When the A’s moved Coco Crisp to left field during spring training, they planned to platoon Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry in center field.
That has not panned out. Gentry hit .079 before being sent to the minors, while Fuld has spent most of the past month either in left field – with Crisp sidelined by a neck injury – or on the bench amid a prolonged hitting slump.
Instead, the A’s have found an unexpected solution in center field and at the leadoff spot that used to belong to Crisp: rookie Billy Burns, who has performed among the American League’s top rookies since being recalled from Triple A on May 2. The A’s anticipated that Burns, who appeared in 13 games last season and had a breakout spring, would join them when rosters expand in September.
“It’s just surprising the total game that you’re getting (from Burns) right now,” manager Bob Melvin said after the A’s 7-0 win over the Texas Rangers on Thursday.
Thursday’s game was a series of Burns highlights. He led off the first inning with a walk, stole second on the next pitch – his 11th steal in 13 tries – and scored the A’s first run. It remained a 1-0 game into the eighth, thanks partly to two highlight-reel catches by Burns in center.
In the sixth, Burns made a diving backhanded catch on Delino DeShields’ sinking line drive in the left-center field gap to prevent a possible leadoff double.
Two innings later, Rangers catcher Carlos Corporan drove a ball to the warning track in straightaway center. Burns turned his back momentarily to chase it, then made a leaping, twisting catch as his back slammed into the wall. That play in particular had teammates raving after the game.
“That’s unbelievable,” said A’s starter Scott Kazmir, who pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing just one hit. “That right there, that gets you going as a pitcher.”
“I watched the replay,” said right fielder Josh Reddick, “and it looked like he didn’t even have his eyes on the ball on the jump.”
Burns said he thought the second catch was the more difficult: The ball was hit straight at him and over his head, making it tougher to judge its angle, plus he had to be mindful of approaching the wall. He said he had seen in-game replays on the scoreboard but demurred when asked what he thought of the plays.
“I don’t know,” Burns said, grinning. “It looked like what had happened.”
The A’s pulled away with six runs in the bottom of the inning – and Burns had a hand in that as well, driving in a run with a sacrifice fly. He singled twice to record his 15th multihit game, which leads A.L. rookies, and raise his average to .313. Entering the day, he ranked first in hits, third in on-base percentage and second in steals among A.L. rookies with at least 100 at-bats.
“We knew coming in he could impact the game, putting the ball in play, getting on base and with his base-stealing,” Melvin said. “That’s kind of where his strengths are.
“Now you see him getting deeper at-bats, making big plays. He’s just getting better. And to do it at the big-league level can be tough for a guy we really didn’t envision being here maybe until September.”
Burns, who was hitting .308 at Nashville before being called up, said his plan at the plate has remained “just being aggressive when I see the ball well, not really shying away from that.”
A natural right-hander who started switch-hitting in the minor leagues to exploit his speed, Burns entered Thursday batting .327 left-handed this season and added two singles off Rangers right-hander Chi Chi Gonzalez.
Burns saw a total of three pitches in those two at-bats but has shown he can work a count. He lined out to end a 10-pitch at-bat in the seventh – first fouling off five pitches with quick, defensive swings – and said spoiling pitches is a result of “just me trying to fight up there. If the ball’s near the zone, I’d rather take a swing at it than let the umpire decide.”
Burns also took the initiative in the sixth, as DeShields’ fly ball sliced between him and Fuld in left field. At the last second, Burns called off Fuld, who had enough time to leap over Burns as he made the diving catch.
Asked later about Burns’ day, Fuld said it was “fun to watch. Just impressive. I’m just glad we didn’t collide on that one.”