OAKLAND — Asked what it might require for the A’s to turn the tide on their fading postseason aspirations after a fourth straight loss on Tuesday, first baseman Matt Olson mentioned a strong pitching performance could potentially spearhead a momentum shift.
If the A’s do end up getting back on track in time for a late push towards an October berth, Wednesday’s critical start by Frankie Montas against the White Sox would certainly qualify as a turning point.
With the A’s in desperate need of a long outing, Montas delivered a huge assist to an overworked bullpen. The right-hander was dominant through seven innings of one-run ball, yielding six hits with seven strikeouts in a 5-1 victory over Chicago at the Coliseum. The deep start kept Oakland’s bullpen usage at a minimum, with left-hander Andrew Chafin taking over in the eighth to close it out with two scoreless frames.
Wednesday’s win keeps the A’s within striking distance in the American League Wild Card standings at three games back of the Yankees for the second Wild Card spot.
“It’s been a tough last four games,” Montas said. “Getting the win tonight puts us in the right direction. All the guys hit tonight. Bringing that into tomorrow’s game is huge for us.”
In a second half that has seen a few A’s starters decline in productivity, Montas is seemingly getting stronger with each start he makes. His worst start of the season came in Texas on June 21, when he was tagged for eight runs over 5 2/3 innings. Since then, Montas has transformed into one of the top pitchers in baseball, now 5-2 with a 2.33 ERA over his last 13 starts.
It’s a stretch that has earned him a new nickname in Oakland: “MontACE.”
“From where he’s come from that game in Texas, since that point, he’s been fantastic,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s durable. There’s a lot of confidence that the team has when he takes the mound.
“This was a big game for us today and we felt good about him taking the mound. He’s pitched as well as he has in his career here for the last two months.”
It can be easy for a pitcher like Montas, whose sinking fastball maxed out at 98.2 mph on Wednesday, to fall in love with trying to overpower hitters. That might have been the case early in his career. But now, the 28-year-old righty has learned how to truly pitch.
It was evident in the early innings against Chicago. Backed by some early run support kicked off by Matt Chapman’s solo home run in the second, Montas pitched to contact and induced three inning-ending double plays through the first four innings. This allowed him to keep his pitch count down, saving his high-octane stuff for the later innings.
Finishing with 105 pitches, Montas kept the White Sox off balance throughout, striking out four of the final six batters he faced.
“Frankie’s got tremendous stuff,” said catcher Yan Gomes, whose two-hit day included an RBI single in the fourth. “All his pitches are plus pitches. Once he gets guys to be a little more aggressive and start swinging at his pitches, he can get guys to chase his split-finger or heater up and away.”
Gomes is well aware of what it takes for a team to make a late-season run towards the playoffs. He experienced that firsthand in 2019 as part of a Nationals team that snuck into the postseason and rode a hot streak all the way to a World Series title.
With 23 games left, it’s going to take a hot run by these A’s to reach the postseason for a fourth straight year. Those scenarios generally require a No.1-type starting pitcher who can be counted for a strong outing every fifth day. Based on his performance over the past two months, Montas looks every bit like the guy the A’s can lean as they look to get over the hump in this final stretch of the regular season.
“We’re starting to see a little bit of that ace role from Frankie,” Gomes said. “We needed him today. He took the mound like the horse that he is and gave us seven strong innings.
“Even when we had to navigate through some trouble, you can tell he wanted to keep going and battle for us out there.”