OAKLAND — Daniel Mengden wasn’t a part of the Oakland Athletics’ post-All-Star break run that catapulted them into the playoffs last season.
Sent down after four June starts ballooned his ERA from 2.91 to 4.47 with 11 walks in 16 1/3 innings, Mengden only returned in September as the bulk pitcher following an opener.
With Oakland having won 11 of its last 12 headed into Tuesday’s tilt with Seattle, Mengden hadn’t allowed a walk in 11 1/3 innings. After seeing his pitch count swell early in the A’s 9-2 win, he held on to throw seven innings of one run ball, without a single free pass.
“I think that’s been the key since he’s been back,” said manager Bob Melvin.
Since Mengden was called up at the start of June, he’s walked just two men in 26 1/3 innings, going 3-0 in four appearances and three starts.
On Tuesday, Mengden avoided walks by getting ahead of 16 of the 25 men he faced over seven innings, allowing just four hits (three on first pitches) and one run while striking out three.
“I was just staying aggressive, getting strike one, keeping them off balance,” Mengden said. “I was just trying to keep our boys in it as long as we can, because we know they’re going to start hitting eventually.”
Twenty-one of his 96 pitches went for called strikes, including 10 of the 32 four-seam fastballs he threw. That helped him avoid walks.
“It’s amazing; I’m not a big punchout guy, I’m not going to blow anybody away all the time, so it’s all about staying aggressive,” Mengden said. “I’m staying ahead.”
He maintained command even after throwing 71 pitches in the first four innings. A five-pitch fifth kept him in the game, and he retired nine of the final 10 men he faced on just 25 pitches.
“They were fouling a lot of pitches off,” Mengden said. “It’s one of those things you can’t control, the pitch count got up there, and they stayed really aggressive, and I got some early outs throughout the rest of the game. It kind of evened out.”
What was even more remarkable was that Mengden only got six first-pitch swings.
“It happens sometimes where you might get beat up a little bit. They were patient at first, then got more aggressive,” Mengden said. “That’s when you saw the first-pitch or second-pitch outs.”
That allowed him to pitch seven innings for the first time since May 31 of last season, an eight-inning effort that capped a month where he threw 41 1/3 innings over six starts.
Mengden had seen Seattle twice this season, and struggled each time, but in different ways. In his May 24 outing against the Mariners, he walked five and allowed five hits, throwing 99 pitches in four innings. On July 7, he allowed three earned runs on six hits, but didn’t walk anyone, and threw 95 pitches.
“Third time I’ve pitched against them this year, so you’ve got to be a little different,” Mengden said. “Not make it up, but still stick to your strengths, and their weaknesses, but you still can’t repeat the same stuff over and over again. The game plan with me and [catcher Josh] Phegley going in, kind of the same, but little things might have been different to certain hitters.”
One hitter — catcher Omar Narvaez — was just as much of a pest as he’s been in the past, slugging a second-inning homer to conclude an eight-pitch at-bat and give Seattle an early 1-0 lead. Narvaez had tagged Mengden for a solo shot last time out, his fifth home run against Oakland this season. That was the only real mistake Mengden made. It was one of just three balls hit over 100 mph against Mengden on the evening. The other two were a groundout by Kyle Seager and a Narvaez single.
“He’s been, honestly, he’s been a tough at-bat,” Mengden said. “He just hits the mistake. I think I’ve given two or three pitches that were almost right down the middle that he ends up crushing, and it’s one of those things where a good, long at-bat by a hitter, he gets rewarded with a mistake. He’s just grinding out at-bats, and winning the at-bat, getting that one mistake and punishing us for that.”
As for the solo homer, Mengden knew that, with the way the A’s have been scoring — averaging six runs per game since the beginning of July.
“It’s only a matter of time before they pop and score some runs,” Mengden said. “A couple solo homers in a game, not really going to hurt you. It’s just one bad pitch, right down the middle.”
Since the start of July, the A’s are 7-2, and since June 17, they’ve won 18 of 23 games — most in the Major Leagues.
“It’s just all about riding the wave, as long as you can,” Mengden said. “We’re playing really good baseball on both ends, so it’s all about just keeping up good baseball, keeping our heads up and keep going.”