OAKLAND -- Ryan Dull looks a little bit like he could be one of the ball boys wearing a helmet and standing in the bullpen protecting the pitchers, rather than one of the pitchers himself. That is, until you look at the numbers Dull has compiled this season working his way up the A’s minor-league system.
Dull, the 25-year-old right-hander, had a 0.74 ERA in 61 innings between Double-A and Triple-A before the A’s called him up last week. And since joining the major-league club, he has thrown six scoreless innings, allowing one hit, no walks and striking out seven.
Tuesday night, Dull closed out the final two innings of the A’s 4-0 win over the Houston Astros, retiring all six hitters he faced. That included going through the Astros’ difficult 2-3-4 punch of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Carlos Gomez on nine pitches in the top of the eighth. It was such a quick inning that manager Bob Melvin, working with a taxed bullpen, sent Dull back out for his first multi-inning outing in the majors.
"I don’t know how you can perform much better than he has since he’s gotten here," said Melvin. "You can’t expect that 1-2-3, 1-2-3, every time. But to this point that’s what he’s done, and it’s fun to watch."
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It isn’t only the results that could make Dull popular quickly among A’s fans. There’s the name first of all, and the fact that the shaggy-haired North Carolinian could probably pass for being straight out of high school instead of the PCL. A 32nd-round draft pick in 2012, Dull is listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, both of which may be generous.
Partly for that reason, Melvin said the thing about Dull that’s impressed him the most the past week is his presence on the mound.
"He looks like a teenager out there," Melvin said. "He’s not overly big and intimidating on the mound, but all he does is locate. He’s got three pitches he throws for strikes, and he mixes them up, there’s a gap (in velocity) between his pitches. And it looks like he has a lot of confidence."
Dull started this season at Double-A Midland and made just 12 appearances at Triple-A Nashville, his first experience above Double-A in his career. He doesn’t pretend there’s no distinction between pitching in the Texas League and at the O.co Coliseum -- despite a season-low crowd of 11,364 on Tuesday night.
"It definitely feels different," Dull said. "It feels different when you go outside and see a huge stadium. I just try to relax and not change anything I’ve been doing all year, stick to my routine and just go out there and try to have fun."
This was the first time Dull has been called upon to finish a game in the majors. He said that and facing the middle of the Astros’ order "gets the adrenaline going," but he simply followed the pitch selection of catcher Josh Phegley and tried to stay aggressive in the strike zone. That confident approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by his new A’s teammates.
"He’s been awesome," said right-hander Sonny Gray, who pitched the first seven innings Tuesday. "To go through the heart of that order, he made it look pretty easy and that’s not some easy guys to get through … He goes right after guys, which is really nice to see."
Dull’s command is one of his best assets -- he has 259 career strikeouts in the minors and just 49 walks. That, apparently, and a composure on the mound that befits his last name -- in a good way.
"He’s good, man, he’s awesome," said first baseman Mark Canha. "It’s apparent that he’s got something, some ability. And I’m excited to watch him in the future. He’s got some good stuff."
* In terms of the immediate future, Canha appears to be carving out a significant role for himself with the A’s heading into 2016. In his last 20 games, the Rule 5 draft pick has hit .337 with six home runs, 22 RBIs and 10 multi-hit games. His three-run home run in the fifth Tuesday off Scott Kazmir was a key moment and gave Canha 60 RBIs on the season -- most by an American League rookie.
Melvin was asked Monday about the A’s younger players -- specifically Canha and Billy Burns -- being among their most consistent offensively, and indicated both are making a case not only to make the big-league roster next season (which seems a given in Burns’ case), but to play every day. Canha has basically become an everyday player over the last month and a half with the A’s losing first baseman Ike Davis to season-ending surgery.
On July 3, Canha was hitting .109 against left-handed pitching -- not what the A’s were hoping for from a right-handed platoon player. But since that date, Canha is batting .333 against lefties, including two hits off Kazmir on Tuesday night. He said, though, that he made no adjustments to his approach against lefties.
