Athletics

A.J. Puk makes MLB debut, Liam Hendriks preserves A's win over Yankees

A.J. Puk makes MLB debut, Liam Hendriks preserves A's win over Yankees

OAKLAND -- A.J. Puk's heart was practically pounding out of his jersey.

For two straight days, the A's 24-year-old rookie had been sitting anxiously in the bullpen, just waiting for his name to be called. That call finally came Wednesday night.

Puk made his highly-anticipated major league debut against the AL-leading New York Yankees, allowing a walk and a single in 1/3 of an inning, but keeping the Bronx Bombers off the scoreboard in a 6-4 A's victory.

"It was great to finally get the first one out of the way," Puk said after the game. "My heart was racing. I was trying my best to calm it down. ... It's the first one. I got it out of the way. Now, hopefully, it's smooth sailing."

A's manager Bob Melvin had warned us that he wasn't afraid to use Puk in a big spot, and he lived up to his word. The 6-foot-7 left-hander entered the game in the eighth inning, protecting a slim two-run lead.

"That's a tough spot, coming in against the Yankees for his first appearance in the eighth inning of a two-run game," Melvin said. "Maybe a little bit of nerves on the first walk. ... We got the first out of the way and look forward to seeing him out there again."

Puk received a boisterous reception from the Coliseum crowd, both as he entered the game and then again when he left.

"I definitely heard it, he said. "It's a special moment. My family was in town. They were able to see me throw in the major leagues for the first time. It was good all around."

Added Melvin: "Usually I don't really take too much notice of the applause for someone coming into the game, but it was pretty significant. You couldn't help but notice that."

Puk exited with runners on the corners and just one out. That's when Melvin turned to his All-Star closer Liam Hendriks for a tenuous five-out save. The right-hander responded by striking out DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge to get out of the eighth and then retiring the Yankees' third, fourth and fifth hitters in the ninth.

"That might've been his best outing of the year," Melvin said. "I didn't do him any favors -- LeMahieu and Judge in the eighth and then he has to go through the ninth. What he's meant to this team this year and the acceleration from his role where he was last year all the way until this year has just been amazing."

Judge's at-bat probably brought back memories of last year's Wild Card Game, in which the Yankees slugger blasted a two-run home run off of Hendriks. But on Wednesday, the Australian closer got his revenge, striking Judge out on a nasty slider low and away.

"When you're in the bullpen, you've got a short memory," Hendriks said. "I'm assuming they showed it (on television) while I was pitching, so that's always fun. It is what it is. Actually, I asked him earlier today, 'Hey, which one was hit harder, the one you hit off me or the one you hit off Soria yesterday?' He played the modest card and was like, 'Man, the wind was blowing out.' I'm like, 'It doesn't matter if the wind was blowing in, that ball was gone.'"

Hendriks let out a thunderous yell after the strikeout but quickly calmed himself down, remembering he still had to pitch the ninth inning.

"My biggest thing is I was trying to make sure that I wasn't too amped because once you scream and then have to go back out again, it's not always the best scenario," he said. "Luckily, I've been pretty good this year at being able to go out there, have my little bit of an emotional attack, then kind of relax and get into the dugout and joke around and take it off a little bit." 

2019 MLB Rule 5 Draft: A's lose Mark Payton, acquire minor leaguers

2019 MLB Rule 5 Draft: A's lose Mark Payton, acquire minor leaguers

As teams headed down south to the Winter Meetings in San Diego, the two main goals for the A's appeared to be finding a left-handed bat at second base, as well as continuing conversations with relief pitchers.

While the A's didn't make any huge acquisitions during the meetings, the 2019 Rule 5 Draft came and went as it does every year. With that, Oakland selected three players in the minor-league phase of the draft and had a couple more transactions as well.

Second baseman Vimael Machin was acquired from the Phillies for cash considerations. He will be competing for a roster spot.

The 26-year-old slashed .295/.390/.412 with seven home runs and 65 RBI across the Double and Triple-A teams in the Chicago Cubs organization last season. 

Jason Krizan was selected from the Mets during the Triple-A phase. The 30-year-old outfielder hit .275 across two teams last season. 

