Athletics

A's hoping A.J. Puk, Jake Diekman can steady bullpen in playoff push

A's hoping A.J. Puk, Jake Diekman can steady bullpen in playoff push

OAKLAND -- The A's bullpen has surprisingly been a liability all season long.

After blowing just 18 saves last year, tied for fifth-fewest in MLB, Oakland has already blown 22 saves this season, tied for third-most in the league. The bullpen's ERA is much worse too, up from 3.37 in 2018 to 4.12 this year.

So what's caused the drop in performance? Well, in short, Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino haven't looked like anything close to last year's versions. Treinen emerged as an All-Star closer in 2018, finishing the year with a 0.78 ERA. This season, his ERA has ballooned to 4.86.

Meanwhile, Trivino has suffered a serious sophomore slump with a 5.14 ERA in 50 appearances. That follows a tremendous rookie season in 2018 which saw him go 8-3 with a 2.92 ERA.

The A's added veteran reliever Joakim Soria in the offseason, signing him to a two-year, $15 million deal. But Soria has stumbled to the worst season of his career, going 1-4 with a 4.97 ERA.

Fortunately, the A's pen has the potential to improve for the stretch run. Oakland has already added hard-throwing left-hander Jake Diekman from the Royals. The 32-year-old picked up his first win of the season in Thursday's victory over the Astros. 

Perhaps even more significant, A's No. 2 prospect A.J. Puk appears to be nearing a call-up. Puk, 24, is coming off Tommy John surgery but has had no setbacks to this point and could be an extremely valuable late-inning option in Oakland.

"It seems like maybe he's kind of hitting his stride (in Las Vegas)," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "If he continues to pitch in the fashion that he is, there's a good chance you're going to see him here sooner than later."

Of course, the two bright spots in the A's bullpen this season have been right-handers Liam Hendriks and Yusmeiro Petit. Hendriks, 30, has emerged as a dominant closer, going 4-1 with 14 saves and a 1.54 ERA, along with 88 strikeouts in just 64 1/3 innings.

[RELATED: Radar-gun guy Nathan Patterson strikes out side in A's organizational debut]

Petit, 34, has been nearly as valuable, going 3-2 with a 2.60 ERA in a team-high 61 appearances. The veteran can pitch in just about any situation, for any amount of batters.

If the A's can find even one or two more reliable options, the pen will be in much better shape heading into September. Perhaps Puk and Diekman can make that happen.

Mike Fiers told J.D. Martinez about Astros cheating before 2018 ALCS

Mike Fiers told J.D. Martinez about Astros cheating before 2018 ALCS

November wasn't the first time A's pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle about the Houston Astros' sign-stealing nature.

After the Astros won the 2017 World Series thanks to a lot of help from trash cans, they returned to the American League Championship Series to face the Boston Red Sox. But if the Astros still were cheating, it didn't matter because the Red Sox knew it was coming. And not just because then-manager Alex Cora was part of the Astros' scheme the year prior.

"Alex Cora never influenced us and never told us about that thing," Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez told WEEI's "Ordway, Merloni and Fauria." "The only way I ever found out was in the playoffs was when Fiers, who is a really good friend of mine, reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, make sure you’re doing this because this, because this is what these guys are doing in the playoffs.' I was like, 'What? How is this a thing?' And then I mentioned it to (Cora) and he told kind of me about the whole system and everything like that. That was kind of why it was so crazy. (Cora) was so relaxed going into those playoff games because he knew and we were ready for it."

Fiers also alerted the A's to the scheme in 2018 and they brought it to the league. It was only when nothing was done that Fiers went public to make sure the playing field was leveled.

That's why David Ortiz's comments Thursday in which he said he disagreed with Fiers outing Houston two years after he won the World Series with them were so misguided.

Fiers tried to go about the matter quietly and even helped make sure Ortiz's old team was prepared for what awaited them in the ALCS. He could have spoken up in 2017, but he tried to right those wrongs in 2018 before making sure the Astros had their trash cans confiscated.

[RELATED: Projecting A's 26-man roster]

The Astros were able to bang their trash cans to one title, but Fiers made sure they wouldn't be able to repeat using the same old tricks.

Ryan Christenson tasked with 'grindy' chore of getting A's ready to go

Ryan Christenson tasked with 'grindy' chore of getting A's ready to go

For the last week, 64 players have been executing three-hour pre-planned morning workout sessions with the precision of a symphony.
 
The composer and conductor of all this is not A's manager Bob Melvin, but his bench coach Ryan Christenson.
 
“I was amazed on the second day I had it planned to end at 11:20 am,” Christenson said. “And we finished literally at 11:19, so it was a good day.”
 
With spring training games starting Saturday, the clock has been ticking to get pitchers, fielders and hitters to a certain readiness. Meticulous planning and monitoring are scattered between four fields, an extended bullpen and additional batting cages.
 
“I look around. I watch him running around sweating, he’s got that worried look on his face, I know that feeling,” Melvin, who used to run these camps when he was Phil Garner's bench coach, said.

Being tasked with getting everyone ready to hit the diamond is an important responsibility for a club that wants to get out of the gates faster this season than in years past. 
 
“This is my big chore you could say for the year, a little grindy,” Christenson admitted. “I find myself working on the schedule for a few hours even after the day is over.”

Christenson's meticulousness makes him the perfect man for the job. 
 
“He’s very attentive to detail,” veteran outfielder Stephen Piscotty said. “I just don’t think things slip by him, he’s on top of things, very organized.”
 
In near-identical fashion to Oakland’s current core of young, home-grown players, Christenson has been a manager at every level of the A’s minor league system, starting in 2013.  At one point or another, he has crossed paths with almost all the A’s who recently have arrived at the big league level.
 
“The timing of him getting here with the players he had in the minor leagues is a nice resource for me,” Melvin, who is beginning his 10th season with the A's, said.
 
“You get up in here and you already know what makes them tick, how they operate, what they’re like in the clubhouses, and that goes a long way,” said Christenson. “If you don’t have the relationship of trust with the players, and try to do some coaching or instruction or criticisms or compliments, it doesn’t have the same resonance.”

[RELATED: Projecting A's 26-man roster as spring training starts]
 
The A’s not only are lucky to have Christenson, but they’re also lucky to have kept him. This past winter, the former Oakland outfielder interviewed to be manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
 
“If they had happened to choose me, it would have been a difficult decision,” admitted Christenson, who said enjoyed experiencing the process.
 
“I’m not in a big hurry to jump in that [manager] chair. I love where I’m at. The opportunity I have here to be around guys that I know, guys that I pull for and know are great individuals. We have such a good nucleus here, great momentum going. Right now this is really where I want to be. I love sitting next to Bob Melvin.”