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With Doolittle and Jaso headed to DL, A’s need starting staff to be special, and a Moss sighting would be nice, too

Suddenly, the A’s are in medical crisis mode. Sean Doolittle is down with a ribcage muscle pull, and there’s no telling when he’ll be back. John Jaso, suffering concussion symptoms from a hard foul tip he incurred two weeks ago, is in the same boat. When a guy is suffering from headaches and dizziness that long after the fact, there is legitimate cause for concern that he may not be able to get back behind the plate for a good long while, if at all.

Oakland’s middle infield is being held together with baling wire with Jed Lowrie and Nick Punto out. Lowrie, on the DL with a fractured index finger on his throwing hand, probably has at least another week before he can even think about returning. Punto hasn’t yet resumed baseball activity.

Josh Donaldson had an MRI on his left knee Sunday, and the A’s took a deep sigh of relief that there was no structural damage found. But he was already playing hobbled (nagging hip), as is Stephen Vogt (foot), Coco Crisp (neck) Josh Reddick (braced knee), Derek Norris (back stiffness) and Sam Fuld (jammed left knee trying to make a spectacular catch Sunday). Craig Gentry is back from a fractured hand, but that doesn’t tip the balance of health back nearly enough.
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This could just be the beginning of a great A’s-Angels battle that could spill over into October

The A’s and Angels may consider themselves rivals, but let’s face it, they’ve never really had the kind of storied rivalry the Giants and Dodgers have built. Of course, the two National League teams had roughly an 80-year head start before the two American League clubs started facing off as NorCal-SoCal opponents starting in 1968. But even over the last 46 years, the A’s and Angels have had comparatively few pennant race battles against one another, and they’ve never met in the postseason.

They have had some good ones. In 2002, the A’s won 103 games to take the division and the Angels won 99. Oakland was upset by Minnesota in the ALDS, while the Angels rolled all the way to the World Series and beat the Giants in seven games for the only championship in their history. Two years later, in 2004, the Angels beat out Oakland by a single game to win the division and the A’s missed the playoffs altogether as a result. In 2006, Oakland returned favor, holding on to win the division by four games over the Angels, who missed the playoffs despite going 89-73.

This year could top any of those races. As teams with the two best records in baseball — and right now they’re tied for that honor with identical 76-52 marks — this could wind up being the wildest and woolliest A’s-Angels finish ever, and what’s more, it might not be done in the regular season. Because of the way the postseason rules are set up now, there is a pretty strong chance the A’s and Angels could meet in the A.L Division Series as well, provided whichever team winds up as the wild card subsequently wins the one-game playoff.
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A’s rediscover themselves a bit in their home sweet decrepit home, begin tuneup for Angels

Bud Selig said for about the 1,000th time Tuesday that the A’s need a new ballpark, but for the moment, the old gray cement mare is pretty crucial to their more immediate concerns. They needed to regain their equilibrium following their worst road trip of the year (1-6), end their five-game losing streak and get back to the things that made them the best team in baseball the first four months.

A 6-2 victory over the New York Mets was pretty much textbook A’s. Scott Kazmir delivered six strong innings and allowed just one run, even though he didn’t quite find his groove until Oakland broke things open with a four-run fourth, sparked by Coco Crisp’s bases-loaded triple. The bullpen got to do its more customary shutdown thing, with Ryan Cook (helped by an Eric O’Flaherty one-out cameo), Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle slamming the door once Kamzir was done.

As for the much-discussed offense, the A’s finally put together a big middle inning, got a two-run longball add-on from Josh Reddick and just generally looked like the Oakland offense we saw before the Yoenis Cespedes trade. The game story focuses on the reemergence of Crisp as a necessary component for the A’s down the stretch, and you can read it >here.

“The offense was a little bit more like we’re used to seeing, making pitchers work and drawing some walks, getting some big hits,” concurred manager Bob Melvin. “That was good to see.”

To be sure, the mix of everything that suggested the A’s were getting back to being themselves with a huge home weekend series against the Angels looming was significant. It helped, too, that the A’s drew a crowd of over 23,000 for Tuesday night’s game. It portends well that the weekend could be big at the gate when Oakland needs its home crowd to perhaps unnnerve the Angels a bit.

The A’s aren’t talking about the Angels yet but you know they’re on their minds. They want to put their best foot forward this weekend, so an off day Monday and another Thursday should do wonders.

“Coming back home, having the day off yesterday to reset and recharge a little bit, being able to get the first win of the homestand in the first game, I think it’s huge,” said Doolittle. When (Travis) d’Arnaud hit the home run, it would have been really easy for everybody to say, `Uh oh, here we go again,’ but Kaz did a great job shutting them down after that and Coco and Reddick had some big hits for us.”

So one more game with the Mets Wednesday afternoon and then it’s on to the showdown.

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Calm down, A’s fans, your team ran into a red-hot club in Kansas City and it’s no time to go ballistic

At one of the myriad papers I’ve worked for in what is now the Bay Area News Group empire, we used to have a desk man who would get uncommonly frazzled on deadline, and if you tried to ask him a question when the heat was on, he had a retort that became infamous over the years for some of us:

“No time to think, gotta panic!”

This suddenly seems to be the mindset of a lot of A’s fans right now after a pretty good barbecuing of the green and gold here in Kansas City. Susan Slusser of the Chronicle got a Twitter response whining, “They’re not a playoff team anymore.” Noting that Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija all took tough losses in this series, I got one that read, “Three very overrated pitchers.” We could probably go through all of our feeds and comments sections and pull out 10 such doomsayer pronouncements.

Chill, everybody. Your team is still 25 games over .500, and it still has the best record in baseball. It simply ran into the hottest team in the game right now and lost three out of four. No reason to lose too much sleep. All of the Oakland starters pitched reasonably well. Ryan Cook took a licking Thursday, but he was coming off 20 straight scoreless innings.

