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A’s can make hay vs. losing clubs, but Astros not the pushovers they once were, plus Melvin on chat with Milone

Carl Steward here. Tuesday night’s game ran way late, so my final game story didn’t make the actual print newspaper. Here’s the final version, plus the expanded notes from the early version.

OAKLAND – As good as the A’s have been, gaining ground on the Los Angeles Angels has proved to be quite problematic for them for nearly two weeks now.

Oakland hasn’t picked up a full game on the Angels since July 8, when they upped their American League West lead to 4 ½ games after a win over the Giants. Since then, L.A. has been hovering at 1 ½ games behind before a loss on the A’s off day Monday made it a two-game deficit.

The A’s had a great opportunity to make it three Tuesday night after the Angels suffered a 4-2 home loss to Baltimore, but Houston’s L.J. Hoes spoiled the chance to widen the gap. Hoes’ 12th inning first-pitch solo homer off Fernando Abad gave the Astros a rare 3-2 win at the Coliseum before 22,908.

It was a missed chance for Oakland, but the A’s will have more opportunities coming on the horizon. The opening game against the Astros marked a stretch where Oakland plays 20 straight games against teams with sub-.500 records while the Angels must contend with the Orioles, the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the rejuvenated Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox over the same stretch.

That said, the Astros clearly aren’t a team that’s just going to roll over anymore for the A’s, who were 25-7 against Houston all-time before this defeat.
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A’s: Trading Jim Johnson remains high priority

The A's have been looking to trade former closer Jim Johnson, now the man at the end of the A's bullpen.

The A’s have been looking to trade former closer Jim Johnson, now the man at the end of the A’s bullpen.

There are 11 days before the trade deadline, and one of the top jobs for the A’s brass is to find a new home for reliever Jim Johnson.

Actually, it’s been something the A’s have wanted to do for a while now, but the A’s don’t want to eat the remainder of Johnson’s $10 million contract and Johnson has done little to entice other teams to go after him.

“They would prefer to move him before the trade deadline,’’ a source said of the A’s. “They’ve been trying. So far, nothing’s happening.’’

Johnson came to the A’s after back-to-back 50-save seasons with the Orioles, but instead of being the closer to replace Grant Balfour, he hasn’t been able to get any level of his former consistency.

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A’s, Melvin enjoy impressing big crowds, even dogs

Josh Donaldson gave A's fans (human and canine) a reason to go home happy Friday night. (Staff photo/Jose Carlos Fajardo)

Josh Donaldson gave A’s fans (human and canine) a reason to go home happy Friday night. (Staff photo/Jose Carlos Fajardo)

Not much in the way of pregame news today from A’s manager Bob Melvin. Josh Reddick, who homered for the Stockton Ports last night, will play twice more with them and they’ll discuss the next move after Sunday’s game. Coco Crisp, bothered by a neck injury, will D.H. tonight. The neck figures to bother him for a little while. There’s still no timetable for Kyle Blanks, who has been able to do some running on the field.

Melvin did speak again about how much he enjoys his team putting on a show when the A’s do have a big crowd on hand. Last night, 27,232 were in the house and were rewarded with Josh Donaldson’s walk-off home run. With it being Bark at the Park night and dogs on hand, Melvin hopes to have snagged a few future customers.

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A’s: Samardzija revels in late outpouring of support

Jeff Samardzija got bailed out by A's offense Friday against Baltimore

Jeff Samardzija got bailed out by A’s offense Friday against Baltimore

For most of Friday night, you could forgive Jeff Samardzija if he’d started to wonder where this vaunted A’s offense he’d heard about had gone to.

With the Cubs, for whom he made his first 17 starts, Samardzija knew he wasn’t going to get much offense.

It’s not supposed to be like that with the A’s, who have scored more runs than 28 of the other 29 big league teams.

But Oakland got him four runs his first time out, just two runs in his second start and the A’s had just two runs through eight innings Friday before Josh Donaldson turned that around with a walkoff three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Samardzija was in the clubhouse when he saw it. What followed next, creation of the walkoff tunnel down the third base line, the pie in Donaldson’s face and the dumping of the Gatorade container, is something that Samardzija could get used to.

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A’s: Starters Gray, Kazmir and Chavez earn extra time off

Sonny Gray will get extra time off thanks to the All-Star break, as will Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez.

Sonny Gray will get extra time off thanks to the All-Star break, as will Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez.

The A’s have asked much of their starting pitchers in the first half.

Between then, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez have averaged 119 innings per man in the first half, during which they’ve gone 28-12 with a combined 2.77 ERA.

They are using a rejiggered rotation after the All-Star break to maximize the amount of time each will get off. To do that, manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young have gone with newly acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to handle the first two games after the All-Star break Friday and Saturday against the Orioles in Oakland.

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A’s: Unicorn mask latest bit of oddity in Oakland clubhouse

Reliever Joe Savery had charge of the A's unicorn backpack earlier this season.

Reliever Joe Savery had charge of the A’s unicorn backpack earlier this season.

