When we last saw Stephen Piscotty -- six feet away one March day in Mesa before baseball shut down -- he lamented the "perpetual cycle of hurt" he couldn't escape. With the shutdown providing time for recuperation and refocus, Piscotty emerged in spring training 2.0 as one of the most locked in hitters.
"My season, from a personal perspective, was a bit of a disappointment last year," Piscotty said in a call with reporters. "Now, I'm looking to bounce back."
Piscotty's eternal struggle with injury began in June 2019 when he sprained his knee in a game against the Angels. His return was met with a sprained right ankle sustained in August that kept him off the Wild Card roster. He didn't get a single spring training at bat in February and March due to an intercostal strain he sustained in the cages.
Piscotty can't fully appreciate the three month layoff that allowed him time to fully heal.
"I don't think of it in a positive way because I wish this year was normal," he said.
But, the positives are hard to ignore. Beyond the 100% health he says he's reached, the time off gave the 29-year-old outfielder space to make some key tweaks to his hitting approach. And the tweak was minute.
Hitting coach Darren Bush noticed that Piscotty was lunging his head forward during his swing. With a makeshift cage made up of just netting and a tee on his back patio, Piscotty leveled the lunge.
"It's interesting to get in the box after not playing for so long and already feeling comfortable, so (Bush) was spot on with that," Piscotty said. Consistent injury aggravated Piscotty's mentality, too. In the few games between IL stints he fell into, Piscotty lost himself trying replicate a 2018 second half in which he batted .272 with 15 home runs and a .873 OPS.
"I feel like I was just lost last year trying to replicate 2018," he said. "And I think now I have an understanding of what I was doing that I might not have been thinking of."
Coaches and A's players have said that Piscotty -- along with prospective second baseman Franklin Barreto -- have had the strongest at bats in this first week of summer camp.
"It looks like they came straight from spring training to the season," utility player Chad Pinder said. "They both look awesome."
"He came back and looks really, really good," assistant hitting coach Eric Martins said of Piscotty. "Better than in years past."
A's right-handed pitcher Daniel Mengden showed up to Mesa in February with his throwing arm wrapped up in a sling. Arthroscopic surgery and a 60-day IL transfer would give the A's some time to make a decision on Mengden, who is out of minor league options and without a known, everyday role on the big league squad.
This short season's 30-man roster provides Mengden a clearer path to big league outings -- and the A's a chance to see him there, healthy. He'll still need to be moved from the 60-day IL before rosters are due.
Mengden is throwing all his pitches and is a "full-go," manager Bob Melvin said.
"From what I've seen he's ready to go," he said. "I didn't expect him to be far along, but I wouldn't say there's any restrictions on him."
A healthy Mengden could operate in the pitching staff as a possible tandem or piggybacking option. Even though Mengden is a starter by trade -- he has two complete games with the A's, a 4.78 ERA in 16 starts squeezed between injuries and options -- he's expected to follow Chris Bassitt's lead as a swingman, of sorts.
"Daniel will have to go through that, and you have to accept that if you want to excel," Melvin said. "He's at a point where he realizes, when you're asked to pitch, just pitch and have a routine for when you're coming in for relief. Have a routine when you're starting, and look forward to the opportunity to be on the mound. That's a tough thing to acclimate to, but he's getting close to that."
Matt Olson struck out against him in Sunday's simulated game, and praised his "whip-y" arm action.
"I haven't faced Mengden too much, but the all was jumping out of his hand," Olson said. "He threw me a really sharp curveball. It looked like he was commanding well... Something that you don't think will be on you is on you real quick."
Smith -- the man from the rare A's, San Francisco Giants trade completed this February -- is making his mark as a key reliever.
Pitching coach Scott Emerson lauded Smith's fastball spin rate -- which is in the 54th percentile among the league, per Statcast. In Sunday's simulated game, Smith struck out the side: Barreto, catcher Austin Allen and infielder Eric Campbell before a Ramon Laureano fly out.
"He's been really solid," Olson said. "He's putting it where he wants and executing all his pitches."
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