OAKLAND — Mike Fiers didn’t look up as he doffed his cap and raised his arm to acknowledge a standing Oakland Coliseum crowd. As he stepped over the foul line, he looked at his cleats, dissatisfied.
After staying sharp with three throwing sessions over the All-Star break at the Coliseum, it mattered little that he threw 7 2/3 shutout innings in a 5-1 win over the Chicago White Sox. The control specialist had finished on a walk — his only one of the night.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “I was mad at myself.”
Since the start of May, Fiers been as good as any pitcher in baseball. With injuries to Khris Davis and Matt Olson, and Frankie Montas’ PED suspension, Fiers has been one of the reasons that the A’s are now just half a game out of the playoff picture. Thanks to three homers and an evening of timely hitting Friday night, he won his seventh straight decision.
“He was one pitch away from getting through eight innings, and nowadays, that’s a lot,” said manager Bob Melvin.
When Fiers re-signed with Oakland this offseason after a late-summer trade brought him out west, it was to shore up an uncertain rotation that wouldn’t have its top returner — Sean Manaea — until the middle of the season, and would not have a pair of electric arms — Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk — until August.
Fiers was brought back to keep the starting staff afloat. The A’s (51-41) are doing a bit better than just that, having won eight of their last 10, and 22 of 35 since the start of June, largely because of Fiers’s consistency. Including Friday, he’s thrown 10 straight quality starts. Over his last three starts, he’s walked two and struck out 12 in 19 2/3 innings.
“He might not strike out 10 guys and overpower you, but in his own way, he does,” Melvin said. “The next thing you look at, he’s in the seventh or eighth inning and has a lead.”
After going 1-1 with a 7.83 ERA in April, Fiers has been one of the best pitchers in the American League. Since the start of May, he’s gone 7-1 with a 2.29 ERA, striking out 49 to 21 walks in 82 2/3 innings. Since his first career no-hitter on May 7, Fiers has the lowest opponent OPS in the American League, and the second-lowest in the majors. All that, despite the lowest strikeouts per nine innings of his career.
“The first thing is command,” Fiers said. “It takes you a long way. You can throw it as hard as you want, but if you consistently throw it right down the middle every time, you’re going to get hurt. For me, it’s about hitting the corners.”
On Friday, Fiers danced around eight hits, showing the pitchability that makes him so valuable. While his strikeout numbers are down, the fact that he has a pair of Gold Glove defenders behind him in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson — not to mention shorstop Marcus Semien — allows him to pitch to contact with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, cutter, changeup, slider and curveball.
Having gotten only one swing and miss on 16 breaking balls in the first two innings, he pulled the string on a strike-three curve to Yoan Moncada with a man on second in the third. Then, he ended a nine-pitch at-bat against the dangerous Jose Abreu with a letter-high 92-mph fastball after a pair of breakers. With a man on first and one out in the fourth, he got Eloy Jimenez to roll over on a cutter and into an inning-ending double play. Of his 111 pitches, 77 were strikes.
Fiers — though he didn’t need it — got plenty of help from the offense.
After 106- and 107-mph first-inning singles by Chapman and Olson, Khris Davis bounced a 79-mph single up the middle to give the A’s a 1-0 lead. Ramon Laureano and Jurickson Profar provided the A’s sixth pair of back-to-back jacks in the second on two 107-mph screamers — with Laureano’s 17th homer of the year going 431 feet — and Mark Canha added another long ball in the sixth, his 13th. Oakland tacked on a run in the seventh on a Marcus Semien RBI triple. Every starter tallied at least one hit.
Fiers’ evening, though, didn’t end quite the way he would have preferred. With a man on and two outs in the seventh, Fiers saw All-Star catcher James McCann foul off three straight offspeed pitches before losing him on a full-count walk, ending his evening as Yusmeiro Petit got the final out of the frame.
“I didn’t challenge him,” Fiers said. “I think I got out of my pitching way.”
Joakim Soria allowed a run on two hits and a walk in the ninth, before Liam Hendriks got the final out to sew up Oakland’s first win of the second half.