OAKLAND -- Tommy Milone was 9-9 with a 4.39 ERA -- not stellar by any means, but not terrible for a pitcher who had gone 13-10 in 2012 -- last season when the A’s sent him down to Triple-A in early August. Injuries cleared a rotation spot for him this spring, but through five starts he was winless with a 5.86 ERA entering Friday and had allowed 10 runs in his previous 10 2/3 innings.
But when the A’s decided to shake up their rotation Friday, it was Dan Straily, and not Milone, who was optioned to Sacramento to address his early-season struggles. Milone then took the mound Friday evening against the Washington Nationals and threw eight scoreless innings, allowing two hits in the A’s 8-0 win.
It was by far the best outing of the season for Milone, who threw 108 pitches, walked three and struck out seven. He allowed just one extra-base hit, a two-out double by Scott Hairston in the second inning, and then retired the next 11 hitters in a row. It’s only the second time in his career Milone has pitched at least eight innings and allowed two hits.
"I think to an extent it might be a vote of confidence for him that he’s here," A’s manager Bob Melvin said. "Last year when he finally got sent down, that confidence-wise can hit you a little bit for a guy that’s won 25 games the last two years. … So I think maybe (it was) a little vote of confidence that it wasn’t him."
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Asked if that was the case, Milone said: "Maybe in a sense. I didn’t really think about it that way, but in the back of my mind, maybe that’s something that did happen."
The more immediate difference, he said, was with command. Milone said his command of his fastball was the best it has been all season, allowing him to go after hitters early and avoid mistakes up in the strike zone.
"I felt lifted -- just grab the ball, get up on the mound and throw it," he said. "Location was a big issue (his last start) in Boston, and then trying to come back and throw strikes and leaving it over the plate. Today from the get-go, I was able to paint corners, work in and out and keep the ball low."
Melvin said Milone pitched inside to the Nationals’ hitters as well as he has seen the left-hander do, while catcher Derek Norris said: "I don’t think he missed a location all night."
For the battery of Milone and Norris, the performance was made a little sweeter coming against the Nationals. Both came up through the Nationals organization and were part of the trade that sent left-hander Gio Gonzalez to Washington.
Asked if that was on his mind at all, Milone grinned and said: "Yeah. I guess. It was a lot of fun. Half that lineup that I faced tonight, I knew, and it was a lot of fun just to see them again. And to pitch well against them, it was a lot of fun and it felt good."
Added Norris, who also had two hits: "I think anytime a team trades you, it never really shows they don’t want you, but they’re looking for a piece for their team. … On my end, you want to go out and show them, this is what you’re missing kind of a thing. Not in a drastic, blatant manner, but just kind of show them, this is what you could’ve had.’"
While Sonny Gray, Jesse Chavez and Scott Kazmir all started the season strong, the back end of the rotation struggled between Straily and Milone, who had combined for one win before Friday. (It hadn’t helped that the A’s had given Milone no run support in three of his previous five starts).
There’s now added uncertainty with Drew Pomeranz, who replaces Straily in the rotation and pitched well in a start in Wednesday’s doubleheader but was on a 70-pitch limit and doesn’t have a great track record as a starter in the majors. A consistent Milone, one like the version from 2012, when he went 13-10 with a 3.74 ERA, would be a real boost for the A’s.
"We’ve seen that game out of him before," Melvin said. "It was definitely his best game of the season, but he has the ability to pitch like that."
* Run support wasn’t a problem Friday, as the A’s tagged Nationals right-hander Doug Fister for seven runs on nine hits in 4 1/3 innings. Fister was making his season debut for Washington after missing the start of the year with a lat strain and clearly wasn’t quite as sharp as when the A’s have seen him before, particularly with Detroit.
"He was probably feeling a little bit of adrenaline," said Brandon Moss, who had a single and two-run homer off Fister. "I don’t know how he felt, but his off-speed wasn’t as good as it’s been in the past. But it was good to get to the guy and get him out of there and into their bullpen."
Yoenis Cespedes followed Moss’ homer in the fifth with a solo home run of his own to right field, marking the first time this season the A’s have gone back-to-back. Cespedes went 2-for-4 and is hitting .343 with seven extra-base hits and seven RBIs over his last 10 games.
Melvin reiterated that part of Cespedes’ shortening his swing this spring was "just as much about using the whole field and hitting the ball the other way, because your swing’s going to be a little shorter when you’re tracking the ball a little farther in the zone." As for muscling an opposite-field home run on a cold night at the Coliseum, Melvin said: "Pretty strong."
John Jaso, who started at DH and led off with Coco Crisp out, also homered off Fister in the third inning. Fister helped the A’s get on the board in the first inning with a throwing error that allowed Josh Donaldson to reach third base, where he scored from on a single by Moss. It was one of three errors by the Nationals -- equaling their number of hits.
The A’s, meanwhile, had scored more than three runs just once in their previous seven games. That was the four runs they scored against Felix Hernandez, whose success in Oakland is well-documented. Friday, the A’s jumped on a pitcher in Fister who had given up two or fewer earned runs in 10 of his 12 career starts against Oakland.
Asked if the offense just needed a day off Thursday to regroup, Norris said: "I don’t know about that.
"We’ve been swinging the bats well and we’ve had some unlucky breaks. This is a tough place to hit, especially with power, and a lot of our guys rely on that part of their game. I think it being cold and windy here … a lot of guys feel like they have to change their approach because of it, and I think sometimes it takes a couple games (after a road trip) to get back used to playing at home. I think that’s more the key than the actual day off."
* Milone said he didn’t lobby "as much as I should have" to return for the ninth and a potential complete game. But Milone’s pitch count and the eight-run lead allowed Melvin a comfortable spot to bring in Fernando Rodriguez for his A’s debut and first appearance in a major-league game since 2012.
"Pretty rewarding, certainly for us, but no more than him," Melvin said.
Rodriguez, who had Tommy John surgery last March and was called up Friday from Triple-A Sacramento, pitched a scoreless ninth, allowing a two-out single and recording one strikeout. The right-hander, who spent most of last season in Oakland with the A’s while rehabbing, said he had been "thinking of this day for a while," but tried not to get overwhelmed taking the mound in the ninth.
"I just kind of took it like another game, but at the same time, I’m very fortunate to be here," he said.
"This last month everything’s been going pretty well, I had the confidence. And just getting the call right now makes it even better, gives you that extra boost that you need, and knowing the belief they have in you, it’s pretty nice."
Here’s the story from earlier today on the A’s pitching moves, including a little more from Rodriguez on his successful recovery.
* Melvin said that Crisp did undergo an MRI today that showed nothing further than the original diagnosis of a strained neck. "For a guy that plays as hard as he does, nothing out of the ordinary," Melvin said. "He’s literally day to day at this point."
* While the A’s offense as a whole had been scuffling, Cespedes isn’t the only individual player on a hot streak. Jaso is batting .391 (9-for-23) over his last eight games. And in his last 14 games, Norris hitting a cool .500 (19-for-38) with eight walks.
* The A’s go for their second-ever win against the Nationals on Saturday behind righty Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.91), the reigning A.L. Pitcher of the Month. The Nationals counter with right-hander Tanner Roark (2-1, 4.17). First pitch at 6:05 p.m.