Sunday morning, A’s manager Bob Melvin was asked if he’d given any thought to bucking his usual catching platoon and starting John Jaso against Washington Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez, given that Jaso homered in consecutive games and provided a game-winning double Saturday night.
Melvin responded succinctly: “Not against a lefty.”
Those starts belong to Derek Norris, though in 186 previous major-league games, Norris had never shown why quite like he did Sunday. With two men on and two outs in the first inning, Norris came up against Gonzalez and homered on a 3-0 fastball to stake the A’s and Scott Kazmir to an early three-run lead.
An inning later, again with two on and two outs, Norris stepped to the plate against Gonzalez – and again hit a 3-0 fastball for a three-run homer to left field. It gave the A’s a 7-0 lead en route to a 9-1 win and sweep of the Nationals at O.co Coliseum, and marked the first multi-homer game of Norris’ career.
In fact, by the second inning, Norris had tied the A’s franchise record for most RBIs in a game by a catcher since 1914. Not only did his career day come against the team that traded him to the A’s, but Norris’ two homers came off the very pitcher for whom the Nationals traded him.
Norris was part of the four-player package – along with left-hander Tommy Milone, who beat his former team Friday night – the Nationals sent to Oakland for Gonzalez in 2011.
“This is one of the better feelings I’ve had,” Norris said. “It’s not that they didn’t want you, but you still stick it to them, the team that traded you. It’s always nice to stick it to them like, ‘Yeah, you traded me, whatever.’ But it’s definitely a great feeling.”
Unlike Milone, Norris did not reach the majors in Washington before being traded. With the A’s, he remains part of their catching platoon despite being in the midst of a possible breakout season. Norris is hitting .385 with four homers in 78 at-bats and has batted .488 (21 for 43) over his last 16 games.
His at-bats against right-handers have been limited, though, in part because it’s difficult to justify removing Jaso from the lineup. In his last nine games, Jaso is batting .429 (12 for 28), and is hitting .297 against right-handers this season. In the sweep, the two combined to go 8 for 18 with four homers and 10 RBIs.
An oft-cited drawback of the platoon system is that it makes it difficult for those involved to maintain their hitting timing while not playing every day. Jaso was asked how the A’s catchers have seemingly managed to defy that logic, and said he thinks it’s largely due to the way both treat daily batting practice.
“When we aren’t playing, it’s not home run derby time,” Jaso said. “It’s a game approach kind-of situation, letting the ball travel, hitting it, squaring it up, seeing contact, that kind of stuff.
“When people don’t play every day, they can start goofing around in BP and everything. But I think we both keep professional kinds-of days off.”
Melvin said Norris has benefited from a consistent pregame routine with his hitting. But Norris said Sunday morning that routine “went so terrible I had to leave the cage.”
“But sometimes, those days end up being career days,” said Norris, who was 2 for 4 on Sunday. “You’re not trying to do too much, and you’re just trying to barrel the ball and trying to put it in play.”
Given an early lead, Kazmir faced two batters over the minimum through six innings and at one point retired 15 in a row before Jayson Werth’s one-out single in the seventh.
Melvin is also freed to deploy his platoon by the fact that no starter in the A’s rotation is coupled to one catcher. Kazmir has made six of his eight starts with Norris catching and has thrown to Jaso twice. Entering Sunday, opponents’ batting averages against Kazmir with the two catchers were nearly identical (.223 with Norris, .222 with Jaso).
Gonzalez, meanwhile, did not last through the fifth inning in returning to the Coliseum for the first time since the trade. Adding to his frustration was that both of Norris’ blows might have been avoided.
The first followed an infield single by Yoenis Cespedes, who beat out a slow but playable chopper to shortstop Ian Desmond. The next came after a walk to Cespedes, who earlier in the at-bat hit a popup that Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton let drop on the infield, where it bounced foul.