(Photo courtesy of the Oakland Athletics)
I think one of the coolest things about the Bible is that God picks some of the unlikeliest characters to fulfill His purposes and write incredible stories. It's almost like the more unlikely the person is, the more it reflects how awesome God's power can be. It also shows that no one is ever too astray to feel His grace.
When I began last season for Oakland, most people didn't know who I was. I was a failed closer in Washington D.C. and a mop-up pitcher for the Nationals. I used to write "Proverbs 3:5-6" next to my name on every autograph, but only the biggest Nationals fans even knew who I was. From the outside perspective, there seemed to be little reason to believe 2018 was going to be any different. But that's not the way God sees things.
We began the year as the trendy pick...to finish in last place. The Astros were the defending World Series champions, while the Mariners had a loaded lineup. The Angels added Shoehei Ohtani, while the Rangers still had pop in their bats. Meanwhile, the A's had finished last in the division in three straight years, and people thought 2018 would be more of the same.
"There are signs of a potential turnaround," the Associated Press wrote about us, "but rebuilding will still take some time."
For the first few weeks of the season, the doubters seemed right. We started the season 5-10, but on one particular day, things began to change for our team. It also happened to be the day things changed for me.
We entered the May 2 game against the Mariners with a 14-15 record, seeking to get back to .500. Just from a mental standpoint alone, a win in this game would have been big. We trailed 2-0 in the game heading into the 8th inning, but Jed Lowrie hit a huge home run to tie things up.
With the game now hanging in the balance in the bottom of the 8th, manager Bob Melvin called my name. I remember this day in particular because up to that point, I had been trying to find consistency and confidence with my sinker. God has given me the ability to throw a 97 mph pitch with sink, but for whatever reason I couldn't throw it with much effectiveness to the spots in the zone that I needed to throw it to. The pitch was my best weapon but I just hadn’t quite found it yet.
Until that day.
I still remember this game, because I had the bases loaded and one out. Stepping to the plate was none other than Nelson Cruz, one of the most established hitters in the game and a tough out. I got ahead in the count to 1-2 against Cruz, and then threw a 4 seamer to get him out. Now all we needed was to get one more out and we would escape the jam.
There was just one little problem...I still had to face Mitch Haniger, who was on fire last season. I decided to trust the sinker. With my first pitch I threw the sinker to get a quick strike, and decided to go right back to it. Now the count was 0-2.
You can't be "finding" your sinker right now I told myself. Just see your spot and throw.
This time I didn't mess around with waste pitches out of the zone - I went right at it again. And just like that I saw my best sinker of the year. I was fortunate to get Haniger to swing and miss again to keep the game tied at 2-2. In the top of the ninth inning, Mark Canha hit a deep shot to left field that cleared the fence to give us a 3-2 lead, and as the game went to the bottom of the ninth, Bob Melvin sent me right back out again.
I remember putting guys on first and second, but with two outs I just needed one more good pitch to end the game. Dee Gordon hit a little chopper towards our second baseman, and I thought that might be it, only to watch as Dee raced down the line and beat out the throw.
This was the situation every pitcher dreams of - or fears. One-run lead. Bases loaded. Two outs. Bottom of the 9th. Now with nowhere to put the runner.
But God had made me fearless at this point. With the 1-1 count, I threw another 97 mph pitch to enduce a groundball. Matt Chapman, our third baseman, grabbed it off one hop and fired over to first base for the win. We had trailed almost the entire game, but that win marked a turning point in our season.
We went 17-10 in June, 17-8 in July, 18-9 in August, and by the end of September we had won 97 games. And with a newfound confidence in my sinker, and great team baseball, we closed out the last 15 appearances - over the course of 17.1 innings - scoreless. I say this not to brag, but only to show God's glory...but the same kid who was reaching 83 mph in 2008 and then holding back tears in the Marlins complex in 2010 had just finished the year of my career. Thus far. With a 0.78 ERA.
I had the kind of year every closer dreams of, but God had one more lesson to teach me last season. I would need to persevere one more time.