OAKLAND — Ryan Madson still counts Zach Neal as a member of the pen — even as injuries have forced the 27-year-old rookie into the depleted rotation.
“He’s a bullpen mate,” Madson said after the Oakland Athletics won 2-1 over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. “He’s not a starter in my heart yet.”
When the 2016 season began, Neal was an organizational afterthought not worthy of a spot on the 40-man roster — much less the Opening Day squad.
On Tuesday night — in his second start for the A’s — the right-hander baffled the most powerful lineup in baseball over 5.1 innings of work.
“Boy, that was impressive,” said manager Bob Melvin. “When you finally come around to get a start and you have to face those guys.”
Neal, who’s spent the season shuffling between the A’s bullpen and the Nashville Sounds’ rotation, retired the first nine Orioles he faced. The 10th — Adam Jones — hammered a 90 mph two-seam fastball into the left field bleachers.
“That was kind of the one flat sinker he threw. It was just kind of up in the zone and didn’t sink,” Stephen Vogt said. “Obviously, you can’t make that mistake to a guy like Adam Jones.”
In the sixth, manager Bob Melvin called on Liam Hendriks to bail out Neal and preserve the club’s 2-1 advantage, which was built on Danny Valenica’s double and Khris Davis’ sacrifice fly in the third.
With Jonathan Schoop standing on third as Hendriks entered, the righty induced a pop up from Jones and snared a comebacker from Hyun Soo Kim to escape unscathed. An inning later, after pitching a clean seventh, Hendriks spun off the mound, pumped his fist and let out a shout.
“[To give up] a leadoff double and to bring in a guy with one out, for him to get out of that, that was huge for us,” Neal said. “That was a game-changer.”
After Hendriks departed, John Axford pitched a scoreless eighth and Madson locked down the ninth — the relief corps combined for 3.2 innings of shutout ball.
“As a bullpen, you’re going to go through waves [and] we’re on a good wave right now,” Madson said. “And everybody’s feeding off each other and it’s fun.”
Following the club’s second win in as many nights, Melvin wore a giant smile during his post game press conference, and It wasn’t just because Neal and the pen had limited the Orioles to three hits.
While pitching for Triple-A Nashville, the recently-acquired Jharel Cotton retired the first 26 batters he faced, coming one out short of throwing a perfect game.
“It was an impressive outing,” Melvin said. “I guess there were two outs in the ninth and the hitter got thrown out of the game and took a while to get down the line. Next thing you know there’s a [triple].”
The 24-year-old right-hander, who is one of three pitchers the A’s acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Josh Reddick and Rich Hill, was making his second start with the Sounds.
“It’s good to see,” Melvin said. “You make a trade like that, you like to see our guys do well when they get here.”