Prep Baseball

Baseball notebook: Cedar Rapids native A.J. Puk makes big league debut

Oakland Athletics relief pitcher faced New York Yankees

Oakland Athletics relief pitcher A.J. Puk (31) pitches the ball against the New York Yankees during the eighth inning Wednesday at Oakland Coliseum. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)
Oakland Athletics relief pitcher A.J. Puk (31) pitches the ball against the New York Yankees during the eighth inning Wednesday at Oakland Coliseum. (Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Go face the New York Yankees in a tight game.

That’s what Oakland Athletics Manager Bob Melvin pretty much said to A.J. Puk earlier in the week, as the Cedar Rapids Washington grad was brought in to relieve in the eighth inning of what turned out to be a 6-4 Oakland victory Wednesday. This was the hard-throwing lefty’s MLB debut.

“It was great to finally get the first one out of the way,” Puk told reporters postgame. “My heart was racing. I was trying my best to calm it down ... It’s the first one. I got it out of the way. Now, hopefully, it’s smooth sailing.”

Puk faced three batters: walking the first one, getting the second one to pop out and then allowing a single. Liam Hendriks came on to relieve him and stranded those two runners.

Puk missed a season and a half with Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgery, not pitching at all in 2018 and not throwing in an official game this season until mid-June. His stuff has returned post-surgery, with his fastballs against the Yankees clocked at either 98, 99 or 100 miles per hour.

“It’s a special moment,” Puk told reporters postgame. “My family was in town. They were able to see me throw in the major leagues for the first time. It was good all around.”

Mitch Keller has best MLB outing

Mitch Keller showed everyone Friday night why he is considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander and Cedar Rapids Xavier graduate threw six innings against the Cincinnati Reds, allowed just four hits and a run, striking out nine in the best of his six major league starts.

Keller got a no-decision as Pittsburgh eventually walked off Cincinnati, 2-1.

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“I felt really confident going out there,” Keller told reporters postgame. “Everything was working.”

The 23-year-old was coming off a subpar Sunday night start against the Chicago Cubs that was televised nationally by ESPN and played at Williamsport, Pa., home of the Little League World Series. The Cubs battered him for seven hits and six runs in 4 1/3 innings.

This was not that start. Not even close, as Keller was able to locate his mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider.

The only blemish against him was a solo home run by Aristides Aquino. Keller is 1-2 with a 7.24 earned run average, winning his first MLB game early last week against the Los Angeles Angels.

“The punchout pitches were real,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The fastball had finish to it, especially up. The curveball and the slider both played. A really good, unpredictable mix. It was fun to watch him out there tonight. He settled in and had things rolling.”

“(First-pitch strikes are) the name of the game,” Keller told the Post-Gazette. “Once you get ahead, batting averages go way down. That’s how I pitch. That’s how I’ve always pitched. I was making sure I was nailing that [Friday].”

Gabe Snyder a postseason All-Star

Cedar Rapids Kernels first baseman Gabe Snyder was announced Friday as one of 13 players named to the Midwest League Postseason All-Star Team. Snyder, 24, went into Saturday’s game against Peoria with a .256 batting average in 106 games.

He had 21 doubles, three triples, 16 home runs and 51 RBis. Snyder was a 21st-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins last year out of Wright State.

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Bowling Green shortstop Wander Franco was named the league’s Prospect of the Year, in a vote of league managers. Kane County outfielder Alek Thomas was selected league Most Valuable Player.

Others on the Postseason All-Star Team: Wisconsin catcher David Fry, Fort Wayne second baseman Xavier Edwards, Great Lakes third baseman Miguel Vargas, Lake County outfielder Will Benson, Lansing outfielder Griffin Conine, Bowling Green designated hitter Chris Betts, Bowling Green pitcher Caleb Sampen (right-handed starter), Fort Wayne’s Joey Cantillo (left-handed starter), Lansing pitcher Cre Finfrock (righty reliever) and Lake County pitcher Skylar Arias (lefty reliever).

John Shoemaker of Great Lakes was selected Manager of the Year.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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