A’s 2018 success dependent upon individual ‘comebacks’

The word “comeback” is one that may become something of a mantra of the 2018 Oakland Athletics.

A comeback from three-straight last-place finishes in the AL West will require individual comebacks from Kendall Graveman and Marcus Semien, each of whom missed significant time due to injury a season ago.

The pitching depth necessary to overcome the certain speed bumps of the coming season will get a definitive boost by a comeback from Andrew Triggs, who underwent hip surgery after pitching his way to one of baseball’s best Aprils. Even Dustin Fowler, one of the newest A’s, is looking to come back from a knee surgery and deliver on the promise that made him such a highly coveted trade target less than one year ago to lock down the starting center field position.

Comeback stories are abound throughout the A’s roster as the club prepares for camp: Ryan Dull, who pitched the second half of 2017 stabilized by a knee brace, told SFBay that his right knee is back up to full strength; Sean Manaea, whose midseason struggles stemmed from drastic weight loss brought on by ADD medication, said that his new regimen has allowed him to focus add get back to his original weight; Mark Canha, who stumbled through his own down season, has gone back to the basics in search of the success to which he has grown accustomed.

The most important individual comeback will be that of Manaea, who backed up an impressive 2016 rookie campaign with a stellar first half. But it took a turn for the worse when each of his 25 pounds lost seemingly fell directly onto his ERA, which rocketed up to 4.59 in less than a month as his fastball velocity (normally around 93 mph) fell into the 80s.

Now, his medication has been exacted, he told SFBay, breeding a return to his most comfortable weight — 245 pounds. Along with the perfecting of his medication, the 25-year-old lefty has added a zen-like cerebral approach to his game:

“I’ve just been focusing on the mental side of the game, thinking about being more mentally tough. I’ve been meditating a little bit.”

Meditation, five to 10 minutes at a time he said, is something Manaea added to his preparation down the stretch last season, allowing him to clear his head and focus solely on attacking hitters. The combination physical and mental readiness has the veteran (at least on this staff) prepared for anything that comes his way in 2018 — one he feels will be a “pretty good year.”

A good year is what Triggs appeared poised to post last season, after allowing just six earned runs over five starts last April — each coming in his lone loss of the month.

But things began to tail out of control in late-May, fueling a four-game losing streak before he was shutdown for the remainder of the season. A closer look at discomfort he had been feeling in his left hip revealed a torn labrum, which required surgery.

Not only does Triggs “feel like a real baseball player again,” as he said, facing the injury head on during the offseason allowed him to increase his workload producing what he feels will be an even stronger hurler:

“The intensity of my workouts and my lifting, and everything along those lines, is greater than really what it has been in past years.

“In past years, I’d get stiff or something would hold me back, but I didn’t think much of it — I didn’t realize that this (hip injury) is probably something that had been bugging me for a little while and it just finally came to a head last year.”

Triggs, who has already begun throwing off the mound and sprinting, expects to be a full participant in camp beginning day one.

The same can be expected of Fowler, who is also recovering from lower-body surgery — to repair a ruptured patella tendon in the right knee in his case.

Fowler, whom manager Bob Melvin hopes will slide into center field and the leadoff spot for his club, ruptured the tendon in his major league debut causing him to miss the second half of the 2017 season. That, he said, was the first time in his baseball life in which he was forced to miss an extended stretch of games via injury adding another level to his recovery — a touch of nervousness about how his body will react to such a long absence from the field.

Nevertheless, the 23-year-old said that everyone, including himself, is happy with where he is in the recovery process:

“I’ve been hitting, throwing and running for about a month now, and this past week was my first week of doing on-field drills. It felt good to get the uncomfortability out from under me.”

Dull spent the second half of his season dealing with similar uncomfortability, needing to wear a brace on his right knee. That knee brace, he said, has found a new home — no longer under his pant leg but at the bottom of his bag, out of both sight and mind.

The little right-hander has carved out a very difficult but necessary role for himself in Melvin’s bullpen. After setting an MLB record retiring his first 36 inherited base runners in 2016, Dull has become the skipper’s human tourniquet used to stop the bleeding of a hemorrhaging inning.

Though he is rarely called upon in set-up or closing duties, Dull is among the most integral pieces in the ‘pen. That is why his team will need more from him than the 4.44 ERA he offered after suffering the knee strain in 2017. He would provide a significant boost with numbers closer to the 2.42 ERA and 0.874 WHIP he provided in 2016. So it is good news that he claims his knee is “back to normal,” adding that he went all winter without facing a single issue of lingering discomfort.

Such will be the keys to any success the A’s will have in 2018: getting healthy contributions from the many key cogs like Dull, Manaea and Triggs, and seeing Graveman and Semien return from injury to their impressing forms 2016.

As is the case with any team that is coming off a campaign — or in the A’s case several — riddled with poor health, it will take comebacks on an individual level to surge a struggling franchise back into relevancy.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.