One facet of their season the A’s have found difficult to explain has been their record in games when opponents start a left-handed pitcher, which stood at a majors-worst 5-17 entering Sunday.
Those struggles were one reason the A’s gave when they called up, just before the All-Star break, Jake Smolinski, a right-handed hitting outfielder who was posting impressive numbers at Triple-A Nashville.
Smolinski made his first appearance in an A’s uniform at O.co Coliseum against the Minnesota Twins over the weekend, and the A’s could hardly have scripted it better. On Saturday night, Smolinski had a pinch-hit, tying single off of Twins closer Glen Perkins in the ninth inning of a game the A’s won in the 10th. On Sunday, Smolinski hit two home runs in a 14-1 rout, including a solo homer against former Athletic Tommy Milone, who became just the sixth left-handed starter to lose to the A’s this season.
“He’s got some power,” manager Bob Melvin said of the 26-year-old Smolinski. “We expect him to be productive for us, especially against lefties. And he was (Sunday).”
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Melvin added the A’s already have “seen it from the other side.” Smolinski debuted last season with the Texas Rangers and played in 24 games. In seven games against the A’s, he was 10 for 27 with two homers, four RBIs and five runs scored.
Smolinski started this season with the Rangers but batted .133 in 35 games before being designated for assignment in mid-June. The A’s claimed Smolinski off waivers and sent him to Nashville, where in 13 games he hit .432 with two homers and nine RBIs before the A’s summoned him July 7.
“When I first got claimed, I was just focused on the task at hand in Triple A and wasn’t getting caught up in where I’m going to be,” Smolinski said Sunday. “My job at the time was to try to help the team win in Triple A and just try to control the things that I could control.”
Now, his job is to help the team win in Oakland. Through four games with the A’s he has five hits in nine at-bats, including his first career two-homer game Sunday, part of a five-homer Oakland outburst.
It was the A’s first game with five home runs since last May 26 against the Detroit Tigers. To illustrate how the team has changed over the past year, the players who homered in that game were Kyle Blanks, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Derek Norris – none of whom are still in the organization – and the A’s starter that day was Milone.
The A’s home runs Sunday came from Smolinski, Josh Phegley, Billy Butler and Josh Reddick, who hit his third career grand slam. Phegley’s shot gave the A’s a 2-0 lead in the second inning, and after Butler hit a two-run homer in the third, Smolinski lofted a full-count changeup from Milone over the left-field wall to extend the lead to 6-0.
Smolinski said he had never faced Milone, but he watched video of him before the game and “saw he’s kind of a crafty guy, pitches in, pitches out, throws his changeup.” Smolinski appeared to be slightly out on his front foot on Milone’s full-count changeup, but he stayed back enough to generate the power necessary to hit it over the wall.
“I knew it was going to be a battle, and just stuck with it and tried to get something that I could drive,” Smolinski said. “I think we all did today.”
The A’s knocked Milone out in the third inning and did the rest of their damage against a parade of right-handed relievers. Smolinski capped the scoring in the eighth, when he came up with two on and two outs and jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Trevor May.
Phegley said he played against Smolinski in the minors and recalled a hitter with “a lot of power” who was “a tough out … Good eye, and if you made a mistake, even on off-speed pitches for strikes, he could get the bat to it.”
“He was a pretty big boost today for sure,” Phegley said. “But he had that clutch hit (Saturday) and just carried that into today … Just a good addition to the team, and we’re happy to have him.”
Melvin, meanwhile, was glad to see his right-handed lineup break out for a game. Butler has homered in consecutive games, while Phegley is slugging .571 this season against left-handed pitching.
“We’ve felt like we have the guys to be able to be consistent against lefties,” Melvin said. “We have been in spurts, just haven’t been as consistent as we’d like up to this point.”