"When I’m hot, I’m hot," Canha said. "And I feel like right-hander, left-hander, as long as I do my thing, results are going to be there. I think the struggles against lefties early on in the year were just an anomaly, to be honest."
Canha’s homer Tuesday was his 14th of the season. Burns, meanwhile, clubbed his fourth in the third inning -- one more than he hit during parts of five seasons in the minors. This one went to dead center, the deepest part of the field, and hit the camera well a good ways above the center-field wall.
"You don’t expect Billy to hit a ball that far," Melvin said. "It was flying a little bit tonight, obviously, with it being a little bit warm out there. But still, he squared it up. He’s surprised us a few times this year, and again that time."
Burns surprised himself a little, too. He said he didn’t think the ball was gone off the bat. In fact, he was almost at second base by the time it cleared the fence.
"I was just hoping it would get over the center fielder’s head," Burns said. "But I was pretty happy when I saw where it went."
* The home run, which came on an 0-2 fastball, was the first Burns has hit that didn’t come on the first pitch. Burns is a notorious first-pitch swinger -- something of which Kazmir, the former A’s left-hander, is well aware.
"When I was running out for warm-ups, he was jawing at me pre-game, saying, ‘You’d better not swing at the first pitch,’ and stuff like that," Burns said.
Be careful what you wish for.
* The Kazmir-Gray matchup was a fun plotline going into the game, as the two pitchers were close during Kazmir’s time in Oakland and the older Kazmir was something of a mentor to Gray. Melvin said "there was probably a little added something for (Gray on Tuesday), pitching against his buddy." But Gray didn’t put much significance in it.
"Really the only thing going into the game that I was really focused on was trying to get back on track myself," Gray said.
Gray came into the game winless in his last four starts with a 4.32 ERA. He righted the course Tuesday with seven scoreless innings, lowering his season ERA to 2.28 -- once again the lowest in the A.L., just below Houston’s Dallas Keuchel (2.29).
The second was a pivotal inning for Gray. He loaded the bases with one out on a single and two consecutive walks, but struck out Hank Conger on three pitches and got Jake Marisnick to pop out to end the inning. All three pitches to Conger were breaking balls, and Gray said he relied on his curveball more throughout the game than in past starts.
"I didn’t throw as many fastballs in fastball counts tonight," Gray said. "So just keeping them a little more off-balance than usual."
Melvin said the A’s can get spoiled by Gray’s performances, and that his previous four starts were "probably the first time we’ve seen him really get hit a little bit like that."
"(Opposing hitters) had a pretty good approach, he got some balls in the middle of the plate," Melvin said. "But I wouldn’t call (Tuesday) a bounce-back. I would just call it a normal game from him."
Gray was pressed about the matching up with Kazmir -- who’d said Monday there was a little trash-talking going on already between the two -- but he dismissed the idea that his win Tuesday gives him bragging rights.
"I could easily face him again here soon," Gray said. "So I don’t want to get too ahead of myself."
* Billy Butler hit about a 350-foot single off the right-field wall in the fourth inning and was thrown out by George Springer trying to stretch it into a double. When he singled in his each of next two at-bats, the crowd seemed to be urging Butler to try again. He didn’t.
Still, Butler’s three-hit night extended his hitting streak to nine games, during which he’s 15-for-29. Melvin pointed out that a lot of Butler’s hits are going to the opposite field, an encouraging sign for a hitter who’s capable of using all fields.
"This is the hitter we’ve expected him to be," Melvin said. "You get a little too pull-happy, you get into some slumps, you can’t wait to swing the bat. Now he’s getting deeper into some counts, hitting the ball hard the other way and staying with it."
It may be coming a little late this season for the A’s, who signed Butler last winter with the intention of having him anchor the middle of their lineup. The A’s have Butler under contract through 2017, though, so they wouldn’t mind seeing a strong finish from him.
* The finale of this series has A’s right-hander Aaron Brooks (1-2, 6.91) opposing Astros right-hander Collin McHugh (15-7, 3.75). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.