OAKLAND -- Jack Cust has four dozen obsolete bats in boxes above his locker. "You want them," he said, "you can have them." They're useless to him now, especially after his two-run seventh-inning home run powered the A's to a 3-1 victory over the Texas Rangers on Sunday, extending a personal hot streak that began when he received a new shipment of bats on the team's last road trip.
After hitting .155 over his first 21 games, Cust has emerged from a slump with a .458 average over his past seven. He has hit three of his four home runs in May, with none bigger than the go-ahead blast to left that gave the A's a 2-1 lead and highlighted a three-run inning. Cust's blast supported the efforts of rookie left-hander Greg Smith, who struck out a career-high 10, including five looking, while pitching six innings of three-hit ball. Smith's previous strikeout high was five. There are theories as to why Cust is hitting the ball better. A's manager Bob Geren described Cust's swing as "looser" and "more relaxed." "He could be seeing the ball better," Geren said. "There's not a big mechanical adjustment. It could be just bat speed." Cust said he did make a small mechanical adjustment, but had a better reason. "The bats I had in Spring Training were really bad," Cust said. "They were soft. The guy told me they made a mistake with the kind of wood." Cust recalled crushing the ball in a mid-April game against Kansas City and seeing the ball caught at the warning track. That was the last straw. "I've never hit a ball that good and not have it go out," he said. "So, they sent these out real quick." With the harder wood, the "Old Hickory" bats have indeed allowed Cust to be more "relaxed," at the plate, he said. "When I'm up there swinging, I don't have to use max effort," he said. Smith was unable to get the win from the home run, having been lifted an inning earlier. But his performance was just as vital, and his strikeout total was an A's season high. "I've been speaking so highly of him since the first time I saw him," Geren said of Smith, one of six acquisitions from Arizona in the Dan Haren trade. "He's a very smart pitcher. If he sees a weakness, he'll keep going to it. He'll exploit it." Smith doesn't have a blazing fastball but crossed up hitters with the late break on his offspeed stuff, Geren said. "He lived on the corners," Rangers outfielder David Murphy said. Smith was particularly effective against the heart of the order, striking out the Nos. 3-5 hitters -- Josh Hamilton, Milton Bradley and Murphy -- eight times in nine at-bats. "I was locating a lot of pitches with two strikes," Smith said. But the strikeouts added to his pitch count. And by the end of the sixth, he had thrown 103 pitches, leaving Geren little choice but to take him out. "He told me, 'If I could send you back out, I would,'" Smith recalled. "If I could do it again, I wouldn't strike out so many so I could stay in the game." Smith's only visible mistake was in allowing No. 9 hitter German Duran to drive a 3-1 pitch to left for a deep home run to lead off the third inning. It was Duran's first RBI of the season and first big league homer. Texas right-hander Scott Feldman (0-1), who grew up across the San Francisco Bay in Burlingame, pitched six innings of shutout ball in his second career start, fooling the A's with a live fastball. That changed in the seventh when Frank Thomas led off with a high fly ball. Rangers center fielder Hamilton, despite wearing sunglasses and shielding his eyes with his glove, battled the sun and lost, with the ball falling behind him for a double. Two pitches later, Cust found a fastball he liked for an opposite-field blast. Bobby Crosby doubled down the left-field line with one out to chase Feldman, and Ryan Sweeney followed with a run-scoring single for the final margin. Santiago Casilla (1-0) retired the Rangers in order in the seventh to get the win, and Huston Street got out of a mild jam by inducing Gerald Laird to ground out with a runner on second to end the game and earn his ninth save.
David Kiefer is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.