Right-hander Jason Hammel has had two of his best outings with the A’s in his two most recent starts, allowing one run on three hits in seven innings in Houston on Aug. 26 and one run on three hits against the Mariners last Monday. Whether or not by coincidence, those were the two starts in which Hammel was paired with new catcher Geovany Soto.
The two don’t have a history of working together. But in 15 innings throwing to Soto, Hammel has struck out 11, walked two, and gone deeper into the game than in any of his previous eight starts with the A’s. It’s Soto behind the plate again today to catch Hammel in the A’s series finale against the Astros.
“Since Soto’s been catching him, he’s pitched well, so we want to try to continue that,” manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s not something that we’re locked into.”
Having Soto start Sunday allows Melvin to use Derek Norris at designated hitter and avoid catching Norris two day games in a row. Melvin said he doesn’t think Hammel has a bad rapport with Norris, but that Hammel and Soto “have done a nice job together recently.”
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Soto hasn’t played much since being acquired Aug. 24 - he has appeared in four games, going 3-for-11 at the plate. But his value comes on days like today, when Melvin sees a need to address Norris’ workload. Norris had one of the key at-bats in Saturday’s ninth-inning comeback, an eight-pitch battle with Scott Feldman that ended with Norris’ single that knocked Feldman out of the game, and his bat stays in the lineup today.
Soto also gives the A’s another right-handed hitter against Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel, though ideally the A’s would probably like to have either John Jaso or Stephen Vogt available to catch. Jaso (concussion) could be activated as early as tomorrow in Chicago, Melvin said, but it would be in a limited role as primarily a pinch hitter.
The A’s lineup today against Keuchel:
And the Astros’ lineup against Hammel:
• Melvin acknowledged that when Jaso returns, he’ll likely be limited to pinch hitting at first. Jaso hasn’t been fully cleared to catch, and Adam Dunn figures to get the majority of at-bats at designated hitter against right-handed pitching.
Melvin previously made it sound as though Jaso probably wouldn’t catch again this season. He left that possibility open today, though, saying the A’s would “have to get some clearance” from concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins. “Maybe we get that, try to ease him in.”
• Stephen Vogt (ankle) will not accompany the A’s when they travel to Chicago after today’s game, but could meet them when they start a three-game series in Seattle next Friday, Melvin said.
Infielder Nick Punto (hamstring) is “still not 100 percent,” meaning the A’s aren’t yet comfortable putting him in a game. “He’s not a guy who can go out there and play 80 percent,” Melvin said. “He’s an all-or-nothing type guy.”
Both Jaso and Punto have missed significant stretches with their injuries, and with minor-league seasons finished, the A’s can’t send them out for rehab assignments. Melvin said the A’s could try to simulate at-bats for them in their own pitchers’ throwing sessions if they think it’s necessary.
• Andy Parrino starts at second base today over Alberto Callaspo. Melvin explained that Keuchel is “not Callaspo’s best matchup” - he’s 0-for-11 lifetime against the Astros left-hander - and it’s a chance to get Parrino a start to “keep him current.”
•One other note -
The A’s announced that tickets for a potential wild-card game and A.L. Division Series games at the O.co Coliseum will go on sale Sept. 15 at 9 a.m. They will be available online - at athletics.com/postseason - by phone at 877-493-BALL, or in person at the Coliseum Box Office.