The Athletic's prospect writer Emily Waldon says he's going to be a solid addition to the A's organization.

"His walk rate has always been impressive," Waldon told NBC Sports California. "He doesn't have a ton of swing and misses, with some raw power, with eight to ten home run seasons. He's also a dependable defender with a good veteran presence." Waldon also joked Krizan has "80-grade sarcasm."

The A's also selected catcher Jose Colina, who put up some massive numbers with the Arizona League Indians Blue after signing with Cleveland as a minor-league free agent in June. The 21-year-old slashed .372/.443/.744 with eight homers and 20 RBI.

Right-handed pitcher Deivy Mendez rounds the group out. In 25 appearances across Single-A and Short-A last season with the Padres organization, he went 2-1 with six saves and a 4.20 ERA, striking out 33. 

[RELATED: A's interested in acquiring Lowrie for third time]

The Cincinnati Reds selected outfielder Mark Payton, who was claimed off waivers by the A's in December of 2018. Payton was selected during the major league phase of the draft which, according to Waldon, has the A's losing some muscle at the plate.

However, scouts reportedly didn't see the 28-year-old "doing a great deal outside of filling some needs." That power is what has gotten the most talk around Payton. 

Payton took advantage of the PCL last season with Triple-A Las Vegas and slashed .334/.400/.653 with 30 home runs and 97 RBI in 118 games. 

Why A's are focused more on keeping young stars than MLB free agency

Why A's are focused more on keeping young stars than MLB free agency

The AL West is moving and shaking early this MLB offseason, with players coming in and out of the division. 

Star third baseman Anthony Rendon reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $245 million contract to join the Angels. The Halos also traded for former top prospect Dylan Bundy to add to their rotation, and reportedly are pursuing longtime Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. The Astros, who have been the cream of the crop out west, lost pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, and Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto is bound to make 47 trades by spring training. 

A's GM David Forst says he's more focused on his own squad than what his division foes are up to, but he certainly isn't mad about the Cole news. 

"I'm not sad to see Gerrit Cole leave our division is the best way to put it," Forst said to NBC Sports California in a 1-on-1 interview Wednesday. "We try not to get too wrapped up into what other teams are doing."

The A's came to the Winter Meetings in San Diego looking to upgrade their roster like every other team, however, they're much more focused on who they have in-house as opposed to the free-agent market this year. 

Oakland should receive a big boost to its starting rotation with the additions of Jesus Luzardo (22) and A.J. Puk (24) next season. The A's infield also is full of young talent, including budding stars Marcus Semien (29), Matt Chapman (26) and Matt Olson (25). Franklin Barreto (23), Jorge Mateo (24) and Sheldon Neuse (25) will compete for second base. 

"We've got a really good foundation and we're not heavily invested in free agency right now because we have those guys," Forst said. "We have young pitching, we have the position player group. So our focus has been on filling holes -- looking for a left-handed bat, something in the bullpen. We're fortunate enough to not have to be out there in free agency." 

Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting last season after hitting 33 homers with an .892 OPS, is expected to earn nearly $14 million in arbitration this offseason and becomes a free agent after next season. The Bay Area native also has reiterated his hope to stay with the A's long term. 

Chapman and Olson both are arbitration-eligible after next season and are set to hit free agency once the 2023 season ends. 

"Certainly our hope is to keep all these guys together," Forst said. "You mentioned Marcus, who's going to be a free agent potentially after this year. That's something we'll address as the season goes along, and the rest of those guys, we're looking for ways to keep them in Oakland as long as possible."

The A's real goal when it comes to 2020 is avoiding the AL Wild Card Game after falling two years in a row in the winner-take-all contest. Forst and the rest of the front office is focused on giving Oakland its best chance at winning the division to get a better shot at the World Series. 

[RELATED: Beane opens up on A's-Semien negotiations, Astros scandal]

"You want to give your guys a chance to play in a series with a better chance to advance," Forst said. "To do that, you have to win the division. We've obviously stayed close to Houston the last couple of years, but as we put this team together, we're definitely looking towards a way to win the division, to get out of the wild card game and give our guys a better chance at a division series."

The A's will need another big season from the Semien, Chapman, Olson trio for that to happen, and they hope to keep them together well into the next decade.