OAKLAND — After making seven starts for the A’s last year, Chris Bassitt opened 2019 on the injured list due to taking a line drive to the leg during the team’s trip to Japan. He was recalled on Wednesday when fellow starter Marco Estrada went on the IL.
“To say that this is the best I’ve felt [since Tommy John surgery in 2016] would be an understatement,” said Bassitt, who endured an especially long road to recovery the last few years. “My [velocity] is back, everything is kind of back. To be honest with you, tonight I was not really built up and conditioning-wise wasn’t that great, but I mean, yeah, I’m back.”
In his first start of 2019 on Monday against the Texas Rangers, Bassitt threw five scoreless innings, the bullpen held serve, and the A’s cruised to a 6-1 victory in front of a sparse weeknight crowd. Stephen Piscotty accounted for most of Oakland’s scoring with a homer, a single, and a sacrifice fly.
Bassitt looked as strong as he has in recent memory, striking out seven of the 21 batters he faced — only the third time in his career he’s racked up that many strikeouts. He did navigate through some trouble in a couple innings, between two hits, four walks, and a hit batsman, and he needed a hefty 93 pitches to get through five frames, but the Rangers only hit the ball hard off of him a couple times all night.
“Last time out [on rehab in the minors] was his highest pitch count, which was 72, so even asking him to go into the 90s today was a lot,” said manager Bob Melvin. “But he was up for it, he felt great, gave us what we needed, came out with a zero on the board and the lead. It’s about all we could ask for him today.”
The A’s entered Monday having lost five of their last six games, but they got back on track against the Rangers in the opener of a three-game series in large part thanks to Bassitt.
Despite a bit of wildness, Bassitt got something out of each of his pitches. His fastball touched 94 mph several times, and he earned multiple strikeouts with each pitch in his repertoire— his four-seam, cutter and 70-mph curveball. His sinker, which serves as his primary pitch, was the only one the Rangers could do anything with, and even that went for a strike over half the time and only got hit hard twice.
“Effectively wild, I guess. Kinda just filled the zone up with everything and just hoped for the best,” said Bassitt, who noted he didn’t have his best control but repeatedly praised catcher Josh Phegley for bringing out the best in him. The pair are two of the longest-tenured players on the A’s, having been acquired in the same trade from the White Sox prior to 2015.
“It’s really tough to figure out where he’s gonna throw the ball,” said Melvin. “One’s moving, one’s cutting, a real slow curveball, he can kinda slow you down, speed you up. Got a lot of movement, and as the game progressed, he got more and more confidence as it went along.”
While Bassitt was putting up zeroes, the A’s lineup woke up against Rangers starter Mike Minor. After scoring just nine runs total in the first five games of the homestand, they scored runs in three different innings against the southpaw, and then again off the Texas bullpen.
The biggest hit of the night belonged to Piscotty, who lined a 404-foot shot over the wall in left-center in the second inning to open the scoring. The 108 mph exit velocity was one of the hardest balls he’s hit in an A’s uniform, and ranks among the top quarter of all homers hit in the majors this season. In the eighth he hit another ball even harder, earning him a single and bringing home two more runners, helped along by an error by Rangers center fielder Delino DeShields Jr., as he tried to corral the hot drive.
A’s third baseman Matt Chapman got in on the act, with a run-scoring sacrifice fly in the third inning, and adding a hit and two walks. One of those walks came in the fifth, and he eventually came around to score when Chad Pinder hit a sharp double down the third-base line. Piscotty capped that rally as well, with a sac fly that would have been extra bases but for a spectacular tumbling catch by DeShields in center
“Honestly felt better about the sac fly in that situation [than the homer],” said Piscotty. “Three-run lead, trying to really add on there and save the bullpen a little bit. Those are at-bats where you really wanna bear down and try to get something in the outfield. Thought I had a double, but DeShields made an incredible play. I was just happy to get that ball elevated.”
The single by Chapman in the eighth had the highest exit velocity of any A’s batted ball so far this season, at 113.2 mph.
After Bassitt’s five sparkling innings, the A’s bullpen put in four quality frames of their own to seal the victory. Ryan Dull, J.B. Wendelken, Joakim Soria and Fernando Rodney teamed up to allow just one run, while combining for six strikeouts and just four hits and a walk. For the 42-year-old Rodney it was his 907th career major league appearance, passing Cy Young for 24th on the all-time list.
The outing for Dull was his first in the majors since the season opener in Japan, as he went down to Triple-A when the team returned to the U.S. and was only recalled a few hours before Monday’s game. He struck out Joey Gallo and Logan Forsythe in the sixth, both using his signature slider. He was charged with the bullpen’s only run in the seventh, but even that rally began with an unlikely bunt single from Rangers catcher Jeff Mathis and ended with Wendelken letting the inherited runner score.
“He’s been pitching really well down there [in Triple-A], and I think maybe better than any time in his career about getting lefties out,” Melvin said of Dull. “Usually was a little bit more of a right-handed specialist, guy we weren’t afraid to bring in with guys on base, but for a while lefties were his problem and now he’s got that figured out.”
Dull backed up Melvin’s point by fanning the powerful lefty Gallo.
The A’s improved their record to 12-13, with two more games against the Rangers before they head back out on the road. Frankie Montas starts for Oakland against Lance Lynn on Tuesday evening.
Note: Rangers star shortstop Elvis Andrus exited the game early after being hit by a pitch in his right hand. X-Rays were negative and he was diagnosed with a contusion. Last season, he missed two months when he was hit by a pitch and fractured his right elbow.