Optimism … hope … potential.
These aren’t three words you would associate with the A’s bullpen for most of 2015.
As the season winds down, however, Oakland’s beleaguered relief corps is flashing some signs of encouragement. That was apparent in Friday’s 4-3 victory over the Houston Astros. It was the offense –- specifically, the home run ball –- that propelled the A’s to a late-inning comeback win for the second day in a row.
But it was the bullpen that held the Astros down over the final three innings and made that lead stand. The 'pen entered Friday with a 5.04 ERA dating back to Aug. 16. Not great, but let’s set that aside for a moment. Take in the individual components that suggest the A’s might have some decent pieces to build around looking ahead to next season.
It starts with a healthy Sean Doolittle. Through nine appearances since coming off the disabled list, his velocity has improved and he’s showing the ability to throw his fastball by hitters. If he’s able to finish this season strong and go through a normal offseason –- free of injury and rehab –- that has to make the A’s front office feel better about the ninth inning.
Then there’s rookie Ryan Dull, who has been nothing short of sensational in his first taste of the big leagues. The tendency would be to ease a reliever into the majors with some lower-pressure outings. Manager Bob Melvin has done the opposite with Dull, thrusting the right-hander into scenarios as pressure-packed as possible for a team that’s 20 games under .500 in September.
On Friday, Dull made quick work of the Astros in a 1-2-3 eighth, so Melvin sent him back out for his first save opportunity since being promoted Sept. 1. He retired his first two hitters, and after walking Colby Rasmus, got pinch hitter Preston Tucker swinging on a 92 mile-per-hour fastball to ice the victory.
Lefty Drew Pomeranz also looked sharp in a 1-2-3 seventh that featured two strikeouts.
That trio provides a potentially effective late-inning nucleus for the A’s as they ponder their 2016 bullpen.
It figures they could target relief help with their offseason shopping given how this season has played out. Oakland’s bullpen entered Friday with the fewest saves in the majors (23), tied for the fourth-most blown saves (21), the third-most first-batter RBI allowed (58) and tied for fourth in first-batter home runs allowed (15).
A portion of these struggles can be attributed to Doolittle’s shoulder issues that sidelined him most of the first five months, robbing the A’s of their closer and creating a ripple effect felt up and down the bullpen. But others have struggled unexpectedly, and there figure to be plenty of open competition for relief spots come spring training.
There are signs of promise, however -- signs that even just a month or so ago didn’t seem to exist.