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A’s Blackley has come a long way from Korea

PHOENIX – There’s hardly ever been a day during his decade playing baseball in the U.S. that you haven’t seen a smile on the face of left-handed pitcher Travis Blackley.

That’s particularly true now as he prepares for a season as a long reliever and spot starter for the A’s. The smile is bigger than ever.

But it’s been a long road from the ever-growing number of baseball parks in Australia to the desert splendor of Arizona, but there was a time two years ago when the smile had faded.

He’d gone from pitching in the big leagues to pitching in Korea.

“It was a time for some soul-searching,’’ Blackley said of the 2011 calendar year. “I was pitching well and all that, but I was pitching in Korea and wondering how I’d wound up here.’’

Ask scouts, and they’ll tell you that he always had great stuff, but that he didn’t always have great work habits. Ask Blackley and he’ll say “I was young and dumb.’’

Not so much anymore. Blackley has worked hard to get back, signing with the Giants last year and seeing a spot of time with them before being let go and signed by the A’s.

He repaid Oakland by going 6-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 15 games, including five as a starter. One of those was the season’s 161st game, when he pitched six innings against the Rangers, allowing one run in Oakland to beat two-time defending American League champion Texas. That enabled the A’s to draw even with the Rangers in the standings for the first time all year.

When Oakland won Game 162, the A’s were the AL West champions after having never led a day in the division for six months.

“I looked at myself and felt I always had the stuff to pitch here,’’ Blackley said. “What I didn’t have is the confidence. I’ve finally found that.’’

The A’s enter the spring with six solid starters, but pitching coach Curt Young and manager Bob Melvin will not let conversation about the A’s potential rotation for 2013 pass without mentioning Blackley. It’s possible that he will mostly pitch in relief this year, but if injury or ineffectiveness crop up, Blackley will be get the first call.

Or, and this would be a long shot, he could simply pitch his way into the rotation this spring.

Not bad for a former member of the KIA Tigers.

“That season in Korea turned it around for me,’’ he said.

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Plenty of position players happy to be early

PHOENIX – The sun came out Tuesday for the first day of A’s camp, and the pitchers and catchers got their work in at Papago Park, dressed and took off.

But on the field at Phoenix Municipal Stadium after the exits were many of the position players, the guys who don’t technically have to report until the weekend.

Many of the A’s are already in camp, and they are actually putting in longer days than the players who have to be there.

Long after the pitchers and catchers had showered and changed and split, perhaps a dozen other A’s hitters were on the field, taking batting practice, laughing and carrying on. It was good fun, but it was also work.

That may say something significant about the club that so many of the players who don’t have to be here want to be here. While it’s true that Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick and others have yet to appear, players who figure to have featured roles in the 2013 season are sweating it out, including Coco Crisp, Daric Barton, Brandon Moss, Hiroyuki Nakajima, Josh Donaldson, Scott Sizemore, Adam Rosales, Jemile Weeks, and Chris Young.

Through it all, manager Oakland Bob Melvin is sticking around to see how things go, and some of the coaches are involved in throwing and hitting grounders to the infielders.

Small wonder Melvin likes the way this camp feels.

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Okajima’s sound shoulder a boon for A’s bullpen

PHOENIX – Hideki Okajima is sound of mind and shoulder and ready to pitch for the Oakland Athletics.

That must come as something of a surprise to the New York Yankees.

It was at about this time a year ago that the Yankees, who had invited former Boston Red Sox short reliever Okajima to spring training, sent him packing, saying that he’d failed his physical exam.

The Yankees found the left-hander’s shoulder ailing, and he headed back to Japan, wondering if his big league career was over.

“I wondered `Is this it for the Major Leagues?’ ’’ Okajima, talking through an interpreter, said Tuesday on arriving at Oakland’s Phoenix Municipal Stadium home.

He caught on with Softbank in Japan and put together a stellar year – a 0.96 ERA in 56 games and 47.2 innings pitching mostly situational relief. And he did it all with the shoulder the Yankees had deemed dicey.

“I was very surprised to be told I’d failed the physical,’’ Okajima said. “I was able to go to Softbank and have a good year, but I always wanted to return to the Major Leagues.’’

As of Tuesday morning, he’s made the first step. He passed his physical, signed a minor league deal and dressed to take part in the first spring training session for A’s pitchers and catchers.

“The shoulder is fine,’’ he said. “I pitched with no problem (in Japan). I won’t throw off a mound today, but I’m on a regular schedule.’’

Manager Bob Melvin already was well-stocked with left-handed relievers in Jerry Blevins, Sean Doolittle, Pedro Figueroa, Travis Blackley and Jordan Norberto. But he’s enthused by the addition of Okajima, who is battle-tested in the post-season.

“I’m excited talking about the depth this move gives,’’ Melvin said. “His numbers in Japan were off the chart. He’s 37, but he doesn’t appear to have a 37-year-old’s body. And now our depth on the left-hand side is very strong.’’

A’s outfielder Coco Crisp, who was with the Red Sox for Okajima’s first two seasons back in 2007 and 2008, is a big fan.

“I saw what he did then, and he was outstanding,’’ Crisp said. “You have to like his arm.’’

Unless, apparently, you are the Yankees.