Several hours before the start of Sunday’s game between the A’s and Houston Astros, as a handful of A’s hitters took batting practice at the Coliseum and pitchers stretched and played catch down the left-field line, a slender, solitary figure in a green warmup top leaned against a section of fencing near the A’s dugout, watching.
This was right-hander Jesse Chavez, who would pitch six innings and earn his first win as a major-league starter in the A’s 4-1 victory.
At this moment, though, Chavez was a spectator to the rhythmic repetitiveness of daily pregame work. Many starting pitchers are creatures of habit, particularly on days they pitch. Chavez later said he doesn’t know many others who include this in their routines.
“It’s just something that relaxes me,” said Chavez, who did the same before minor-league starts. “I adjust my eyes to the stadium, and pretty much just go out and watch the boys work.
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“If they’re out there working, I like to go see it. It gives me that motivation of, they did their work, now it’s time for me to go out and do my part.”
Chavez has done that to a degree few could have expected this spring, when the A’s turned to the 30-year-old as a rotation stopgap following injuries to starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. While Chavez recorded his first win by allowing one run and four hits in six innings, his record could be much better. He has a rotation-best 1.38 ERA and has 28 strikeouts and just five walks in 26 innings.
Chavez has pitched at least six innings and allowed one earned run in each of his four starts this season. According to the A’s, he’s the first pitcher in franchise history since at least 1914 to do so after beginning the season on the Opening Day roster.
It’s quite a distinction for a former journeyman reliever who last season found a home in the A’s bullpen. Chavez made two major-league starts before this season. But he was among the A’s best pitchers in spring training and was said to be in consideration for an eventual starting role even before Parker and Griffin went down.
Still, it would have been bold to predict that after three weeks, the A’s fill-in No. 3 starter would have the 10th-best ERA in the majors and lead a rotation that includes three members (also Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray) sporting ERA’s of 1.80 or better – a big reason the A’s at 13-5 have the best record in the American League.
Facing an Astros team that began Sunday with baseball’s lowest batting average, Chavez didn’t have command of his fastball – which he throws from 88-91 mph with different movements – but overcame a season-high three walks. The run he allowed came on Marwin Gonzalez’s two-out homer in the fourth inning.
“(He was) pulling some cutters off the plate, just wasn’t as sharp as he normally is,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “But that’s really the mark of a good pitcher – when you don’t have your best stuff and you’re fighting yourself some. Really, at times, you’re the biggest opponent.”
Chavez described his outing as one in which, “I had to make pitches and see what I was made of as a starter.” Though he started 54 games in the minors, his only two major-league starts before this year came in 2012 for Toronto, – for which he had an 8.44 ERA in nine appearances.
The main difference between Chavez earlier in his career and now, he says, is that, “I was a thrower then.” Despite a lanky frame generously listed at 6-foot-2 and 160 pounds, the right-hander could dial up his fastball to the mid-90s but had little else to complement it.
Now, he relies more on movement and keeping the ball down.
“The only thing I had pretty much working (Sunday) was my changeup,” Chavez said, yet he was able to use it effectively to offset a two-seam fastball “that was flat a little at times and resulted in a lot of hard contact.”
Since learning he’d be joining the rotation, Melvin said, Chavez has “been focused and ready for that opportunity, and continues to run with it” – so far to an historic pace.
Told of the franchise achievement he set Sunday, Chavez said: “The opportunity is the part that sticks out to me the most, to get the chance to go out and do that.
“I don’t ever want to make them feel wrong for making the choice that they made. That’s my mentality when I go out there.”