Josh Donaldson can’t help but shake his head when he watches what Sean Doolittle does his magic on the mound.
It happened again Monday when Doolittle, who is challenging the rest of the competition for the title of best left-handed setup man in the Major Leagues, faced six men and retired them all in helping the A’s beat the Giants 4-1 in the Coliseum.
It’s not a new scenario. Doolittle has retired 16 of the last 17 batters he’s faced, and his ERA, which peaked at 1.86 on April 28, is at 0.78 a month later.
In his last 13 games over the course of a month he’s faced 43 batters, allowing four hits and no walks in 13.1 innings.
Not bad for a one-time Cubs prospect as a first baseman/outfielder.
“It’s amazing when I look back to when we were playing in the Arizona Fall League together (in 2008),’’ Donaldson said. “He was one of the best hitters in the entire league. He was a tremendous hitting prospect. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, he would have been in the big leagues as a hitter in 2010.
“But he had knee troubles, and so now he’s pitching. For what he’s doing now, he deserves all the accolades he can get. He makes left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters look pretty bad.’’
There was some thought that Doolittle might find the going a little rough in 2013 after a good rookie season in which he had a 3.04 ERA in 44 games. But if the league has adjusted to Doolittle, it’s not at all evident.
He throws his fastball between 95-97 mph and balances it out with a slider that moves devilishly through the strike zone.
Normally manager Bob Melvin uses him for one inning, but when Doolittle needed just eight pitches to get through the seventh, there was no question that Doolittle was going to go out for the eighth inning as well.
“There was no chance for me to be surprised about that,’’ Doolittle said. “I was coming off the field and I was still maybe 10 feet from the dugout when Bob said I was going back out. So I was able to stay in it mentally.’’
It’s not a matter of Doolittle’s pitches being so much better than anybody else’s. It’s more that he has confidence that he can call on any of them – in, out, up, down – to go exactly where and his catcher want.
“The key is that I’m just able to get ahead in the count,’’ Doolittle said. “When you get ahead, when you get that first out, that’s important.’’
–Donaldson, himself a third baseman converted from catcher, has turned out to be the most valuable A’s hitter the first two months of the season.
With his home run Monday, he’s hitting a team-best .324 with eight homers and 33 RBIs. Only Yoenis Cespedes (nine) has more homers among the Oakland batters, and no one can touch Donaldson’s 33 RBIs.
He’s been particularly tough against left-handed pitchers, even ones as good as the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner.
Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti came to the mound in the fourth inning with one on and no one out in the fourth and Donaldson at the plate. Righetti returned to the bench after his chat with Bumgarner and Donaldson hit the next pitch out to center field for a 2-0 lead the A’s never relinquished.
“I felt he was locating his pitches well the whole game,’’ Donaldson said. “He just got behind me in that one case, and I thought he might challenge me with a fastball right there.’’
Donaldson is among the top hitters against lefties in the league with a 397 average and half of his eight homers have come against them in just 58 at-bats.