NEW YORK – A’s manager Bob Melvin had a pregame chat Tuesday with Mark Canha, searching for words to inspire a player who’s gotten precious little playing time.
The words he heard in reply were even more important.
“I tried to give him a little bit of a pep talk,” Melvin said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’ll be ready when my number’s called.’”
On a night when the A’s offense needed a hero, it was Canha who came to the rescue in a 3-2 victory over the Yankees. Appearing in just his fifth game of the 14 the A’s have played, Canha fell behind 0-2 to reliever Johnny Barbato in the top of the 11th before singling to left to score Jed Lowrie to snap a 2-2 tie.
With the A’s in a stretch where they face 12 right-handed starters in 13 games, the right-handed hitting Canha has been mostly riding the bench despite last year’s impressive season, when he led American League rookies with 70 RBI.
Melvin and the A’s front office are staying strict with their platoons early on. The left-handed hitting Yonder Alonso is getting the majority of time at first base despite the fact he’s hitting .143. Left fielder Khris Davis has gotten ample opportunity to work out of his early slump, but he’s also floundering at .143 and has struck out in 43 percent of his at-bats.
First base and left field are Canha’s primary positions, but until entering Tuesday’s game, he had gone a full week since last playing.
And what a way to get reacquainted with the batter’s box.
Canha was called upon to pinch-hit for Alonso in the ninth and faced Yankees lefty closer Andrew Miller, one of the toughest in the business. Miller froze him on a slider for strike three.
“His slider -- I didn’t even see it,” Canha said. “It felt like it just dropped out of the air. But you have at-bats like that sometimes, and it kind of locks you in for the next one. You know what you have to do to see the ball better.”
In the 11th, with two out and Jed Lowrie on second, Canha faced Barbato, a rookie right-hander who entered Tuesday not having allowed a run in his first seven innings to open his big league career. But it wasn’t the worst matchup for Canha, who actually hit righties better than lefties in 2015 (.271 to .221).
Barbato dropped a curve in for a strike, then Canha swung threw a slider. Ahead 0-2, Barbato tried another slider and Canha pulled it for a single just past the diving Didi Gregorius at shortstop.
Canha had recorded just one hit in his first 13 at-bats.
“He hadn’t played in a while and it wasn’t like I gave him a day at the beach in his first at-bat,” Melvin said. “He’s come through for us before. Huge at-bat for us.”
Canha was asked what it was about his mindset that allows him to cope with such little playing time.
“I played in the minor leagues for four years, and I got sick of that really fast,” he said. “Honestly, I’m just happy to be in the major leagues. Whether it’s on the bench or playing, I’m a happy camper doing both and rooting for the boys. But once I’m out there, I’m gonna get after it.”
That makes for fewer headaches for Melvin, who is finding it tough to spread the innings and at-bats around equally. Winning games also makes it easier to cope. The A’s, who pulled back to .500 at 7-7, are riding a three-game winning streak and, importantly, are 5-3 in one-run games.
“We know we can win them this year,” catcher Stephen Vogt said. “I think what happened last year, we got off to such a bad start in close games that it started to become, ‘Well, they’re gonna get us at some point.’
“Tonight it showed, we know we can win these close games. It doesn’t matter who’s hitting, who’s pitching.”