Milone emerging as Mr. Reliable of A's rotation
Not a hard thrower, lefty stays healthy and makes necessary adjustments
The first swing of Tommy Milone's Major League career was a home run. Fastball, belt high, crushed over the right-field wall and into the bullpen at Nationals Park.
Mets right-hander Dillon Gee threw it. Milone greeted it with a sweet left-handed stroke, evoking images of his childhood hero, Ken Griffey Jr.
Milone's inaugural pitch from the mound that day -- Sept. 3, 2011 -- was an 88-mph fastball for a called strike to Jose Reyes. But that was hardly memorable. He had a homer, three RBIs and a no-hitter through two innings.
"I probably should have quit right after that," Milone said recently at the Coliseum. "Realistically, you can only go down from there."
It is nothing short of miraculous, then, that the best time to be Milone is right now.
Milone has allowed three runs or fewer in 11 of his 14 starts for the A's this season. He has not taken a loss in seven weeks. Milone recently won his 30th game since being traded from Washington to Oakland in December 2011.
While Milone maintains he should have stuck with hitting, at 27, the lefty is establishing himself as the A's Mr. Reliable, a pitcher with impeccable control who stays healthy and makes the adjustments necessary for big league success.
Milone's stuff is far from overpowering -- his average four-seam fastball is 87.2 mph, according to FanGraphs -- but he changes eye levels and mixes pitches, constantly striving to stay one step ahead of hitters.
"Knowing Tom Milone, he's an adapter," said A's pitching coach Curt Young, a former Oakland southpaw who posted a 4.31 ERA in 11 seasons. "For a left-hander, his style, there have been guys that have been very successful in this game for a long time.
"He understands the consequences of not controlling his baseball, and that's why he's so good at it."
Over the last three years, success has not always come easily for Milone. In 2013, he suffered through his second straight August swoon and was sent to the Minors. In Spring Training, Milone appeared to be the odd man out of the rotation.
Milone lacked the raw talent of young studs like Sonny Gray and Jarrod Parker. He didn't have the ace potential of free-agent signing Scott Kazmir. A.J. Griffin was coming off a 200-inning campaign; Milone had thrown 156. Dan Straily jumped him on the depth chart.
Then Parker and Griffin got injured, and suddenly Milone found himself back in the starting five.
As reporters and fans were forecasting his omission from the roster, Milone had been busy becoming a better pitcher. His spring project: a two-seam fastball to complement his two-seam changeup.
"In the past when I tried learning one, I never really thought that I would be able to do it. I never really tried that hard," Milone said. "I needed to have some confidence in it, needed to continue to throw it, and then eventually during spring, [I] started seeing some results."
It was a long time coming. Milone had first thought about throwing the two-seamer in Double-A, and late in 2013, Young, coach Ariel Prieto and the A's catchers pressed him to give it another shot.
"I hate it as a hitter," said catcher Derek Norris, who came to Oakland from Washington in the same trade with Milone. "The biggest thing for a hitter is being able to pick up spin. That 6-7-mph difference is what gets guys to pop up or be late."
With his two-seam fastball moving away from righties and his cutter moving toward them, Milone has been able to go inside more often.
"He relied on his changeup so much that guys were able to spit on it if it wasn't where they wanted it," Young said. "This two-seam action, same type of movement, little more [velocity], and he is using it in to right-handers and has frozen some guys in there for strikeouts."
As someone who lacks a lights-out fastball, Milone knows he will take his lumps -- as he did Sunday, giving up five runs to the Red Sox in five innings. But his ability to ride out the lows, to make the minor tweaks, could lead to his long-term success.
In baseball, the winners are the adapters.
"If you're ever to the point where you think you've got this game down, it's a sure bet that you're getting passed by," said Red Sox right-hander Jake Peavy. "Always evaluate your performance and what guys are doing against you, and change accordingly."
"I don't think you get respect by throwing hard, I think you get respect by getting people out," added Jeff Francis, Milone's throwing partner who has made a successful career despite averaging only 87 mph on his four-seamer. "Tommy's been a great example of that."
The next hurdle for Milone will be overcoming his late-season inconsistency. In recent years, he has experienced dead-arm symptoms during the dog days of summer, and while he can't feel it, the ball looks different coming out of his hand.
"You know that you're not feeling right, you're not feeling yourself," Milone said. "It's frustrating, really."
But Milone will find a way to fix it -- or, at the very least, to give his team a chance to win.
"If you need to go in and get treatment to get you going, anything like that, you've got to make sure that you're in there," Milone said. "Anything you can do to help the team, to help yourself get ready for that next start, you need to do."
"There's a lot of competitor in Tom Milone, and he hasn't got where he's at without that competitiveness in his blood," said Young. "He may look like he's calm, cool and collected, but he's got a lot of fire in there.
"And he knows how to get people out."
Aaron Leibowitz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.