A’s bullpen could be ridiculously good this year, Doolittle adds another weapon

In for John Hickey for the Bay Bridge Series …

The A’s lost to the Giants 3-1 Friday night and now it’s on to Oakland Saturday afternoon for the last non-counting game for a good long while. These two games in San Francisco have played like counters, though, and both teams look primed for Opening Day.

The highlight for the A’s in this game was their pitching. Starter A.J,. Griffin, pitching against fellow San Diegan Barry Zito, had one shaky stretch in the fifth inning, but otherwise looked to be in fine form. He walked one and struck and six, and threw 57 of his 79 pitches for strikes. If Chris Young doesn’t misjudge Brandon Crawford’s two-out liner to right in the fifth, Griffin probably has a scoreless final spring outing.

But as promising as the A’s rotation may be, I can’t wait to see this Oakland bullpen in action this year. It could be special. I have long considered the Giants to have the best, most versatile and deepest pen in baseball, but I think the A’s can match them this year and possibly be even better.

For starters, Oakland still has its three nasty boys to finish the game — Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour. They still have Jerry Blevins and Pat Neshek and now have added a sharp-looking Chris Resop to the mix. Resop threw 10 innings this spring and didn’t give up a single run.

Said Bob Melvin of Resop after the game, “He’s going to be an important guy for us. He’s one of those versatile guys who can give you a little length. He’s got weapons to get a groundball. He can get a strikeout. He’s going to be a key piece.”

You know it’s a stout bullpen when lefty Jordan Norberto, who was so good last year before being derailed by a shoulder injury, doesn’t make the roster. The last spot will come down to Pedro Figueroa, Evan Scribner and Mike Ekstrom, and the bet here is Figueroa, which would give the A’s 4 righty-3 lefty pen.

The guy who really looks the most exciting of the bunch right now is Doolittle. He pitched two-thirds of an inning Friday night and simply blew away Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford back to back. But it wasn’t just the fastball that he relied on almost solely last season. Now he’s mixing in a slider and throwing it confidently, which is going to make his fastball that much more devastating.

“If he starts to establish that … he’s good enough with one pitch, but if he has two-plus pitches, he’s going to be really tough,” said Melvin. “He just continues to work on stuff to try and get better. A second pitch is going to be really important for him.”

Doolittle thinks so, too.

“It’s just more of a mental adjustment I made as far as where I’m starting it, trying to have better arm speed, have something that starts in the zone and breaks out,” he said. “Last year, I knew what a nasty slider looked like as a hitter and maybe I was trying to do too much with it. This year, we’re just looking for something that out of my hand looks like a fastball, almost like a cutter.”

Part of utilizing it is being confident in it, and Doolittle feels he’s finally there with an effective secondary pitch.

“It’s come a long way, and I’ve thrown it a lot this spring training,” he said. “It’s still a little bit of a work in progress, but I feel so much more confident when it’s called than I did last year.”

Doolittle said the primary purpose of adding the offspeed pitch is simply to cut down on his pitches. He had a lot of successful innings last year, but would look up at the board and would have 20-25 pitches. He wants to cut down on his pitch counts and be able to pitch more often and perhaps multiple innings if necessary.

Doolittle said the day it clicked for him was right at the beginning of spring training when he was talking to Cook and asked his mentality when he throws his own slider. Cook said he aims right for the glove, because he wants it to break out of the strike zone. Doolittle adopted the approach and it’s been working beautifully so far.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “I think it could be a really effective pitch for me against both righties and lefties.”

It’s amazing how far Doolittle has come in such a short time. Friday night, he looked like a guy who has definite future as a left-handed power closer.

The roster is pretty simple to figure out at this point, even though 32 players still remain on the active spring roster.

Just one of the three aforementioned pitchers — Figueroa, Scribner or Ekstrom — will get the final bullpen spot. That gets it down to 30. Hideki Okajima is headed to the minors, as is third catcher Luke Montz. Both are non-roster invitees. That gets it down to 28.

Either utility man Andy Parrino or right-handed first baseman Nate Freiman will make the club as the last infielder. Tough call on who that will be, but the odd man out reduces it to 27.

Bartolo Colon starts the season on the suspended list, reducing it to 26. Hiroyuki Nakajima opens the season on the disabled list, getting it to 25. When Colon is activated, he will likely replace Dan Straily in the fifth slot in the rotation, barring something unforeseen. So there’s your roster explanation, uofficial but an educated guess. I sure guessed right on Travis Blackley sticking around, eh?

Hopefully, it’s all settled Saturday and we can give you a Monday Opening Night lineup. But don’t count on it. Early turnaround, so we’ll call it a night right here.














Carl Steward