OAKLAND — Cole Irvin remained realistic about his inclusion in the A’s Opening Day rotation when discussing it with reporters earlier this month, referring to his spot as a “temporary” fix until veteran workhorse Mike Fiers made his way back from injury.
While Fiers is inching closer to his return, Irvin continues to pitch his way into a more permanent role with the club. That case grew in Saturday’s 7-0 win over the Tigers, which extended Oakland’s American League-best winning streak to seven games. The left-hander silenced Detroit’s offense by allowing just four hits with six strikeouts and no walks across six pristine innings.
Acquired in a trade with the Phillies in January, Irvin came to Spring Training viewed as a depth piece which the A’s could stash in the Minor Leagues to begin the year. Posting a 4.60 ERA through three starts, Irvin has improved with each outing. Saturday’s start was his best so far, marking the longest scoreless outing of his career.
“We didn’t know much about him coming into Spring Training and he pitched great to win a job,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s actually pitched better than his numbers would suggest. You get an opportunity and you have to run with it. He’s taking advantage.”
For the A’s to fulfill their visions of repeating as AL West champions and pushing towards a deep playoff run, they’re relying on their promising starting rotation to consistently keep them in ballgames. That wasn’t the case early on during a rough 1-7 stretch through the first eight games of the season, which saw starters combine for a 7.91 ERA. Since then, however, the starters have found their groove. After Irvin’s stellar performance, A’s starting pitchers have allowed two runs or fewer in six of their last seven games, combining for a 2.63 ERA (11 earned runs in 37 2/3 innings) over that stretch.
So what has led to this turnaround? A’s catcher Aramis Garcia laid it out pretty simple:
“I feel like that first week, we just let the lineups dictate how we were pitching as opposed to pitching to our strengths,” Garcia said. “Once we realized that and made the adjustment, these guys have been rolling.”
For Irvin, his strength comes in his ability to pound the strike zone with supreme control of his fastball. That was his key to success on Saturday. He pumped in 63 of his 93 pitches for strikes, including first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 23 batters he faced, and finished his outing by retiring eight of his final 10 batters faced.
Irvin has been among the game’s best in throwing first-pitch strikes. He entered the day with a first-pitch strike percentage of 75.6, which ranked ninth-highest among Major League pitchers. His fastball velocity is average — it maxed out at 93.9 mph against Detroit — but using it to get ahead in the count with first-pitch strikes is what allows him to be less predictable and open up his options to attack hitters with other pitches like his changeup and curveball.
“The first pitch is about a 300-point difference in a batting average if you’re looking at hitters,” Irvin said. “Knowing that, going into an 0-1 count or a 1-0 count, there’s a drastic difference. Having that count leverage early in outings is good. In the past, I’ve struggled getting ahead in the big leagues. Right now, I feel like my delivery is going well and I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
Everything is going well for the A’s these days. Saturday’s victory put them above .500 for the first time in the 2021 campaign, marking quite the turnaround from their early-season slump. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Oakland is just the second team to start a season 0-6 and then reach .500 within its first 15 games, joining the 1991 Mariners.
In addition to the pitching excellence, the A’s offense remains on a hot stretch. Matt Olson’s mammoth 438-foot solo shot in the first was followed up by back-to-back homers on consecutive pitches by Garcia and Mark Canha with two outs in the second. As Garcia rounded third base, he made a hand motion to the A’s dugout of a wave going up and down. It appears that “Ride The Wave” has been adopted by these A’s as their new slogan.
“That is the mantra right now,” Irvin said. “The offense has been turning the bats around and starters have made good starts. We’re on a good wave. I told the guys in the group text that we’re pitted right now. We’re in the barrel of this wave and we’re going to keep riding it. We’re going to keep having fun.”