OAKLAND -- Pat Neshek played a key role in the A's bullpen in the second half last year after being acquired Aug. 3, recording a 1.37 ERA in 24 appearances. And whether Neshek has appeared in fewer high-leverage situations so far this season -- or whether it just seems that way because just about every game for the A's down the stretch in 2012 qualified as a high-leverage situation -- Neshek said he has noticed the same thing.
The A's have their typical three-man combination for innings 7-9 in close games in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour. And early this season they were winning games by wide margins pretty consistently, meaning middle relievers like Neshek weren't being inserted into a ton of stressful situations. Neshek had pitched in 28 games before Tuesday night and only been credited with one hold, despite an ERA of 2.19 overall and 0.73 in his last 14 outings.
Tuesday night was different. Neshek did come into the game early -- with two outs in the fifth inning -- and the A's held a four-run lead. But the Reds had the bases loaded with two outs, one swing from making what had been a 7-1 game much closer.
"I know last year when I came over I was used in a few more situations like that," Neshek said after the game. "It was kind of nice. I like pitching in those situations. It seems like you have a lot more adrenaline."
Facing designated hitter Chris Heisey, Neshek got ahead in the count 0-2 with a pair of sliders for called strikes, then threw another slider low and away that Heisey swung over for strike three to end the inning. Neshek, the righty with the funky sidearm delivery, hopped off the mound with his right index finger still pointing skyward.
"It was a big situation and I just tried to stay focused and get ahead in the count," Neshek said. "I knew he'd probably be swinging after that. Once I got that first strike I felt pretty confident."
On a night when Tommy Milone was not sharp, throwing 103 pitches and walking four in 4 2/3 innings, the A's used five relievers to lock down the win. The Reds loaded the bases with two outs again in the sixth for slugger Joey Votto, but Jerry Blevins got Votto to fly out harmlessly to Yoenis Cespedes in shallow left field.
It was a nice bounce-back night for the bullpen, which had four losses, three blown saves and a 7.23 ERA on the A's seven-game road trip to Texas and Seattle. Cook and Doolittle both pitched scoreless innings, and Dan Otero closed the game with a perfect ninth in a non-save situation.
Neshek was credited with the win and has not allowed a run in 14 of his last 15 outings. One other interesting detail about the Heisey at-bat -- it was Neshek's first time throwing to catcher Stephen Vogt, who was called up from Triple-A on Tuesday and made his A's debut. Vogt, though, wasn't entirely unfamiliar with Neshek and his drop-down sliders.
"I've played against Pat before and I'm glad I get to catch him now and not have to face him," said Vogt. "He came in in a big situation and got us out of there on three pitches. It was huge."
* For manager Bob Melvin, calling for Neshek in that situation meant taking Milone out one out shy of qualifying for a win in a game in which the left-hander was staked to a six-run lead after three innings. Milone, though, walked the final two hitters he faced, including Jay Bruce with the bases loaded to force in the Reds' third run.
"Certainly I wanted to get him in position to get the win," Melvin said. "But I just felt the way the game was going at that time, (Heisey) was a really important out and I felt like (Neshek) was a better match-up."
Milone didn't disagree.
"You could see it, I walked two guys in a row, walked a guy in," Milone said. "I don't blame him at all for taking me out right there."
Milone allowed one hit through the first three innings before giving up a leadoff homer to Votto in the fourth. Beginning with Votto, seven of the final 11 hitters he faced reached base. Milone said "something was a little bit off -- I wasn't able to throw it where I wanted to, I was just feeling uncomfortable."
Facing Bruce in the fifth with the bases loaded, Milone said, he was mindful of not wanting to throw anything that Bruce -- who leads the Reds with 18 home runs -- could drive. Milone got ahead in the count 0-2, but Bruce worked it full and, after fouling off three consecutive pitches, took a close pitch low and away for the walk.
"You've got to pitch him carefully because you don't want to give up that big hit," Milone said. "Just missed too many times."
* Milone didn't attribute any part of his rocky outing to the fact that he was throwing to a catcher he met for the first time hours before the game. Vogt was acquired by the A's on April 5, after opening day, and has been playing in Triple-A since, so aside from relievers Jesse Chavez and Otero he's a new face to the rest of the Oakland pitching staff.
Milone, though, said working with Vogt on Tuesday night went pretty smoothly.
"He really transitioned pretty well, especially since I met him probably an hour before the game started," Milone said. "We basically just talked until he felt comfortable with what kind of pitcher I was -- he saw a little tape from previous games -- and then we just went after them."
Melvin and Otero both said before the game that Vogt has shown the ability to pick up his pitchers' tendencies quickly in Triple-A. Vogt said that while working with Milone was "obviously a little bit new," he felt they were "on the same page pretty much the whole day."
"He had good stuff, and just a few pitches we didn't execute as well as we could've," Vogt said. "Other than that I thought we did a nice job. As far as a relationship with him, I thought we were on a pretty good page."
Milone said he "didn't really have to shake (Vogt) off that much -- I felt comfortable with what he was putting down. And that's pretty rare when a guy comes in ... and you're not familiar with him."
The Reds have another right-hander scheduled to throw Wednesday in Homer Bailey, so depending on how John Jaso's left hand feels, Vogt could be learning another new starter tomorrow in A.J. Griffin.
* Vogt, who went 0-for-25 in 18 games last season for Tampa Bay in his only other major-league action, was hitless in four plate appearances Tuesday night and is still looking for that first hit. But he did record his first big-league RBI in the second inning on a sacrifice fly that gave the A's a two-run lead at that point.
"To contribute to your team and help them win, that's what it's all about, whether it's RBIs, catching, whatever," Vogt said. "It means a lot to have the first RBI, that's for sure."
Vogt doesn't seem like one to stress over getting the first hit -- he was asked about it both before and after the game Tuesday and both times said he's more concerned with having good at-bats. "All you can control is if you get a good pitch to hit and barreling it up," he said.
Overall, he assessed his Oakland debut as: "Awesome. Great to come in and have the team get a win on your first night. Great way to kick off the start with the A's."
* As nice as it was to get some clutch innings from his bullpen, Melvin said the bigger key might have been the offense adding on after taking an early lead against Bronson Arroyo. The A's scored twice in the second inning and four times in the third, with Josh Donaldson's 11th home run of the season making it a 6-0 game.
Donaldson, who hit a first-pitch curveball from Arroyo over the fence in left-center, said he "was really going to go up there and take ... And he just spun a breaking ball over the plate to try and get strike one, and I decided to give it a go."
The A's went 4-for-6 with runners in scoring position in the game, while the Reds were 1-for-5. It turned out to be pretty important that the A's capitalized on early opportunities, as from the fifth inning on they only put two runners on base and one past first.
During the game, the TV broadcast flashed a statistic showing that, since July 1 of last year, the A's have the best record in baseball (now 102-60) -- and the Reds the second-best. Told of the stat after the game, Donaldson said: "I don't think it's a coincidence."
"When everything's rolling pretty well we've got a lot of guys in the lineup that can do some damage, not only hitting home runs but just getting on base," Donaldson said. "I look over there at that team, they have some bigger names, but I feel like we kind of resemble each other in a lot of ways.
"I think both teams have really good starting pitching, both bullpens are really strong. ... And up and down the lineups I feel like you have guys that are pretty strong. They've got some guys in their lineup that have a pretty good track record. I feel like we have the same potential that they do, it's just guys that don't have the track record."
Too bad it's only a two-game series. It wraps up tomorrow with Griffin (5-6, 3.90) facing Bailey (4-5, 3.75) and first pitch scheduled for 12:35 p.m.
-- Matt Kawahara