In for John Hickey …
Just 20 more to go. No one can predict how the American League West is going to play out, but when you get an effort like Dan Straily provided Saturday, you have to feel like your chances just got a lot better. Straily has arguably been Oakland’s most unpredictable starter, but you simply can’t ignore the fact that he is 3-0 since Kurt Suzuki has returned to the team.
For my money, it’s not coincidence. When you think about how many young pitchers the veteran catcher has helped nurture to prominence, you can’t help but believe there is method to Bob Melvin having had Suzuki behind the plate for all three of Straily’s starts since he’s been back.
Nothing against Derek Norris or Stephen Vogt, but Suzuki is a take-charge guy behind the plate and he knows how to maximize a pitcher’s strengths. He seems to have made a quick connection with Straily, who has been very confident and much more in control of his repertoire in recent starts. Part of that is maturity, of course, but it’s clear Suzuki understands that if Straily can just command his fastball and get ahead in counts, he can use his unreal slider as an out pitch.
While making sure to praise all of the A’s catchers and say that he feels comfortable pitching to any of them, Straily relayed a story that tipped off Suzuki’s edge. He said Suzuki came to him the first time he caught him and told him not to worry about bouncing his slider in the dirt, that if any of them got away, they would be completely on him. Suzuki, of course, is one of the best, if not the best, at blocking balls in the dirt, so Straily may have a bit more confidence snapping off that pitch knowing it’s not going to carom to the backstop. He’s been throwing some filthy ones lately. The one he struck out Brett Wallace with in the sixth inning Saturday, in particular, was an absolute beauty.
In my game story, I fashioned a case for Straily as a late-rush Rookie of the Year candidate. He has as many wins as any A.L. rookie starter. He’s made more starts, pitched more innings and struck out more batters than any other rookie starter, and he’s dropped his ERA to 4.15, which is close to his season low. The bet here is that Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias is probably going to win the award, and Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer is probably a close second, but at least Straily has worked his way into the conversation.
Saturday may have been his best start yet and even though the A’s only gave him two runs of support — solo homers by Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie (both bombs) — he pitched coolly and confidently and made those runs stand up through seven innings. One walk and very few three-ball counts, too. Two hits. Seven strikeouts.
It’s a heck of a sign, particularly knowing that Straily’s next turn will be in Arlington against the Rangers next weekend. I was on the road trip in which Straily outdueled Yu Darvish in Texas, so he’s obviously not intimidated by pitching there. But you can bet Suzuki will be behind the plate for that one.