SEATTLE — The misfortune of one A’s pitcher Friday night led to an opportunity for another.
As the A’s were left to digest their 10th loss in 11 games, 5-1 to the Mariners, right-hander Zach Neal continued turning heads with a strong late-season performance. Entering in relief of starter Raul Alcantara, who lasted just two-plus innings, Neal retired all 15 hitters he faced in a sterling five-inning relief outing.
“He had two days off, and he gives us five innings of nothing against a team that looked like they were gonna score 30 runs in the first couple of innings,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
Aside from trying to prevent the Mariners from getting a Wild Card spot, it appears this final weekend of play doesn’t hold a ton of compelling drama for Oakland. Try telling that to Neal, who cracked the major leagues for the first time in May at age 27 and is trying to prove he’s worthy of being part of the team’s 2017 plans.
His second appearance was a May 25 start at Safeco Field, when he gave up seven runs in four innings, including a pair of homers to Adam Lind. On Friday, he became just the second pitcher in Oakland history to throw at least five perfect innings of relief in a game. Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley fired six on June 6, 1987.
“The last time you all talked to me here, I had just given up seven runs in four innings in my first big league start,” Neal said. “It came full circle. It feels good.”
For Alcantara — who gave up four homers, including two to Robinson Cano — it was a shaky ending to what’s been a very encouraging year in the big picture. In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, the 23-year-old righty began the season with Double-A Midland but wound up earning his first big league promotion. Until Friday, all signs were pointing to him being a major factor in the competition for next year’s rotation. He still will be if he avoids leaving too many pitches in the hitting zone like he did against Seattle.
“I finished the season healthy after my surgery,” Alcantara said through interpreter Alex Arpiza. “Now (the plan) is to work hard and come back stronger next season.”
The secret to Neal emerging in the late going has been his pinpoint control. He entered the night having allowed just 0.83 walks per nine innings, fourth in franchise history for a pitcher with a minimum of 60 innings pitched. He’s issued just six free passes in 70 innings.
He’s shuttled between the minors and majors four separate times this season, and though he’s made six starts, he’s recently found a nice niche in long relief. Neal has posted a 1.20 ERA over his last seven games (15 IP).
“I told him when he came out, I said, ‘You’ve come a long way from a guy that was going up and down, up and down,’” Melvin said. “He was getting hit hard, and not only that, he was getting a lineup full of left-handers out (Friday). So you’re always looking, in the position we’re in right now, for some silver linings …
“I think he’s made his mark for sure. He’ll be coming to spring training competing for something for us. And the fact he’s been given an opportunity in the rotation and the bullpen gives him more options to make the team.”
The A’s announced that assistant trainer Walt Horn, who has spent 39 years working for the organization between the minors and majors, will retire after Sunday’s finale. He began his career with the A’s in 1978, serving on the training staffs at Double-A and Triple-A before joining Oakland’s major league staff in 2008.
“This is one of the terrific gentlemen in the game,” Melvin said. “He told me he was thinking about this a while ago. I’ve been trying to talk him out of it, but he’s in a good place right now. He knows what he wants to do. He’s got a great disposition in the training room. Obviously he’s very experienced in what he’s doing. We wish him the best. I’ll always stay in touch with him.”