— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) March 31, 2019
OAKLAND — When Lou Trivino finished off the seventh inning by striking out Tommy La Stella, the first man out of the dugout — leaping and screaming and hugging — was Frankie Montas.
After a season where he stepped in unexpectedly and bolstered a decimated Oakland Athletics rotation, Montas had gone six-plus innings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in his 2019 debut, allowing just three hits and one run, but couldn’t get an out in the seventh, allowing a leadoff double to Justin Bour.
Trivino — the A’s setup man — preserved the lead for Montas, who, after a sparkling spring, earned the 2-1 win over the visiting Angels, using his fastball, slider and newly-acquired splitter to strike out six. In the process, he became the fourth straight Oakland starter to go at least six innings, and at least for his first outing of the year, proved his eye-opening spring training numbers weren’t a fluke.
“From spring training, the expectations are, ‘This is what you can do,’” said A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson. “I think he understand: This is what I can do; I can use both sides of the plate with my fastball; I don’t have to sit back and throw all fastballs, and I can pitch. This spring training, and today, I think we’ve seen him pitch.”
In five games this spring (not including his three scoreless innings of relief against the Giants last week), Montas allowed a single earned run on 11 hits and five walks in 16 innings, striking out 16. On Sunday, he helped the A’s win three of four from the Angels, and extended the Oakland starting rotation’s scoreless innings streak to 25 2/3.
After emerging as a top prospect with the Chicago White Sox, Montas had his career stalled by a rip resection to aleviate thoracic outlet syndrome, missing all of 2016. His 2017 with the A’s was a mess, with a 7.03 ERA in 32 innings.
Montas started 11 games last season, and was optioned to Triple-A three times as Oakland struggled to piece together a starting rotation due to injury and attrition. When he was up, he acquitted himself well, with a 3.88 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 65 innings.
Montas’s stint with the A’s in 2018 was the closest he’d come to sustained big league success, but Emerson realized Montas had a deficiency: He had a changeup, but rarely used it.
“When guys have a changeup, and they throw it three or four percent of the time, they obviously don’t have enough confidence in it, because they’re not throwing it,” Emerson said. “I talked to him: ‘It’s a weapon you have to use, as a changeup. If you don’t use the changeup, let’s go to the split, see if you feel comfortable with it.’”
Montas tinkered with the pitch during his offseason bullpen and catch sessions. Before his first, Emerson called him to make sure he incorporated the pitch, and he threw five or six. It wasn’t until spring training that he began to sharpen it, throw it more often and use it off his near-triple-digit two-seam fastball and 90-mph slider.
“I think what’s made him kind of who he is now is adding the split-finger, and being a true three-pitch mix guy with the slider, and having command of all those pitches,” manager Bob Melvin said after Montas’s final start of the spring against the San Francisco Giants. “He’s a little bit of a different guy that we’ve seen the last couple years.”
Along with his strikeouts on Sunday, he got nine groundouts, using that splitter to pitch to contact and getting hitters to roll over. After allowing a leadoff double to Kole Calhoun and hitting Mike Trout in the first by working too quick and opening up early, he retired 14 straight, including nine on ground ball outs and one double play to get out of the first.
“He was a little amped to begin with, kind of missing arm side a little bit,” Melvin said. “Had good velo, obviously, then [catcher Nick] Hundley did a good job, threw a couple of splits that made him get his arm across his body, got the double play, and he was on his way.”
Montas used the splitter 17 times on Sunday, getting four swings and misses, two called strikes and five balls put in play, with four groundouts and a pop out.
“I feel like the splitter has made a big difference,” Montas said. “Now, I have three plus pitches, and hitters had to worry about the fastball and the slider; now they have to worry about the splitter, too. It’s better when a hitter has to worry about three pitches, than two.”
Meanwhile, the A’s loaded the bases twice and came up empty, but took a 1-0 lead on a 388-foot solo homer in the fourth by Khris Davis. Oakland (3-3) took a 2-0 lead over the Angels (1-3) when a one-out double by Marcus Semien in the fifth was cashed in by a Matt Chapman RBI single to left.
Montas gave up the starting rotation’s scoreless-innings streak with a 1-0 solo home run by Calhoun with two outs in the sixth, cutting the Oakland lead to 2-1. He bounced back by blowing a 96.4 mph fastball by Mike Trout for an inning-ending strikeout. Trivino, Joakim Soria and Blake Treinen — for his third day of work in a row — finished things off, with Treinen getting his second save in as many days. There was no one more grateful in the dugout than Montas, who came out after 77 pitches.
“Every starter here, if you hit the seventh inning, and you come out of the game for some reason and leave guys on base, you feel real comfortable,” Montas said. “Our bullpen, I would say, is the best. I know Lou’s going to save me.”
— Melvin said that it may only take one or two good at-bats for Ramon Laureano to get going, as the center fielder started the season hitting just .118. After a day off, playing just the ninth inning in center on Saturday, Laureano led off the bottom of the fifth with an eight-pitch at-bat that ended with a line-drive single to center. That knock snapped an 0-for-9 streak.
“You’ve got to follow it up with a few, but those are really fighting at-bats,” Melvin said. “You’re struggling some, you’ve got two strikes on you, you’re just fighting for your life, and he’s a tough kid. He’s not a timid kid at all, and I think that’s one of the things we really like about him. He’s aggressive and he’s confident, and he never backs down. He was going through a period where he was really struggling, and that’s a big at-bat. When you come through the at-bat and get a hit, hopefully, he’s on the other side of it right now.”
Laureano will play more with three left-handers coming up in the four-game series against Boston.
— Semien’s double extended his personal hitting streak to six.
“He becomes a better hitter every year,” Melvin said. “Nobody works harder than Marcus Semien. He knows what he needs to work on, he takes coaching very well. Whether it’s where he’s come from with defense to him as a hitter. At one point in time, he was just a power hitter, and now he’s just a better hitter. He just continues to get better because, one, he’s confident, and two, nobody’s going to outwork him.”
— After throwing 25 pitches against the Agnels on Saturday, and working three of the four games in the series, it’s likely Treinen is down for the opener against the Red Sox on Monday. Aaron Brooks is slated to make his 2019 debut against left-hander David Price. Oakland was 4-2 against the World Series champs last season.