OAKLAND — Decked out in a tropical shirt and with a glimmer in his eye, Sean Manaea couldn’t help but smile after the A’s won his major league debut 7-4 over the Houston Astros on Friday night.
“It was just an unreal experience,” the organization’s top pitching prospect said with a beam. “I’m so happy to be here.”
The A’s should be smiling too, because Manaea wasn’t the only high-upside starter to join the rotation over the weekend. Jesse Hahn aced his return to Oakland in Saturday afternoon’s 2-0 win, and Henderson Alvarez is on track to join the staff by the middle of the month.
In the opener, Manaea utilized his impressive physical tools and cool demeanor to navigate through five-plus frames against a daunting Astros’ lineup. The towering lefty, who stands 6-foot-5 — not counting the afro he hides beneath his green and gold cap — was born to be an ace.
“I can’t remember having too many big presence left-handers who throw that hard,” manager Bob Melvin said of the 24-year-old who can hit 96 mph on the radar gun and is the club’s most-heralded starting prospect since Sonny Gray emerged in the summer of 2013. “I think he’s probably one of a kind when you talk about young pitchers that I’ve seen — especially from the left side. I can’t think of anybody that I would compare him to.”
In his introduction to the bigs, Manaea ended up allowing four earned runs, but three of those came in the sixth and two while he was seated in the dugout after Sean Doolittle stumbled through his relief outing.
“It could have gone a little bit better,” Manaea admitted. “I was kind of disappointed at the end, but we still got the win and I was just really excited for that.”
There’s sure to be hiccups as Manaea acclimates to major league life. Just ask Hahn, who reeled off a 3.35 ERA in 16 starts in 2015, but opened the current campaign with Triple-A Nashville after a nightmare spring.
“I was pretty motivated,” Hahn said on Friday after pitching his way out of his minor-league timeout. “I just wanted to make it a short stay [and] do everything I needed to do to get back up here as quickly as possible. So, I went down there and continued working on things I needed to work on.”
Like Manaea, Hahn was all smiles in his return to the familiar Coliseum clubhouse, making his rounds and dishing out hugs to the teammates he hadn’t seen in nearly a month.
On Saturday, with his customary striped socks pulled up to his knees, Hahn looked like the guy who was Oakland’s best starter not named Sonny Gray in 2015.
“Boy, I don’t know that we’ve seen him better than that,” Melvin said after the right-hander blanked the Astros for 6.2 innings on three hits while striking out four.
The key for Hahn during his matinee gem was that his trademark sinker, which deserted him in the desert, was once again sinking.
“Jesse’s always one pitch away from [a double-play] with the sinker,” Melvin said after his starter induced a pair of twin killings.
In an unfortunate twist, it was Chris Bassitt’s partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that gave Hahn his second chance in Oakland. But as one starter hits the shelf, another inches his way back from a serious arm injury of his own.
Alvarez, who hasn’t toed on a big league rubber since the end of last May due to a tear in his shoulder, is on pace to return in a couple of weeks.
“We’re going to be careful as far as getting him ready,” Melvin said of the 26-year-old who made his third rehab start on Saturday. “We’re going to stay on schedule at this point — knock wood — we haven’t had any hurdles to get over. So, everything is going as we expected.”
By the middle of the month, the A’s could be in position to jettison Kendall Graveman to the bullpen and roll with a rotation that includes the three news guys, the resident ace Gray and surprise star Rich Hill, who’s struck out the fourth-most hitters in the American League.
That’s a group that has the potential to give opponents fits and keep the A’s in the hunt as an early — and unexpected — contender.