It’s really true that you can never tell what you’ll see upon walking into the Oakland A’s clubhouse.

It could be players challenging themselves to coat their gums with nuclear hot sauce.

It could be a full sized Darth Vader helmet painted in the A’s Green and Gold gracing the center of the room.

Or it could be players taking turns wearing a large white unicorn mask.

Saturday pregame, it was the unicorn’s turn.

To be clear, the A’s have had a unicorn with them for a couple of years now. The backpack that the relievers fill with sunflower seeds, candy and nuts for the couple of hours they will spend in the bullpen has a unicorn on the back of it.

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Vogt has a dream couple of days at the park of his youthful dream, while Donaldson realizes own dream

Josh Donaldson whacked his 20th homer Thursday and also was named to the A.L. Home Run Derby squad.

Growing up in Visalia, Stephen Vogt was a big Giants fan. So were his parents. They even had season tickets at AT&T Park, so to hit a home run on Wednesday night and then drive in three runs with a pair of two-out singles Thursday in the A’s 6-1 victory left him feeling a bit high.

Vogt has been on a high for awhile, pretty much since his recall. He’s hitting .367, for crying out loud. During his current 10-game hitting streak, he’s hitting .457, and .412 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Bob Melvin has to have him in the lineup right now somewhere — right field, catcher, and now first base. He played some third base in college, so maybe second? Could he turn the DP?

But to do what he’s done at AT&T the past two days has been the highlight of his return to the majors.
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Loss aside, Hammel looks like a keeper

Just a few quick notes with a short turnaround to Thursday’s afternoon game at AT&T, the last between the A’s and Giants in 2014 unless they meet in October (and you know what that would mean).

As I wrote in the game story, Jason Hammel had a tough act to follow before he even took the mound Wednesday night. First start for the A’s, and he was making it on the road against a Giants team that knows him reasonably well. But most of all, he was following up a six-game string in which Oakland starters gave up one run or less and pitched at least six innings.

That streak was destined to end, and alas, the A’s now can’t finish the season at 129-33.

But if Hammel’s start didn’t measure up to the unreal standards of the past week, he showed reasonably well. Five innings, three runs (only two earned) and he kept the A’s in the game even though, as he said, he didn’t have command of his signature slider and walked more guys (three) than he’d walked in any start since April 16. Look, it’s not an open competition for the fifth spot — yet. Let’s see what Hammel does over his next three or four starts and possibly more. Tommy Milone threw four innings in Sacramento Wednesday night and gave up one run in four innings. Drew Pomeranz could be coming off the disabled list within the week, and with a rehab start or two, he could be ready to go. But it’s Hammel’s job until he loses it, and he didn’t do anything to suggest he can’t be a very solid fourth or fifth guy after one performance. His velocity was consistently in the 93-mph range and he did battle through a very tough 37-pitch third inning and allowed just one run. He did make a bad home run pitch to Hunter Pence, but that was really his only bad mistake.

What’s remarkable is that as rosy as things have looked for the A’s, their margin for error in the A.L. West still isn’t all that great. The Angels, who have the second-best record in baseball, keep applying the pressure, winning again Wednesday and cutting the Oakland division lead back to 3 1/2 games. With 71 games to go, there should be no breathing easy. While they would seem a virtual lock for the postseason, the A’s can’t let off the pedal or they could find themselves in that unenviable one-game wild-card playoff come October.

In other words, they could use the series wrapup before they head to Seattle for a very challenging weekend series that will end the first half. Scott Kazmir against Tim Hudson, facing his old team. Should be fun.

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A’s: The ability to bounce back the signature of this club

Manager Bob Melvin has his team rebounding whenever adversity shows up.

Manager Bob Melvin has his team rebounding whenever adversity shows up.

The old saying about sports is that you’re never as good as you look when you’re going good, and you’re never as bad as you look when you’re going bad.

So what does that say about the A’s, who have played 90 games with the second-best record (57-33) of any Oakland team ever and who haven’t had much bad happen?

It seemed like bad things might be ready to descend when the A’s finished the last road trip by getting swept in Detroit, losing three games when two of the three games were there for Oakland to win.

But they came back with a six-game homestand in which they won all six games they played and allowed five runs total in the six games.

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A’s: Gentry, Crisp prove speed doesn’t take a day off

Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry combined their speed skills to run down Giants Monday.

Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry combined their speed skills to run down Giants Monday.

The focus in Oakland almost always on the offense, which has scored the most runs (444) or on the pitching, which has the second-best ERA in the majors (3.11).

The thing is, the A’s can do more. And they did more Monday in the opener against the Giants, a team they will play three more times this week.

The A’s first run came in the fifth inning off Giants’ starter Ryan Vogelsong, who hit Craig Gentry with a pitch. Gentry then stole second and took third as Coco Crisp dropped down a brilliant bunt down the first base line, beating it out with a speed show of his own.

“It’s a good combination when they’re both on,’’ manager bob Melvin said. “there’s the dynamic where (the pitcher) has to be quick to the plate.’’

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