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Barber: Is Jesus Luzardo the starter Oakland A's need?

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The A’s starting rotation has changed a lot in a year. Heck, it has changed quite a bit in a month, and every indication suggests it will continue to evolve over the next two weeks.

The Athletics may or may not have an ace. They may have three capable starters, or seven. These are relevant issues, too, because the playoffs are approaching, and Oakland is hoping to take part in them. And when the postseason visits Major League Baseball, starting pitchers are more valuable than Popeye’s chicken sandwiches.

To be honest, the Oakland staff has been pretty good this year. With half the arms in the system beginning the year on ice, the long arms were supposed to be the weak link. They really haven’t been.

“I think the starting rotation is very similar to the way that we’ve done things the whole year, where they’ve been undervalued,” closer Liam Hendriks told me before Monday’s game, a stunning 6-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals. “Like we got a bunch of guys who don’t have the flashy numbers, don’t have a ton of strikeouts or things like this, but they compete and they keep us in almost every game.”

That has been true for most of the season, but lately the A’s starting pitching has reached a new level of possibility — largely due to the return of Sean Manaea.

Manaea’s torn labrum in August of 2018 broke the A’s hearts, and perhaps their chances of playoff success that year. He rehabbed for so long, he began to feel like a mythic character. But he’s real, and he’s spectacular.

Manaea returned to make his first start of 2019 on September 1, and has been virtually untouchable in his three starts, giving up one run and six hits in 18 innings of work. Manaea has 21 strikeouts in those 18 innings, though he never appears to be breaking a sweat.

“I don’t think anybody could have envisioned — what has he given up, one run in the three starts?” A’s manager Bob Melvin said Monday. “And he looks like he’s in midseason form. And every time out, like he got in a little bit of trouble the other day, but he finished up like he has all three starts. We were hoping we got that guy, but this is probably a little bit more than we expected.”

Hendriks likened Manaea to “a big midseason trade acquisition that we were able to get.”

His arrival came in the nick of time, because it has coincided with a couple of troubling developments in the A’s rotation. Mike Fiers, their best starting pitcher all season long, left his previous start with arm nerve irritation and, though the team remains optimistic, was scheduled to get an MRI exam Tuesday. And Chris Bassitt, an under-the-radar star for this team earlier in the season, has hit a rough stretch that was capped Friday by the Rangers knocking him around for six earned run in three innings.

Unlike last year, though, the A’s have rotational depth, thanks to a couple of actual midseason trade acquisitions.

Homer Bailey, acquired from Kansas City on July 14, has gone 6-2 with Oakland. And Tanner Roark had been even better than that. He came in a July 31 trade with Cincinnati, and took a 4-1 record, a 3.40 earned run average and a pretty WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) of 1.181 into Monday’s game.

And then Roark stumbled against the weak-hitting Royals, who rank 27th in baseball in runs scored and OPS, and 28th in home runs. He threw an excruciating 110 pitches in 4⅔ innings Monday, and helped cough up the 4-1 lead his teammates had offered up to him.

Roark performed a piece of magic in the top of the fourth, striking out the bottom of the Kansas City order after loading the bases with no outs. But before that, Jorge Soler soared a monstrous solo home run to left field that almost made it to the suite level, and after, in the fifth inning, Roark allowed a pair of baserunners whom reliever Jake Diekman couldn’t prevent from scoring.

It was a strange step backward for Roark, except maybe it wasn’t so unexpected. This is what the A’s rotation, a mix of the unproven and the possibly rejuvenated, is likely to be. There are a lot of things to feel good about when you look at the mix. But there isn’t one pitcher you can point to and say, yup, there’s my October ace.

But there is a wild card. His name is Jesus Luzardo. He didn’t pitch Monday, as Melvin hinted he wouldn’t. The A’s are handling Luzardo with oven mitts thus far. He is one of the brightest pitching prospects in baseball. But he’s just 21 years old, and he had never pitched in a major-league game until September 11, so the A’s have been bringing him in from the bullpen.

“I mean, I guess I’m a starter at heart,” Luzardo said before Monday’s game. “So I always love to start, but I don’t really — you know, if I’m in the pen the whole year, it doesn’t matter to me. I mean, I feel good. I’m pretty comfortable out of there.”

He has looked it. Luzardo pitched three innings in each of his first two appearances (one of them against the powerful Astros) and, while he wasn’t perfect in those games, he flashed the 97-, 98-mile-an-hour fastballs and wicked movement that make him such a big part of the A’s plans.

Melvin didn’t signal any immediate intent to get Luzardo a start, but he didn’t discount the possibility, either.

“Anything’s open,” he said. “But he’s factoring into the outcome of the game at the end. A lot of times starters go six innings or so, they don’t factor into the outing at the end. We want him to do that, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Luzardo pitched the sixth-seventh-eighth in a close game at Houston. That’s good preparation. Personally, though, I’d love to see Luzardo start in the regular season.

After Monday’s awful result, the A’s held a one-game lead over Tampa Bay for the first wild-card spot, and a 2½-game lead over Cleveland for the second. I wouldn’t call it a safe cushion, but the remainder of Oakland’s schedule is favorable. There isn’t a winning team on the rest of the calendar. Why not see how the 21-year-old does in the role he was meant to play?

As Monday’s game showed, the A’s can’t necessarily count on Roark to be a playoff force. And the same is probably true of Bailey, who was 1-14 with a 6.09 ERA for the Reds last year. Fiers is suddenly aching, Bassitt a question mark. And even Manaea is no sure thing, so soon after coming back from a serious injury.

Luzardo could wind up being more than a fun glimpse at the A’s distant future. He could be a spark as they attempt to win a playoff series for the first time since 2006.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him at @Skinny_Post.

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