Oakland A's

Armed with new cutter, Evan Scribner helps stabilize A’s bullpen

OAKLAND -- Three weeks into the season, the most reliable pitcher in the A’s bullpen has been one of the last to secure a job this spring.

Right-hander Evan Scribner has a 1.46 ERA in a team-high nine outings after throwing a scoreless ninth inning in the A’s 6-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night. Scribner struck out the side Tuesday, getting the heart of the Angels’ order -- Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and David Freese -- all swinging on a total of 12 pitches.

Scribner has made periodic appearances in the A’s bullpen over the past three seasons. But his ERA in 18 games in 2013 was 4.39, and in 13 games last year rose to 4.63. He looked earmarked for a middle relief role making what was supposed to be a strong A’s bullpen out of spring training; instead, that unit has struggled, and Scribner has pitched his way into the eighth-inning set-up role.

The difference this year? Scribner attributes much of his early success to the cut fastball that he added toward the end of last season in the minors. Previously, Scribner relied on his fastball-curveball combination. The cutter gives him a pitch with lateral movement he can use to off-set the fastball.

"He’s been more up-and-down, now he has a pitch that goes side-to-side," manager Bob Melvin summed up. "You saw there’s some hitters taking some funky swings. And he’s pitching with a lot of confidence on top of it."

Scribner said he started throwing the cutter last year after repeated instances of his failing to stick in the majors. "I’d come up here and do good for a little bit and have a bad outing -- it became clear to me I needed something off my fastball to help against righties," said Scribner. "I worked really hard on that down in Sac last year, and got it consistently to a natural way of doing it."

Scribner said he still had to adjust to throwing the pitch with MLB baseballs, which he said seem consistently bigger with smaller seams than the spheres in the minors. A late-season call-up last year and throwing MLB balls all of spring training helped to develop consistency with the pitch, he said.

Tuesday night, Scriber got two strikes on the cutter to Trout, and used it to finish off both Pujols and Freese. He got strike two on Freese with a big curveball that gave Freese time to plant his front foot, hesitate, then swing awkwardly over the pitch. Pitching with a four run lead, Scribner was free to go after his hitters and did so with 10 strikes in 12 pitches.

The A’s bullpen has had its struggles early this season, and the absence of Sean Doolittle has caused a shuffling of roles. Eric O’Flaherty started out in the set-up role but posted an 11.37 ERA in seven appearances, and Dan Otero has also had a couple of rough outings. Scribner has been a much-needed stabilizing presence.

Stability has been a factor for Scribner, too. He’s out of minor-league options, meaning the A’s can’t shuffle him between Triple-A and the majors like they have in past seasons, and he said having some surety in his situation "helps me out a lot, I think, mentally." He said he’s also enjoying having a late-game role after being used as a long reliever in prior stints with the A’s.

"I love doing the set-up role," Scribner said. "I’m way more comfortable doing that than being a long guy, which is fine, too. I’ve been accustomed to that when I come here. But I’d rather be helping the team out directly doing this."

* Scribner closed out the win Tuesday for Sonny Gray, and said afterward, with a straight face, that it’s a luxurious situation for a reliever.

"(Hitters) lose confidence facing him all day," Scribner said, "and it helps us out when we come in."

Gray allowed six of the first nine hitters he faced to reach Tuesday, two of them scoring in the first on Freese’s two-run single. He then retired 18 of the final 19 hitters he faced to beat the Angels for the second time in a week. Gray said he did not make any major adjustments after the early innings. Melvin said he "just (threw) more strikes."

"The ball-strike ratio was mostly even early on, and then he just started throwing strikes," Melvin said. "When he starts throwing strikes he gets less predictable."

Gray didn’t go to his changeup often, but had typical movement on his fastball and said his breaking pitches were working well.

"The curveball was back to how it used to be, slider was good," Gray said. "Threw a lot more four-seam (fastballs) this time, trying to show them a little bit different look. Once we got into the flow of the game it all went well."

Gray improved to 3-0 and is now 7-1 with a 1.86 ERA in 11 career starts in March and April. He attributed those numbers to preparation in the offseason and spring training, "basically doing everything you need to do to get ready for that first game of the year. I felt like I’ve done that the last couple years and come out pretty good."

* Josh Reddick is the A’s hottest hitter right now with a six-game hitting streak during which he’s 10-for-19 with six RBIs. He drove in three Tuesday with a two-run single in the A’s five-run first inning and a sixth-inning homer off Jered Weaver.

Reddick said he was looking for a curveball in the first inning after seeing Weaver start Ike Davis with a first-pitch curve, and got it. Weaver pitched him inside in his second at-bat -- "which he’s never done in his career," Reddick said -- so after grounding out then Reddick said he was looking inside in the sixth and got a two-seamer that he hit into the right-field seats.

"Health certainly has a lot to do with how he’s feeling right now," Melvin said. "We’ve seen him dinged up the last couple years. Sometimes that keeps you from getting into a rhythm. But we’re seeing him in a great rhythm right now. You watch his batting practice and he’s hitting the ball to all fields, not just trying to pull everything."

Reddick agreed that he’s feeling healthy after batting a series of injuries over the past two seasons. He and third baseman Brett Lawrie drove in all six of the A’s runs Tuesday from the sixth and seventh spots in the order -- a key for the A’s.

"We can’t just expect two or three guys to carry the load offensively," Melvin said. "We need it throughout."

* The A’s announced Ben Zobrist underwent arthroscopic surgery Tuesday to address the torn media meniscus in his left knee. The procedure was performed by Dr. Jon Dickinson in San Francisco, and Zobrist was said to be resting comfortably Tuesday night.

"Everything went great," Melvin said. "As far as timetables I don’t know about that. Dr. Dickinson said it went as well as we could have hoped, so that’s all I needed to hear."

Zobrist said last week he’d been told recovery time for this type of surgery is usually four to six weeks.

* Meanwhile, down in Bakersfield, right-hander Jarrod Parker made his second rehab start for High-A Stockton coming back from Tommy John surgery. Parker’s line went five innings, four hits, three runs (two earned), no walks, seven strikeouts. And Parker earned the win.

* The A’s snapped a four-game losing streak and won for the first time this season when their opponent scored first. They’ll send Jesse Hahn (1-1, 2.12) to the mound Wednesday. The Angels are expected to activate right-hander Matt Shoemaker from the bereavement list to oppose him. First pitch at 7:05 p.m.

Call The Bee’s Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. See his baseball coverage at sacbee.com/mlb. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewkawahara.