First big league save for Athletics’ Erceg demonstrates it’s not all Mason Miller

OAKLAND — Pitcher T.J. McFarland almost felt sorry for the Baltimore Orioles.

Mason Miller, the Athletics’ right-hander who has become a phenomenon with his ability to throw anywhere from 101 to 104 miles per hour with the greatest of ease, was taking a second day off Sunday after pitching back-to-back for the first time this season on Thursday and Friday.

So Lucas Erceg, who has been used as a set-up man for Miller, was given the ninth inning by manager Mark Kotsay.

“I’m sure the Orioles were like, `Great,’ ” McFarland said Monday before the Athletics faced the Pittsburgh Pirates to begin a 10-game homestand. “And here comes Erceg throwing bowling balls down their throat at 100 miles an hour.”

Erceg abused three hitters on 12 pitches, 10 of them strikes, with a pair of strikeouts. He topped out at 99 miles an hour and recorded his first MLB save in his 50th big league game.

“It felt good to get the first one out of the way,” Erceg said. “Hopefully it’s not my last opportunity for that. I pride myself in being ready whenever the phone call comes. (Sunday) it just happened to be the ninth inning. Real cool experience. I have the baseball and am getting it nice and boxed up for our home.”

The A’s came home and entered this week with a 12-17 record, responding from a three-game sweep against red-hot Cleveland by winning four of seven from the Yankees and Orioles, the pace-setters in the American League East.

Twelve wins in 29 games isn’t going to get boycotting fans through the Coliseum turnstiles, but consider at the same point a year ago the A’s were 6-23.

By the time the A’s got to 12 wins in 2023, it was May 30, and they’d lost 45 times en route to a 50-112 record.

The biggest reason the A’s aren’t on a similar path a year later is a bullpen that has been the backbone of a team that has gone 11-10 after a 1-7 start to open the season.

The Athletics went into Monday’s game with the bullpen not allowing a run in its last four games, covering 4 1/3 innings, and a 1.85 earned run average in six of the last seven. The bullpen’s 2.73 ERA is tied for sixth lowest in the majors and has three wins, five saves and no losses over the last 11 games.

The headliner is Miller, who has become nationally known for routinely breaking 100 miles per hour with a wipeout slider, making it almost unfair for opposing hitters. His 86 pitches of 100 mph or greater are the most in the majors, and he has nine of the 10 fastest pitches, including 103.7 (rounded up to 104).

But given the UCL strain that limited his use as a starter a year ago, Miller operates with an invisible “handle with care” label.

“I think the biggest thing for us is we continue to make strides going forward with the health and continue to manage him in a way that we’re going to have him for the rest of the season,” Kotsay said.

Miller’s shadow has eclipsed Erceg in a national sense, although he’s known locally after playing at Campbell’s Westmont High, Cal, and Menlo College before being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers as a third baseman.

The career as an infielder never materialized, as Erceg, who has spoken openly of previous issues with alcohol abuse and depression, switched to pitching in 2020 with the Brewers and hasn’t looked back.

“That seems like a long time ago,” Erceg said.

He was acquired by the A’s in May of 2023 in a cash deal, and at the moment, it looks like a steal. Erceg is 1-1 with a 1.54 earned run average and 14 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings.

Catcher Kyle McCann, who was sorting through text messages after his game-winning two-run home run against Baltimore, thinks the back end of the A’s bullpen can be elite.

“I don’t think Erceg gets as much credit as he should because of how good Mason Miller is,” McCann said. “I’d say they’re neck and neck, and to have them as the No. 8 and 9 punch is something. If they keep doing what they’ve been doing we’re going to be in good shape because pitching wins ballgames.”

Relief pitcher T.J. McFarland flips the ball to first base to record an out against the New York Yankees. 

Kotsay said Erceg may be anonymous to the national media but not to those who have to face him.

“He may go unnoticed, but he’s not unnoticed to hitters,” Kotsay said. “The maturation from last season to this season is real nice. He’s controlling the zone a lot more and out of the zone when he needs to be. He’s doing a really great job, and the save is a big confidence boost for him and our bullpen.”

Starter Paul Blackburn can see the difference in Erceg from last season to this season.

“I feel he’s had a different mentality,” Blackburn said. “He feels like he belongs. And when he’s out there and has the ball, it’s go-time from pitch one and can feel his intensity and what he does every day to be ready.”

It doesn’t stop with Miller and Erceg. As a left-handed reliever, McFarland’s 16 appearances are tied for the most in the majors. He stranded all inherited runners until giving up one in Cleveland and retired the first batter he’s faced in the last 16 innings.

Right-hander Austin Adams hasn’t allowed an earned run in 12 of 13 appearances. Kyle Muller, a left-hander and last year’s Opening Day starter, has thrived in middle relief — he threw 2 1/3 innings of relief Sunday in Baltimore and has a 2.25 earned run average.

Mitch Spence has struggled of late, giving up a run in five of his last seven appearances, but Michael Kelly and Dany Jimenez have both had their moments.

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If the A’s hitting doesn’t come around, they’ll need all the good pitching they can get. The A’s have scored just 84 runs through 29 games — as opposed to 108 last season in their 6-23 start. However, they’ve given up 127 runs as opposed to 226 at the same point a year ago.

Davis getting closer

— Third baseman J.D. Davis (right adductor strain) went 1-for-4 with a double and a run scored for Triple-A Las Vegas in a rehab assignment. He took a live batting practice against left-hander Ken Waldichuk (UCL sprain left elbow) and will return to Las Vegas for more work.

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