’t pay off, as Chapman sprinted to the bag to glove a throw from Phegley, diving to make the tag.
The offense wasn’t quite up to par.
Oakland hitters not named Matt Olson started the game 1-for-17, with that one hit being an infield single. Olson, in his third game back from a broken hamate excision, went 2-for-4 with a bloop single to right in the second, and a line-drive double to the left-center field gap in the fourth, beating the shift.
Outside of Olson, the rest of the A’s went 4-for-26. Oakland had more than one baserunner in an inning only twice — the seventh and the ninth. With two on and two outs in the ninth, after a Chad Pinder rocket double to left center, Ramon Laureano — representing the tying run — stepped to the plate.
After a no-hitter and an extra-inning walk-off in the first two games of the series, Laureano popped out weakly to first, and slammed the bat into the dirt, splintering it in two.
“We’re still kind of hit-and-miss,” Melvin said. “We’ll have some good games, but more bad than good right now.”
In three games against Cincinnati, the A’s have gone a combined 22-for-111. Oakland hopes to get desginated hitter Khris Davis (hip contusion) back soon to bolster the offense. Before he went down, he’d hit .292 over the previous six games with two doubles, six runs and four RBIs, along with five walks to seven strikeouts. The plan is to have him start on Friday in the opener against Cleveland. He’ll hit in the cages and take batting practice before any decision is made.