Athletics

A's starter A.J. Puk excited to enter 2020 MLB season restriction-free

A's starter A.J. Puk excited to enter 2020 MLB season restriction-free

A.J. Puk got some curious stares while walking through the A’s clubhouse last week. Teammates couldn’t immediately identify the tall, lanky pitcher who had lost 10 pounds, and dramatically trimmed down his trademark locks.

The hair is high-and-tight now, for the first time since the A’s drafted him No. 6 overall back in 2016.

“Some people didn’t recognize me,” Puk said in a Friday video conference. “I told them I came in the Mateo trade.”

The front office recently shipped infielder Jorge Mateo to the Padres for a player to be named later. The return hasn’t been set yet. The A’s would be thrilled to get a dominant left-hander with ace potential like Puk.

Puk’s so good he has drawn Randy Johnson comparisons, and they won’t cease just because their hair no longer is identical. Their size and stature still is similar. So is the fact that, like Johnson, Puk can flat out bring it.

A’s fans saw that during a 10-game cameo in MLB late last year, where he struck out 13 over 11.1 innings. One bit of warning for those who assume we’ll see the same Puk in 2020: The A’s still had him in shackles, preventing him from throwing his full pitch arsenal.

The A’s were careful with a prized prospect who had Tommy John Surgery in April 2018, wanting to avoid a significant setback. He had a minor one during spring training, with some shoulder soreness common to those with UCL repairs. Baseball’s layoff due to the coronavirus allowed Puk to fully heal, and the shortened season has removed any inning restrictions that could have come into play over 162 games.

All that means Puk finally is free and clear. He can throw any pitch he wants, from a high-90s fastball to a buckling curve. His innings won’t be monitored closely.

Puk is free and clear in every sense.

“Mentally it feels great to know that I’m really feeling good to only worry about getting out there to worry about executing pitches,” Puk said. “I’m not worried about any of the rehab stuff. It’s a lot better than what it was previously.”

[RELATED: A's Matt Chapman adjusts personal goals in shortened 2020 MLB season]

That should scare opponents. So should this fact: Puk’s arm feels better than ever.

“I was able to clean up some of my mechanics,” Puk said. “It was a long grind coming back from Tommy John and then ramping it back up. A lot of times young guys come back and deal with some shoulder stuff, so hopefully that’s all in the past and I’m able to go forward.”

Once his shoulder felt right and he was able to get on the mound, Puk started sending video to trainers and pitching coach Scott Emerson in search of mechanical refinements.

“My arm angle’s just a little bit higher than what it was, and I’m trying to get more direction instead of pulling off and getting my pinching sensation in my shoulder,” Puk said. “That has been gone and that has been helpful.”

The hair was still long at that point, but Puk knew he wanted to cut some before reporting to the team’s summer training camp. He ended up chopping it all off. That’s nearly a foot of hair he left with his mom to donate when the time is right.

Puk is restriction-free and ready to attack a shortened season and realize his vast potential in the big leagues.

I would’ve probably been on an innings limit in a normal situation. Now that it’s only 60 games, hopefully that’s only 12 starts, with some playoff starts after that. It’s a quick year, but it’s one I’m looking forward to.

“…Everything’s coming together right now and it’s a good spot to be in.”

Marcus Semien's hard work paying off as he builds A's culture, tone

Marcus Semien's hard work paying off as he builds A's culture, tone

Austin Allen’s single to score Matt Chapman in the bottom of the 13th set the things up for Marcus Semien in the A’s 3-2 win over the Houston Astros on Friday night.

Semien sealed the deal with a walk-off single to center field. Semien smiled celebrated with an ice bath from Tony Kemp. It was a much-need victory over the Astros for both Semien and the A's.

For Semien, the big hit was a long time coming. 

“For me, it’s trying to be on time,” Semien told reporters following the 13-inning game. “I’ve been struggling with my timing a little bit, so just being on time, and same thing with Austin. Like I said, that guy was getting guys to chase up, so anything that is hard and a little lower, just attack it. I put a lot of work in earlier in the day just trying to hit line drives to the opposite field and it’s a good feeling when it clicks because for a while it hadn’t been clicking.”

