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A’s score first

Mark Ellis hit a career-high 19 HR’s last season, and it would probably be silly to expect that kind of production again. Nevertheless, he just smoked a pitch from Daisuke Matsuzaka over the wall in left to produce the first run of 2008.

Matsuzaka’s homecoming has been a big story, but he doesn’t look entirely comfortable early. Travis Buck grounded out on Matsuzaka’s first pitch, but he grooved the pitch that Ellis whacked out of the park, and now he’s walked Daric Barton and hit Jack Cust in the heel. Looks terrible.

By the way, what does that say about Barton that he’s hitting third in the first game of his rookie season?

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Play Ball!

Crawled out of bed a few minutes ago after grabbing a 2 1/2-hour “nap,” and was in the midst of wiping away tears created by one yawn after a nother when I heard ESPN broadcaster say, “The Red Sox, the defending champions and favored to win another.”

Perhaps I’m dreaming.

Nope.  Thorne just mentioned that Boston’s J.D. Drew was scratched with an injury just before the lineup cards were brought out to the umpires. Definitely not dreaming.

Anyway, Joe Blanton just threw the first pitch _ a strike on the inside corner to Dustin Pedroia, the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year. One significant absence for the A’s: No Eric Chavez at third base. First time that’s happened on Opening Night since 1998.

More updates later.

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Welcome to the Witching Hour

Clock just struck midnight, and if that doesn’t get your heart pumping for some ball, you must be in bed. Not here at Midnight Madness headquarters, however. The A’s open the 2008 regular season against the Boston Red Sox in about three hours. Joe Blanton on the hill against Daisuke Matsuzaka in a series that apparently has all the feel over there of Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals.

One underlying question regarding Matsuzaka is how long will he pitch. He pitched complete games regularly during his days in Japan, but had only two in his first U.S. season in 2007. His return home is probably the same as you could expect if Elvis walked back into the building, so he’ll be nasty. No doubt about that.

Anyway, if you’re up, chat at me during the game. If not, read all about it here when you get up this morning. In the meantime, since it is Midnight, time to update the Bay’s Ball brackets from last week.

HOME RUN DIVISION

1) Barry Bonds’ 756th home run (2007) d. (8) Mark McGwire’s upper-deck home run off Seattle’s Randy Johnson (1997) [There's only been one 756th home run, after all]

(5) Will Clark’s career-starting HR off Nolan Ryan (1986) d. (4) Scott Hatteberg’s  ”Win Streak to 20″ walk-off HR vs. Kansas City (2002): Any homer that conjures up the nickname “Thrill” gets the nod.

 (3) Willie Mays’ 4-home run day at Milwaukee (1961) d. (6) Jason Giambi’s walk-off HR vs. Yankees (2001): Say Hey, that was an easy one.

(2) Reggie Jackson’s home run off the light tower in Detroit (1971) d. (7) Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run (2001): Reggie’s dinger was the thing of myth.

PITCHING REGION

(1) Catfish Hunter’s perfect game (1968) d. (8) John Montefusco’s no-hitter at Atlanta (1976): No need to explain.

(5) Vida Blue’s Cy Young Season: 24-8, 1.82 ERA, 301 K’s (1971) d. (4) Mike McCormick’s Cy Young Season: 22-10, 2.85, 185 K’s: No contest.

(2) Juan Marichal’s 6 20-win seasons (1963-66, 1968-69) d. (7) Bob Welch’s 27-win season (1990): Without a great ‘pen, Welch doesn’t win 17 that year.

(3) Dave Stewart’s 4 straight 20-win seasons (1987-90) d. (6) Robb Nen’s 4 40-save seasons (1998, 2000-02): We’ll take Stew against almost anyone.

POSTSEASON DIVISION

(1) Rickey Henderson 1989 ALCS MVP (.474, 8 R’s, 7 BB’s, 3 RBI, 3 SB) d. (8) Kenny Lofton’s 2002 pennant-winning single against Cardinals: Rickey won that series by himself.

(4) Will Clark’s 1989 NLCS MVP (.650, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 8 R’s) d. (5) Jose Canseco’s ALCS upper-deck HR against Toronto (1989): Again, the whole canvas of work vs. a singular moment.

(2) Barry Bonds’ 2002 postseason (.356, 8 HR, 16 RBI, 18 R, 27 BB) d. (7) Mark McGwire’s World Series walkoff HR (Game 3, 1988): Remember how good Bonds was that fall?

(6) Dave Dravecky’s 1987 NLCS (15 IP, 1 ER, 14 K) d. (3) Reggie Jackson’s 1973 World Series MVP (.310, 1 HR, 6 RBI): If the Giants could’ve just got Dravecky one run in Game 6 …

 MISCELLEANEOUS DIVISION

(8) Rick Langford’s 28 complete games (1980) d. (1) Barry Bonds’ 71st HR (2001): Hey, everybody was hitting HR’s when Bonds broke McGwire’s mark, but nobody before or since has had 28 CG’s.

