First day in the desert, and there’s no sun


Carl Steward (Twitter: @stewardsfolly) pinch-hitting for John Hickey the next few days …

It’s always fun to start your spring training relief gig with a trip to Surprise, which is about 45 miles from Phoenix Muni. You pass through the famed retirement community of Sun City, and this year, there’s a new treat for visitors: A mortuary billboard listing actual bargain prices for a cremation ($745) or a full burial ($3,300). I mean, they don’t mess around here when it comes to old age. They cut to the quick. But those seem like excellent prices.

It’s not as brutal weather-wise as Friday, when rain and hail stopped the A’s 12-run onslaught after four innings, but it’s cold and overcast. And here I sit with a gallon of sunscreen. Ah well, the sun is trying to peek through, so there may still be a chance to use some. This is my first live baseball game since Game 4 of the World Series, and during the interim, I’ve covered the Super Bowl, a golf tournament, a tennis tournament and a handful of Warriors games. But I’m back in my element … already behind on my scoresheet, and it’s only the first inning!

Meanwhile, the news in A’s camp is pouring out like maple syrup — slow but nary a taste of bitterness. On the injury front, closer Grant Balfour threw a bullpen session Saturday morning with no hitches. Manager Bob Melvin said he doesn’t have a date for Balfour to pitch in a game, but said he’ll be on track for Opening Day as long as he gets 5-6 outings. As for second baseman Jemile Weeks, he said his tender throwing shoulder is significantly better and believes he’s ready to jump back into the second base competition on Sunday. Melvin said that’s a maybe, but is inclined to give Weeks an extra day or two just because there’s no rush.

Dan Straily’s starting on the mound today against a Rangers split-squad unit being managed by former A’s skipper Jackie Moore. Not many Rangers regulars … just Ian Kinsler, Lance Berkman, Adrian Beltre, David Murphy and catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Oh wait, that Hamilton chap doesn’t play for these guys anymore, does he? There’s a bronze plaque of Hamilton on the Surprise Stadium mezzanine. Surprised it hasn’t been defaced yet considering all the tacky things he said about Arlington.

Shortstop prospect Addison Russell is in the lineup today as the DH, batting ninth. Looking forward to seeing the kid (gad, still just 19) hit … did check his B.P. this morning and as I noted on Twitter,  just the sound of the ball off his bat says, “It won’t be long.” (Russell wound up going 0-for-3, but robbed twice on catches by former A’s prospect Aaron Cunningham in right field, one to the wall in right field).

Other morning noteworthys: Yoenis Cespedes, who is hitting .118 so far this spring (2-for-17) with no extra-base hits, hit a ball in B.P. off Melvin that hit up the left field light standard at Phoenix Muni this morning. Guessing close to a 500-footer. Suffice it to say it’s territory not reached since the days of Canseco and McGwire. I’m setting the over-under bar on Cespedes’ homer total this year at 37, provided he stays healthy. I could be a bit low.

The A’s reassigned right-handed pitchers Bruce Billings and Sonny Gray and left-handed pitcher Justin Thomas, all non-roster invitees, to their minor league camp — Oakland’s first roster trims of spring training.

Oakland lost 4-3 to the Rangers. Nothing too dramatic to report other than Dan Straily pitched three fairly strong innings and said he felt like himself for the first time in three innings. Breaking out the slider extensively for the first time this spring in the first inning, he recorded three pretty impressive strikeouts — Ian Kinsler, Lance Berkman and Adrian Beltre.

Oh, and the wunderkind, Shane Peterson, had two more hits. He’s 15-for-31, .484. Melvin said after the game he couldn’t remember a guy who made this big of an impression in spring training. He has no chance to make the team in the outfield, but could force some time at first base, where he said he feels more comfortable anyway. For bit more on Peterson, Straily and others, read here: http://bit.ly/YN7e9q


Carl Steward