At the Coliseum on Wednesday, the A’s oldest and newest weapons were on display — the park and the Puk. The Oakland Coliseum and rookie pitcher A.J. Puk.
Strolling into the Coliseum several hours before the A’s-Yankees game, I almost tripped over a Yankee. In the dark tunnel running deep under the grandstands behind home plate, two Yankees players were limbering up, just outside the matchbox-sized visiting-team weight room.
Since the weight room is the size of the workout room at a low-budget motel, the two Yankees were out in the hall. One was doing some exercise against the wall, the other was down on the concrete floor, stretching and, I hope, keeping a wary eye out for the motorized carts that zip through with their precious cargo of beer and nacho cheese.
In an age of escalated pampering of athletes, the A’s don’t do that. They don’t care if the Yankees are baseball royalty. Excuse the cockroaches on the barbells, boys. Some ballparks have creature comforts, this one has comfortable creatures.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, in his pregame chat, said, “We know (the A’s) play really well here, it’s a tough place to come in and play. We embrace that, we enjoy that.”
Photo: Ben Margot / Associated Press
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Why is it a tough place to play?
“Because they’re good, one,” he said. “It just is. Coming here as a player over the years, especially the years when the A’s are super competitive, the weather’s different, the crowd is unique and passionate and different. It’s old and different from pretty much every park you play in now. It’s just been a tough place to play. We know that, we embrace that, but know we gotta be at our best to have a chance of success.”
Boone is too careful and diplomatic to say, “This isn’t a ballpark, it’s an abandoned pumpkin patch with bases.”
The numbers support Boone. After beating the Yankees 6-4 on Wednesday night, the A’s are 42-24 (.636) at home and 31-29 (.517) on the road. They have won eight of their past nine home games.
If the A’s new ballpark was ready tomorrow, I’m not sure the team would want to move. (Spoiler alert: It won’t be ready tomorrow.)
The Coliseum is not a homer-happy ballpark because of its deep fences and dead air, but the A’s homer hitters are not intimidated. Khris Davis busted out of a deep slump Wednesday night in the second inning with a two-run oppo-jack into the seats just inside the right-field foul line. That’s his second homer in the past two months. Davis is a rarity, a spray home-run hitter, and him returning to normal is any A’s opponent’s worst nightmare.
Marcus Semien blasted a two-run homer in the third, deep to left, and the wiry leadoff hitter’s power is starting to scare people.
But most of the suspense in the ballpark Wednesday night was generated by the presence of Puk and his anticipated and looong-awaited major-league debut.
This is big, Puk and his debut. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound lefty pitched his way into the rotation in spring training of 2018, only to fall off into the limbo that is recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Now he’s back, called up Tuesday after about six weeks in the minors, where he pitched one- and two-inning stints.
The A’s have done a marvelous job of patching holes in their starting staff with mid-season pickups like Mike “Cy Young” Fiers last season and Homer “Gettin’ ’Er Done” Bailey recently. So there are no plans for Puk to start. He will be used strictly in short relief this season, but if he’s as good as he has looked every step of the way, he’s not only huge for the A’s future but a superb weapon right now.
The A’s didn’t promote Puk just to dress up the team picture with his long golden locks. He’s throwing close to 100 mph, and manager Bob Melvin was more than ready to rock the rook. Melvin couldn’t squeeze Puk into Tuesday’s game but said before Wednesday’s game, “He’ll get in there pretty quick.”
And then there he was! In the top of the seventh, Puk rose from the bullpen bench and began heating up, then took the mound to start the eighth with a 6-4 lead. He walked on to a big ovation from the small but lively crowd.
“Usually I don’t really take too much notice of the applause for someone coming in the game,” Melvin said, “but it was pretty significant, you couldn’t help but notice that.”
Puk said he definitely heard the applause, too.
“My heartbeat was racing,” he said, “I was doing my best to calm it down.”
Melvin had said, “We’re looking forward to getting him in a game and see what he has to offer.”
What Puk had to offer was heat, in the 98-99 ’hood. He walked Mike Tauchman, got Cameron Maybin on a spectacular pop-fly catch by Jurickson Profar, then gave up a sharp single to Mike Ford, and that was it. Eleven pitches, six strikes. Liam Hendriks came in and cleaned up the minor mess.
One report on Puk is that he’s a heady pitcher with a plan for each hitter.
“We give game plans (to our pitchers), too,” Melvin said. “One thing we’ve seen with A.J. is he has a pretty good understanding of what’s working for him and what his strengths are. I think when you throw a hundred, it’s pretty easy to have a plan for anybody. And he’s got a pretty good slider, too, and he’s shown a really good change-up.”
Puk will keep that changeup mostly in his pocket, to minimize risk to his arm, but for an inning or two at a time, the A’s are thinking his tool belt is more than adequate.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/athletics/ostler/article/New-pitcher-Puk-and-old-ballpark-may-give-A-s-14369561.php.