(2) Rickey Henderson’s 130-SB season (1982) d. (7) Bill Swift’s 2.02 ERA for Giants (1992): Rickey’s mark may never be broken

(3) Kevin Mitchell’s barehanded outfield catch at Cardinals (1989) d. (6) 18-1 “Billy Ball” start for A’s (1981): Flipped a coin on this one.

(4) Dennis Eckersley’s Cy Young/MVP Season: 51 Saves, 1.91 ERA, 87 K’s, 9 BB (1992) d. (5) Jason Schmidt’s 16-strikeout game against Florida (2006): Give us Eck over Schmidt any day.

We’ll update the bracket later this week.

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Chavez back to the drawing board

Real discouraging news out of A’s headquarters, where Eric Chavez is having more back difficulties. It’s impossible to imagine he won’t start the year on the disabled list.

Of bigger concern is whether he can ever get to a point where he is a productive player again. Head trainer Larry Davis had a saying he often used when discussing medical terms. ” Once a back, always a back.” Not difficult to understand what he means. Thus, Chavez will always have to take great pains to keep his back healthy, and because of his back, he’ll likely always have some kind of pain.

Right now, the trouble seems to be arising after he starts to take ground balls. He hasn’t stayed healthy enough for a long enough period to get a read on how swinging will affect it, but obviously, that action causes stress, too. As does running.

In other words, it’s a very scary time with Chavez right now. He had surgery to fix his back issues in the offseason, and these setbacks are not what you have in mind after having surgery. That said, Mark Kotsay had the same surgery a year ago, struggled at the outset of his comeback, and now seems to be doing OK in Atlanta. So maybe all Chavez needs is more time.

In the meantime, the A’s cannot count on him ever being as productive as he once was. And they’ll cross their fingers that the rest of the news from the medical ward stays fairly tame.

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Red Sox crisis averted

“Please take us back to DEFCON 5!”

Honestly, don’t you wish somebody could stand at a microphone and utter those famous words from “War Games?” First, the Red Sox put baseball in crisis mode. Then, the crisis is averted.

And for what? A mere $40,000 per coach. Now I say “mere,” because what we’re dealing with in the players is a group of players so out of touch with reality that the sky might as well be orange in their world. Coaches are among the lowest-paid group in baseball, so sure, good for the players to make a stand. But to threaten a boycott of the season openers in Japan when all they’ve been asked to do is their job is a ridiculous.

In fact, the notion that the players demanded to be paid an extra $40,000 to go overseas is pretty disgusting.  As my boss said, “If (our A’s beat writer) Joe Stiglich wants $40,000 when he gets back from Japan, that’s a problem.”

Uh, yeah!

Anyway, the pampered babies got their way, so the world can resume turning. Until tomorrow, when perhaps they find out they don’t get free sunflower seeds.

As for the rest of us, we will continue working our 55-hour weeks, maybe get a slight bump in pay every 12 months (if we’re lucky) and pay even more for our tickets and parking.

What a country! 

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Optimism about the A’s

Don’t go off the deep end just yet, but as the spring progresses, it appears more and more as if the A’s might not be the miserable wretches they were expected to be. Not only that, there are signs their division could be interesting. Among them:

1) The Angels starting pitching is in tatters. John Lackey will join Kelvim Escobar on the shelf, and that’s going to put more onus on the Angels’ offense, at least initially. Torii Hunter has had a huge spring, and Vladimir Guerrero is Vladimir Guerrero, so perhaps they will. But for now, the Angels don’t look like juggernauts, and that means …

2) The Seattle Mariners appear to be the AL West’s best team. Seattle has loads of pitching with Erik Bedard, Felix Hernandez and Carlos Silva. But veteran observers think they’ll struggle to score runs, and there is some question as to how some key bullpen members — J.J. Putz and Cal product Brandon Morrow chief among them _ will bounce back from some heavy work a year ago. Thus …

3) The  A’s may well stick around the race for a bit. Rich Harden must stay healthy, of course (and everybody knows what a huge question that is) and Justin Duchscherer must stay healthy and prove he can be a starter. Huge questions also linger about Bobby Crosby and Eric Chavez, too, and the A’s must sort out their outfield situation. 

Still, they’ve done quite a bit of winning in the Cactus League, and that’s usually indicative of quality play from young guys, and it’s become clear that tossing in the towel on Opening Day (as was the conventional wisdom) is not necessary.

On the bad news front for the A’s, the breaks have evened out regarding their trip to Japan.

