Jesse Hahn makes strong return in A’s 2-0 win over Astros

Jesse Hahn gave mostly vague answers when asked what changed for him between spring training and his first start this season for the A’s on Saturday. He was “rusty” this spring, when he struggled so badly the A’s demoted him to Triple A. There, the right-hander had to “work on some things” to figure out why his pitches seemed to be missing their typical sinking action.

Strikingly clear on Saturday, though, was that Hahn has made a much-needed adjustment. Recalled from Nashville to help a rotation pared by injuries, Hahn pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in the A’s 2-0 win over the Houston Astros, scattering three hits and working efficiently through an aggressive lineup that continuously beat his sinkers and sharp off-speed pitches into the ground.

Hahn faced the minimum 15 batters through his first five innings, thanks partly to two double-play ground balls, and didn’t allow a runner to reach second base until Carlos Correa doubled with one out in the seventh. He consistently hit 96-97 mph on the Coliseum radar gun and avoided the location mistakes that hurt him during the spring.

“The velocity was there in spring training, too, but (his pitches) were up,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He pitched at the belt most of spring training where today, not even close.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen him better than that.”

Hahn said his priorities for the past month in Nashville were keeping the ball down and throwing strikes. He did both Saturday, throwing first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 23 hitters he faced and recording 18 outs via ground ball or strikeout.

“That’s the best stuff I’ve had all year,” Hahn said.

By attacking the strike zone, Hahn was able to pitch into the seventh despite being on a strict pitch limit – he finished with 81 pitches – on a day the A’s bullpen was taxed. The Astros helped by swinging early in counts – 13 of their plate appearances against Hahn ended within the first three pitches.

“It played right into his repertoire,” catcher Josh Phegley said of Houston’s aggressive approach. “With that sinker, we want contact; we want them to put the ball on the ground. Perfect lineup for him, his first start back. It was good to get the wheels turning for him.”

Phegley said he thought Hahn regained some of his sinking movement by extending his release point farther out in front.

“I think that’s kind of one of the things he had trouble with in spring – he was cutting a lot of stuff, cutting it off,” Phegley said. “He got that extension, that good sink today. His curveball was good. We threw his changeup to righties in there. He was pretty special.”

With his fastball running in the mid- to high 90s, Hahn created nearly a 10-mph difference between his fastball and changeup and 20-mph difference on his sharp curveball.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better touch on his curveball than we saw today,” Melvin said. “You mix in the changeups off the fastball and create that kind of (velocity) gap with the same trajectory pitch, you’re going to have to almost guess right on him and hope he makes a mistake.”

Hahn’s outing came at an opportune time for the A’s, who placed starter Chris Bassitt on the disabled list Friday because of an elbow injury and saw top pitching prospect Sean Manaea make his major-league debut Friday night. The A’s secured a series win over the struggling Astros (7-17) and finished April with a winning record (13-12) for the third time in the last four years.

For Hahn, it was his first win since July 1, his last start in the majors, and he left the mound to a loud ovation from an announced crowd of 23,084 at the Coliseum.

“It just felt great,” Hahn said. “It felt comfortable. I felt like I needed to be here, and to walk off and hear that was very special.”