Two-thirds of a inning into his big league career, Fowler ran into a wall chasing a foul ball at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, rupturing the patella tendon in his right knee and requiring season-ending surgery. One month later, he was traded to the Athletics in a move that sent former Oakland ace Sonny Gray to New York.
After starting the season in Triple-A Nashville, Fowler, 23, was recalled by the A’s on Wednesday. He finally did get that elusive first trip to the plate that day, sending a looping popup to the second baseman. After the game, he said:
“My whole approach was, just to kinda get the jitters out and get the first AB out the way, I didn’t really want to overthink everything. Went up there at took a pitch, then took the next swing and he pretty much blew my thumbs up.”
Now, he will make his first start as an Athletic Friday. In New York. Facing Gray:
“It’s just a perfect story. The guy I got traded for, getting to face him.”
It’s not just Gray that Fowler, who was the Yankees’ No. 13 overall prospect in 2017 according to Minor League Ball, it’s getting to play in New York where, as he told SFBay back in January, Yankee fans knew him by name despite his short-lived stint with their club. He’s excited, he said Wednesday, to be on the field with the guys he had played with in the minor leagues, guys like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.
Fowler, in the starting lineup playing center field and batting ninth Friday, will finally get to the diamond at Yankee Stadium. And he will do so having already gotten the “jitters” of his first big league at-bat out of the way, thanks to a savvy move by manager Bob Melvin, who said following Wednesday’s 4-1 loss:
“He was ready. He was in the cage all day. … He was excited and looking forward to his first at-bat. … I believe it’s good to get him an at-bat before he has a start.”
Fowler’s readiness Wednesday came despite a late night. He received the call from Nashville Sounds skipper Fran Riordan at midnight, he said. By 8 a.m. he was on a flight from Tennessee to Oakland, arriving at the Oakland Coliseum at around 11:30. The move came so late that his family was not able to get to Oakland in time, though they will be in New York and Boston, where the A’s will go following three games with the Yankees.
While the call-up did come in a less-than-ideal way — though, he added, “Any way you can get called up, that’s the way you want to do it.” — Fowler was appreciative of his skipper:
“It was good. It was kind of a nice way to do it, to just kinda get out there and get [the first at-bat] out of the way real quick. … It’s basically my debut all over again. … I’m excited to be here and get some at-bats, and finally get that first hit out of the way, hopefully soon.”
Now, his focus can shift from the Moonlight Graham comparisons to playing ball, which is something he has done very well this season.
Through 30 Triple-A games, Fowler was slashing .310/.333/.484. He had been hitting for power (three home runs) and production — driving in 16 runs and scoring 18. Most impressively though, given the nature of his injury, is the speed he had shown hitting three triples and stealing eight bases.
Speed is something the A’s have been lacking. Oakland currently has the second-fewest stolen bases in all of baseball, having swiped seven (fewer than Fowler alone). Speed is something that Fowler has been known for since he received a 60-grade for the tool as the 22nd-ranked Georgia product entering the 2013 draft, when the Yankees took him in the 18th round.
The knee, he said, is healthy, and has not cost him any of that:
“Knee’s been fine. I haven’t had any issues so far, I haven’t had any speed I’ve lost, so everything’s been good.”
Fowler told SFBay in January that there was a hint of worry regarding his knee’s reaction to game-speed:
“you have that in-back-of-your-mind nervousness of how things are going to go.”
That nervousness is gone, replaced by confidence that can only be produced through comfort in play. His comfort level is high enough to now joke about his injury, which was a product of hustle in congress with his plus-speed, as he said Wednesday that he just hopes he can avoid the walls, perhaps run around them, with a grin.
He told SFBay:
“You do want to perform, and say that you were worth the trade. … If I do what I always do and don’t think and don’t try and do too much, I think everything will pay off in the end.”