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March Madness — Bay’s Ball Edition

It’s all about bracketology at this time of year _  go UCLA, Texas, Kansas, North Carolina in your brackets, with Kansas taking home the ring _ and last year we broke down a 64-team field that pitted the best A’s players in history against the best of the Giants.

Gonna do something a little different this time. This year, I’m gonna pit some of the greatest moments in the respective teams’ history against each other. Would love to get some reader participation in this, and you’re vote can sway the results. In this tourney, though, 64 is too much, so i’m gonna go with 32. Here we go.

HOME RUN DIVISION

1) Barry Bonds’ 756th home run (2007) vs. (8) Mark McGwire’s upper-deck home run off Seattle’s Randy Johnson (1997)

(4) Scott Hatteberg’s “Win Streak to 20″ walk-off home run vs. Kansas City (2002) vs. (5) Will Clark’s career-starting home run off Nolan Ryan (1986)

(3) Willie Mays’ 4-home run day at Milwaukee (1961) vs. (6) Jason Giambi’s walk-off HR vs. Yankees (2001)

 (2) Reggie Jackson’s home run off the light tower in Detroit (1971) vs. (7) Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run (2001)

PITCHING REGION

(1) Catfish Hunter’s perfect game (1968) vs. (8) John Montefusco’s no-hitter at Atlanta (1976)

(4) Mike McCormick’s Cy Young Season: 22-10, 2.85, 185 K’s vs. (5) Vida Blue’s Cy Young Season: 24-8, 1.82 ERA, 301 K’s (1971)

(2) Juan Marichal’s 6 20-win seasons (1963-66, 1968-69) vs. (7) Bob Welch’s 27-win season (1990)

(3) Dave Stewart’s 4 straight 20-win seasons (1987-90) vs. (6) Robb Nen’s 4 40-save seasons (1998, 2000-02)

POSTSEASON DIVISION

(1) Rickey Henderson 1989 ALCS MVP (.474, 8 R’s, 7 BB’s, 3 RBI, 3 SB) vs. (8) Kenny Lofton’s 2002 pennant-winning single against Cardinals

(4) Will Clark’s 1989 NLCS MVP (.650, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 8 R’s) vs. (5) Jose Canseco’s ALCS upper-deck HR against Toronto (1989)

(2) Barry Bonds’ 2002 postseason (.356, 8 HR, 16 RBI, 18 R, 27 BB) vs. (7) Mark McGwire’s World Series walkoff HR (Game 3, 1988)

(3) Reggie Jackson’s 1973 World Series MVP (.310, 1 HR, 6 RBI) vs. (6) Dave Dravecky’s 1987 NLCS (15 IP, 1 ER, 14 K)    

 MISCELLEANEOUS DIVISION

(1) Barry Bonds’ 71st HR (2002) vs. (8) Rick Lanford’s 28 complete games (1980)

(2) Rickey Henderson’s 130-SB season (1982) vs. (7) Bill Swift’s 2.02 ERA for Giants (1992)

(3) Kevin Mitchell’s barehanded outfield catch at Cardinals (1989) vs. (6) 18-1 “Billy Ball” start for A’s (1981)

(4) Dennis Eckersley’s Cy Young/MVP Season: 51 Saves, 1.91 ERA, 87 K’s, 9 BB (1992) vs. (5) Jason Schmidt’s 16-strikeout game against Florida (2006)

Have fun: I’ll give you some “results” next Monday.

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A’s questions? Giants questions? Ask Rick

 What are the A’s plans for Carlos Gonzalez? Is Coco Crisp in the A’s future? How about the Giants and their pursuit of an impact hitter?

Rick Hurd, our “Chin Music” author, is back from spring training and he’s ready to answer these and any other baseball questions you may have.

Here’s how it works: You can either post your questions for Rick here on the blog, or you can also e-mail your questions to askus@bayareanewsgroup.com by Tuesday night. Then Rick will provide the answers in the chat wrap that we’ll post next week on this blog.

Jon Becker
Bay Area News Group online sports editor

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Crystal Ball

Now, was that so bad?

I’ve been a bit puzzled about the outrage regarding Billy Crystal’s appearance for the Yankees in a spring training game. A lot of what I’ve heard from fans on the radio and read throughout the country has to do with it making a mockery of the game.

What?! Mockery of the game? Gimme a break. The real mockery is that folks have to pay to see exhibition games at all. They aren’t real games, they aren’t treated like real games, and the majority of players you’ll see for 162 games in the regular season don’t approach them like real games.

At least the Billy Crystal signing gave an otherwise dull exhibition some zing. It gave the fans some additional entertainment. What’s wrong with that? And what better guy than Crystal, who has always tried to impart the magic that baseball carries in everything he does.

Only thing I’d like to see in the future is to have each team raffle off, say, one or two, one-day, no-money contracts so an ordinary member of the public can have his one at-bat in the sun.

Think of the goodwill that could generate.