OAKLAND — As Marco Estrada approached his locker and peeled off his personalized A’s bathrobe — part of a set he gifted his new team upon his arrival — he flashed a weary smile.
His ailing back — which has bothered him since 2016 — doesn’t feel much better than when he went on the injured list back in April, but he’s now able to manage the pain. It’s what he’ll have to do in order to get back to the Major Leagues.
Signed to be one of the A’s top starters this offseason, Estrada hasn’t pitched in a big league game since an April 16 loss against Houston due to a lumbar strain. After a nerve ablation procedure and two rehab outings, he’s now cautiously optimistic, and can see his path toward helping Oakland out down the stretch.
“I don’t want to come back just to come back,” Estrada said before Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers. “I want to come back to help the team out.”
Since May 16, the A’s are tied for the best record in the Major Leagues at 42-23, and have added starters Homer Bailey (starting Thursday against the Brewers) and Tanner Roark (who will arrive in Oakland on Friday, and likely start on Sunday). They’ll also soon add ace Sean Manaea back into the mix, as he has one more scheduled rehab start left for Triple-A Las Vegas. The rotation is crowded — Oakland will have to make a roster move before activating Roark — but the A’s didn’t sign him to a $4 million contract to be a bit player.
“Rehab is a lonely job, and it seems like you have more and more guys doing it with you these days, but he came in here for a reason,” said manager Bob Melvin. “That was to pitch, and originally, at the top of our rotation. He takes that personally. He wants to be out there.”
During Estrada’s first rehab start for Single-A Stockton, the back felt great, and he needed just seven pitches to get through one inning, striking out two. Wednesday was a bit more of a struggle, physically. The first inning, he needed just nine pitches to retire the side in order, but he didn’t feel quite right. Once he sat down, though, things loosened up, and after allowing a leadoff double in the second, retired the next three batters on 11 pitches.
“Can’t really pay attention to the results right now. I haven’t pitched in a long time, and I am surprised it’s gone well,” Estrada said. “Honestly, every day [the pain is] about the same. There are days hwere I feel a tiny bit better. Those days are kind of fun. My first outing, I felt a lot better than I did my second one.”
The goal is to get out to five innings, and then see how things progress from there. For now, though, with the A’s in a pennant chase, Estrada is just trying to be a part of the fun.
“It’s not like he’s given up, and said this year’s a wash,” Melvin said. “He’s still trying to do it, and I think the fact that he’s pitched in a couple games and incrementally has the pitch counts go up each and every time gives him a little light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, he can help down the stretch.”
Pain management, Estrada said, is the only real option moving forward.
“I just don’t think it’s going to get better,” said Estrada. “We’re trying to manage it, and we’ve done a good job. As long as it doesn’t get worse, I should be OK.”
Roster moves upcoming: With the A’s heading into a National League park next week and the newly-acquired Roark slated to start Sunday, Oakland may wind up moving one of their bevy of starters to the bullpen, if not option someone to Triple-A, and adding a position player.
The roster casualty may wind up being Daniel Mengden, who served as an opener late last season and who was slated to start on Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals. While he’s had several good outings this season and owns a 5-2 record, he has a 4.85 ERA.
Roark has a 2.61 ERA against St. Louis in two career starts, has allowed 11 hits and three walks in 10 1/3 innings and struck out 11.
Piscotty close to returning: Oakland right fielder Stephen Piscotty (right knee strain) went 2-for-4 with two runs and a walk on Wednesday as the designated hitter for Triple-A Las Vegas. He’s slated to start again Thursday and play the field. He’s now hitting .368 in his four rehab games, and should be ready to re-join the team against his former club, the St. Louis Cardinals, who come into town for a two-game set on Saturday and Sunday.
When he returns, Piscotty will play right field. Robbie Grossman filled in there on Wednesday and made a sparkling snowcone catch, despite having played most of the year in left, where the angles are different.
With Ramon Laureano out with a shin injury, Mark Canha will continue to play in center. Since Piscotty went down on June 29, Canha had been the primary starting right fielder, and then shifted to center once Laureano went down. Since June 29, he’s played in 25 games, with a .511 slugging percentage, hitting six homers, five doubles and a triple, driving in 10 runs.
Friday off: The Cardinals come into town after Oakland’ has its first Friday without a game since May 6, 2016 (a rainout at Baltimore). It will be the A’s first scheduled Friday off since Oct. 3, 1980, prior to a season-ending two-game seris at Milwaukee. They’ll also have Friday, Aug. 23 off before facing the San Francisco Giants.
“We usually specialize in weekends,” Melvin said. “Very uncommon, but maybe gives the guys a chance to go out and have a nice dinner on a primetime dinner night, as opposed to a Monday, where sometimes, you hear you’re not supposed to eat the fish on Monday.”