Semien wasn’t hitting the ball hard, he explained. And when that happens, there’s a reason for it.  

“My stroke feels good, but sometimes it’s approach, sometimes it’s timing -- body position, a lot of things that could be,” Semien added. “That’s what early work is for, cage work. Once you get in the game, you just have to compete.”

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Semien said he has to create habits that work.

“It’s tough because you think you have to tinker with everything,” Semien added.

Semien wasn’t sure what that tinkering would consist of: Would he need to work on his swing? Not necessarily. The timing was definitely a factor, but Semien also believes opposing teams were attacking him differently.

That seems to be the case when he leaves a third-place AL MVP season behind him in 2019.

“They’re being more careful, you saw that with Texas,” Semien said. “I’m trying to take the low pitches, sometimes they’re calling them, and you just find yourself in 0-for-3 like that. I think today was a good day to build off.”

“They know last year I put up some good numbers and you’re not getting as much to hit. You think that you’re just going to get the same pitches that they threw last year and that’s part of it, kind of created some bad habits early on. Even since spring and Summer Camp, just hadn’t really been driving the ball well.” 

Semien said he’s working on that every day. It hasn't gone unnoticed.

“Marcus, I think has set the tone and built the culture here,” A’s starter Chris Bassitt told reporters during his postgame availability. “Obviously I think [Matt] Chapman and [Matt] Olson and those guys have caught on to just the work ethic that Semien brings every single day.”

[RELATED: A's fan creates GoFundMe to troll Astros with 'Asterisks' aerial banner]

Bassitt himself had a good outing, allowing just three hits and one earned run in seven innings. That brings his total to just two earned runs allowed in 16 2/3 innings this season. But this wasn’t about him at the moment despite his solid outing in the 13-inning game. He wanted to give Semien his moment.

“It’s not a matter of when [Semien] walks up to the plate, but whenever he does, you know you are getting the best effort from him every single night,” Bassitt said. “Doesn’t matter what at-bat, what inning. Anytime he walks up with the game on the line, I’m extremely confident in him.”

A's takeaways: What you might have missed in walk-off win over Astros

A's takeaways: What you might have missed in walk-off win over Astros

BOX SCORE

It’s a series the A’s and their fans have been looking forward to since November, and the first game lived up to the hype.

The A's hosted the Houston Astros on Friday for the first time since a sign-stealing scandal was revealed, and Oakland won 3-2 on a walk-off single Marcus Semien in the 13th inning.

Austin Allen’s single to left field tied the game ahead of Semien’s game-winning hit. 

Despite no fans being in attendance, the A’s faithful made their presence known. 

An A's fan created a GoFundMe account to have a plane flyover the Coliseum with a "Houston Asterisk" sign being towed behind it to troll the Astros.

Astros starter Zack Greinke made himself comfortable in the stands among the cardboard cutouts in between innings, something you’re only allowed to get away with in 2020.

Here’s what you might have missed on Friday night: 

Typical Laureano

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Laureano hit a ball to center fielder Myles Straw, who fell onto his back which caused the ball to roll all the way to the wall. Laureano ended up with a triple, but would stay there as Matt Olson and Matt Chapman struck out, and Mark Canha flew out.

Laureano has been on a roll all season long. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Bassitt’s back

Facing Jose Altuve in the fifth inning, Bassitt unleashed his long, slow curve ball on the fifth pitch of the at-bat to get the Astros second baseman to fly out to right field.

It’s a pitch manager Bob Melvin has discussed before and it’s perfect to throw to keep batters off balance, which is exactly what Altuve did landing on his knee after he swung at it. That pitch averaged around 71.4 mph on the night. The velocity, of course, doesn’t matter, but it made its presence known.

Bassitt went seven innings and allowed three hits, one earned run while walking three and striking out three.

[RELATED: Don't expect A's to retaliate against Astros]

Grossman’s adjustment pays off

Robbie Grossman hit a solo shot, his first homer of the season. in the bottom of the seventh inning. He had been working on an adjustment since spring training and while he wasn’t specific as to what it was, it’s been working.

It was a game-changing home run, so whatever it was, it’s paying off. 

Still, once again, the A’s continue to depend on the home runs. This ended up being the reason why the game went into extras.