OAKLAND — When Skye Bolt walked into the small, cinderblock manager’s office in Midland, Texas, with stark white walls, he knew the message wasn’t going to be a good one.
“It felt like a sentencing,” Bolt said.
One of the Oakland A’s top 20 prospects, Bolt was hitting just .133 with the Double-A Rockhounds over the first 15 games of the season in mid-April. His manager, Scott Steinmann, and hitting coach, Tommy Everidge, explained that he was being sent down to Single-A Stockton, where he’d spent 2017, to re-work his approach.
“I never lost the faith,” Bolt said on Sunday, in the A’s clubhouse in Oakland. “but to say that emotions weren’t shaken would be a lie. It was earth-shaking.”
At that point, it was difficult for Bolt to envision where he’d be in just over a year: starting his first Major League game. After being sent down to Single-A to adopt a big league approach at the plate, and after making his emotional big league debut in Pittsburgh earlier this month, Bolt is in the starting lineup for the finale against the Seattle Mariners, playing right field and batting eighth.
Earlier this month in Pittsburgh, Bolt got his first big league appearance and first big league hit out of the way, and got four at-bats, meaning there’s no jitters headed into Sunday. He also had a near-call-up in Cleveland, joining the team on the taxi squad before heading back to Las Vegas, and then coming to Oakland after the A’s officially placed Khris Davis on the injured list on Friday.
His parents will be out to see him soon — “No plans yet, but granted I stick around, they’ll be out here for sure,” he said — and plenty of folks from Midland and Stockton will be coming out to see his first start, including Right Field Will, who followed him throughout the Arizona Fall League, in Stockton and in spring training.
“It’s exciting; there’s somebody here who I went through the journey with,” Bolt said. “I get to share it with them. Right Field Will, and a couple others — my host family, the Van Houtens, from up in Sacramento, I know they’ll be here.”
A fourth-round draft pick in 2015 out of North Carolina, Bolt — because of his distinctive name — was a target of both cheering and jeering and frequent puns (most having to do with Greek and Norse mythology), but he’d lived up to it.
In 2017 with Stockton, he hit 15 home runs, drove in 66 runs and stole nine bases in 114 games, with 24 doubles and seven triples. His speed and plus glove in the outfield were major assets. But, starting in Midland in 2018, he hit a wall.
“My skipper brought me in and said, ‘Don’t take this as a demotion; take it as a free pass to go down and work on whatever it is you feel you need to work on,’” Bolt said.
Then, Keith Lippmann, the A’s executive vice president of player development gave Bolt a call to explain the organization’s thinking. Then, Lippmann joined Stockton in Rancho Cucamonga, for Bolt’s first series back in the California League for an in-face conversation.
“He said, ‘We still have the faith in what you can do, we know you have the confidence,’” Bolt said.
Lippmann sat Bolt down in the dugout after batting practice, and over the course of a 10-minute conversation, echoed Steinmann’s words: This was a free pass. The results didn’t matter so much as the process.
“Work this out so you can help us later down the road,” Lippmann told him.
“Looking back on it,” Bolt said, “it was the best thing for me … I’ll never forget it.”
From April 24 to June 15 with the Ports, he hit .266 with nine home runs, four triples, eight doubles and 28 runs in 46 games.
“To say I made mechanical adjustments is a little bit of it, but it was just the mental approach fo being locked in to your one-pitch per at-bat,” Bolt said, “that one pitch in your at-bat that you’re going to be able to do damage with. When I came back, I was fearless. There was no fear of striking out. I still struck out a little bit, but I was getting barrel on the ball when I wanted to and when I needed to. It was a mental reboot for the approach as you move up the ladder. You’re going to get one pitch per at-bat.”
He still struck out when he got back to Midland (58 times in 240 at-bats), but he hit .279 in 67 games. He started this season hitting .311 for Triple-A Las Vegas, earning a call-up earlier this month, and made his big league debut in Pittsburgh, where his father grew up going to Three Rivers Stadium.
“I had so much family and friends there, it was truly special,” Bolt said.
When manager Bob Melvin met with Bolt during his short stint to tell him he’d be going back down, there was no earth crashing.
“He knew he was only going to be up here for a short period of time, so the message actually was a little bit earlier than afterward,” Melvin said before the game. “Just knows he belongs, and we looked forward to him coming back.”
A’s right fielder Stephen Piscotty told the Examiner he feels “a little bit” better, but the stomach illness that knocked him out of Saturday’s starting lineup is persisting. He’s potentially available for pinch hitting duty on Sunday. Him being out, combined with a righty in Mike Leake on the mound (the switch-hititng Bolt hit .329 in the minors against righties this year) made it easy to start Bolt.
“It’s always tough not to have Chad Pinder in the lineup, but we didn’t want him sitting around too long,” Melvin said. “For a youngster that’s used to playing every day, at some point in time, there’s diminishing returns if he sits around too long, so we want to get him in there today, and we feel like it’s a good matchup.”
Marco Estrada, on the injured list since April 17 with a lumbar strain, is optimistic that he’ll begin at least playing catch soon. The back injury — which he’s dealt with in one form or another since July — required an ablation procedure a month ago to desensitize the nerves and relieve some pain, and while he feels better, he’s not close to being activated.
Jesus Luzardo, the A’s top pitching prospect, threw 15 pitches to hitters in a simulated game on Saturday, and, Melvin said, “felt great.” It was his first time throwing to hitters since being put on the injured list with a left shoulder strain. MLB.com’s Martin Gallegos reported that Luzardo hit 96 on the radar gun.
Oakland’s No. 2 pitching prospect, A.J. Puk, recovering from Tommy John surgery last April, has reportedly thrown in the mid-90s, and threw 30 pitches in a simulated game on Friday. He “felt good,” Melvin said.
Jharel Cotton was in the A’s clubhouse before Sunday’s game, as he readies for a rehab start at Stockton on Tuesday, where he’ll throw 60 pitches. Cotton — who spent much of last season in the A’s locker room after Tommy John surgery — was in typically high spirits. After his start with the Ports, he’ll head to Triple-A Las Vegas for another start as Oakland looks to stretch him out.
“You want to get him up to a certain level, and do it a few times,” Melvin said. “We’re not going to rush him, and we’ll see how we use him when he gets back.”
Oakland may wind up using Cotton, Puk and Luzardo out of the bullpen, as all three will likely be on an innings limit — Cotton and Put due to Tommy John recovery and Luzardo due to early-career innings management that’s become typical of high-end pitching prospects.
“There’s only going to be X-amount of innings for [Cotton] after Tommy John, so some of those he’s using up right now,” Melvin said. “I don’t know Luzardo, not sure about him, but the guys that had Tommy John, yeah, I think there’s some serious thought to try to be able to use their innings and not lose them very quickly, so we’ll see what the timing is when they get here, and what the needs are. It’s being bantered about.”