Oakland A's

Jharel Cotton shines as A’s salvage home finale against Rangers

A’s starting pitcher Jharel Cotton throws to Texas batters during the first inning of a baseball game on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Oakland, Calif.
A’s starting pitcher Jharel Cotton throws to Texas batters during the first inning of a baseball game on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. The Associated Press

Nearing the end of a disappointing season, A’s manager Bob Melvin said he wanted his team to play well in its final homestand to leave a positive impression on the fans going into the offseason. Losing their first five games to the Astros and Rangers was not what he had in mind.

The A’s entered their home finale with a chance of being the first Oakland team ever to go winless in a homestand of four or more games. They avoided that distinction by beating the Rangers 7-1 as starting pitcher Jharel Cotton gave Oakland fans at least one reason for optimism.

“Yeah, phew, I was nervous going into today,” Melvin said after salvaging Sunday’s win, with which the A’s finished 34-47 at home, matching last season for the second-worst home record in the Oakland era. “That would’ve just been kind of the cherry on top of a bad season.

“It’s nice to be able to go out there and score some runs and have a good-feeling game. (The fans) all stayed for the entire game – they’re all waving and staying afterward to wish us farewell. It’s a great group of people, and I’m glad we won today.”

Cotton threw seven innings and allowed three hits, the lone run against him coming on an Adrian Beltre homer in the seventh. The rookie right-hander has gone at least five innings in each of his four major-league starts while allowing no more than one earned run. The A’s said he is their first pitcher to do so since earned runs became a statistic in 1913.

Cotton worked so efficiently Sunday that he had thrown just 58 pitches after six innings, prompting Melvin to send him back out for the seventh. Even against a dangerous Texas lineup that was swinging early in counts, Cotton peppered the strike zone, throwing 51 of his 70 pitches for strikes, and did not get into a three-ball count all afternoon.

“I felt like today was a Sunday day game. They wanted to get away, so they were swinging at every pitch,” Cotton said. “I was on the mound, like, ‘Thank you. Just keep swinging.’ 

Since being acquired from the Dodgers in the Josh Reddick trade, Cotton has done little to subdue the A’s expectations. He came one out short of a perfect game in his second start for Triple-A Nashville and since arriving in the majors has allowed 14 hits over 25 innings, with 16 strikeouts and a 1.44 ERA.

“I wish I could give up no runs,” Cotton said. “I feel like in all my starts I give up a home run. But they’re good hitters, big-league guys. I guess I have surpassed my expectations, but just coming to the ballpark in the big leagues and going out and pitching the way I am is fun to see for myself.”

The A’s are enjoying it, too. Third baseman Ryon Healy said Cotton’s aggressiveness in the strike zone leads to quick at-bats and “makes him really fun to play behind.” Melvin said Cotton “continues to impress, all the way around.”

“The composure, the mix of pitches, not afraid of the stage and who he’s facing,” Melvin said. “So, yeah, we have a good one here.”

An A’s lineup that was shut out in its previous two games supported Cotton with a seven-run second inning. Oakland sent 10 men to the plate, with Stephen Vogt hitting a three-run double and Healy adding a two-run homer. Matt Olson also singled through a shift in the inning for his first major-league hit.

Olson, one of numerous rookies called up by the A’s for evaluation this month, said he was “probably the happiest guy in the A’s organization” when the A’s traded for Cotton because it meant he didn’t have to face Cotton anymore. He said their encounters in the minors included one game in Class A when Olson hit a line drive off of Cotton’s ankle, injuring the pitcher.

“After I hit the ball off his ankle, it bounced to the first baseman, and (Cotton) still got over and covered (the base) and got me out, and fell to the ground immediately after,” Olson said. “I always mess with him, like, ‘I really could’ve used that hit, man.’ 

Oakland’s rotation picture for 2017 is largely undefined. Its likely ace, Sonny Gray, has been out since early August with a forearm injury. But on Sunday morning, Melvin said Gray has recovered enough that he will make one more start this season, Wednesday in Anaheim. Melvin said Gray likely will throw only one or two innings.

“Just to get out on a mound, get after it and know you’re healthy going into next season is really what we’re looking for,” Melvin said. “I know he’s eager to get into a game.”

If candidates return healthy, the A’s may have a large group competing for rotation spots next spring. Melvin was asked if Cotton already has secured one for himself.

“At this point, I don’t know,” Melvin said. “He’s certainly pitching his way into next year’s rotation. We’ll take a look and see at the end of the season. But it’s impressive.”