The Royals just happened to pitch better in this series, and they got some timely clutch hits in favorable pitcher’s counts. As I wrote a few days ago, they are potentially a dangerous team for anybody in the playoffs if they get there. But they are not better than the A’s. That’s a delusion.

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A game of pitching near-perfection by Vargas rather than one of offensive shortcomings by A’s

Quick turnaround to Thursday’s day game, so this will be ultra-short, like the game itself. There’s not much to say anyway when Jason Vargas can pitch a gem like he did Wednesday night at the A’s — 3-hitter, 97 pitches, 23 batters retired in a row to finish the game, and 2 hours, 6 minutes. It just doesn’t get cleaner or quicker than that in this day and age, kiddies.

Vargas has done this to the A’s before (last Sept. 24), and you can look at it this way. Be thankful the guy signed a four-year contract with the Royals and isn’t still pitching in the division with the Angels. Oakland still has to play those guys 10 times, and Vargas could have gotten three starts against the A’s down the stretch.

One thing Josh Donaldson noted after the game I thought interesting. He believes whatever team plays the A’s these days seems to want to make an impression against the club with baseball’s best record. The Royals are in a tight divisional race and playing well, but he may have a point.

“When the Oakland A’s come in to town these days, the (home teams) are ready,” Donaldson said. “They’re out to prove something. We’re always going to come out here and try to play our best game, and other teams understand they’re going to have to be on top of theirs in order to beat us.”

Donaldson is impressed with the Royals.

“Their record speaks for itself,” he said. “They do a good job with their brand of baseball, and they did a good job tonight.”

The A’s, to be sure, will be happy to get out of K.C. with a split of this series, and the series finale pitting Jeff Samardzija against Royals’ ace James Shields. Get a good night’s sleep (and I will, too), because Thursday’s game will come early. Good thing, to put this latest one out of sight, out of mind.

Here’s the game story, with the few nuts and bolts there were. Final version with quotes should be up any minute.

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Moss strikes a few nice blows — and a bunt — against baseball’s increasing defensive shift insanity

You’ve been able to see it coming the last several years, but in 2014, teams in Major League Baseball have gone absolutely Barnum & Bailey crackers with defensive shifts, totally out of control even if it’s smart to do so. It’s a function of getting so much detailed information on where hitters put the ball in play, and teams are using the predictability factors to adjust their defenses on virtually every hitter. They’re shifting on Eric Sogard, for crying out loud, and you don’t need his glasses to see it. It’s almost become rare when you see a batter who is played straight up anymore, unless it’s somebody like Miguel Cabrera, and there just aren’t that many Miguel Cabreras around.

Bob Melvin agrees that it’s getting a little nuts. For heaven’s sake, the Royals kept their shortstop in position on Monday night and moved their third baseman to the left side of second base. That should be against baseball law. You can just see this little bald egghead in a hermetically sealed booth somewhere saying, “Move the second baseman six inches to the left out there in right field.”

Look, we know shifts are as old as the game itself. Teams used to shift against Willie McCovey routinely. But they were rare, utilized for the dead pull power hitter. Now, everybody gets their own unique shift. Daric Barton would probably get a shift, if he were here.
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Royals, not Tigers or Angels, could be biggest threat to A’s in American League playoffs

You have to be a semi-old dude like me to remember the last time the Kansas City Royals were perennially, disgustingly good. After all, they haven’t made the playoffs in 29 years, the longest postseason drought in North American sports. Hence, if you’re under 40, you probably don’t remember any of it.

It just so happened the last time they made the playoffs in 1985, the Royals also won the World Series, and if it wasn’t for umpire Don Denkinger and the lack of a replay system to reverse brutal calls at first base, they probably wouldn’t have that. But those early ’80s Royals teams were so loaded, with George Brett, Amos Otis, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, John Mayberry, Bret Saberhagen, Bud Black, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza and Dan Quisenberry.

The 2014 Royals aren’t to be confused with that group, but let this be stated right now: They are a team good enough to end their long playoff drought, and they’re good enough to make trouble for anybody who may have to face them in the playoffs. Right now, they’re giving the Detroit Tigers all they can handle in the American League Central, having taken over first place with their 3-2 win over the A’s and the Tigers’ loss to Pittsburgh. Ask the Giants what they think of K.C., which rolled them three straight over the weekend.

And the Royals seem to not fear the A’s much, either. They’ve now won 3 of 4 in the season series, have beaten Sonny Gray twice, and have demonstrated if they can carve out a lead early on, they are exceedingly tough to come back against, particularly in the late innings.
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Vogt’s hilarious referee routine helps ease some tensions in the A’s clubhouse … including his own

In the Oakland A’s victorious clubhouse Thursday night, a replay of Stephen Vogt’s appearance on the MLB Network’s Intentional Talk was being shown on the big screen TV, and players were reveling in its madcap majesty all over again. Nobody was laughing at it any harder than Jon Lester, who had just thrown a complete-game three-hit shutout at the Minnesota Twins. Lester threw one of the gems of the year for the A’s, and he talked about the significance of it in the game story here.

But even Lester would probably prefer to hear the details of Vogt’s incredibly funny bit imitating an NBA referee’s antics (this has got to be Joey Crawford) while making various game calls, which he broke out on national TV with the help of Jonny Gomes. Gomes saw the routine in the clubhouse a few days ago, and was so bowled over in hysterics that when he got the call to be interviewed by Chris Rose and Kevin Millar, he decided Vogt’s act needed a bigger audience. After a few questions from the show’s hosts about his readjustment to being back in Oakland, Gomes brought Vogt on camera dressed in makeshift referee garb. The rest is history. Watch and enjoy here. Vogt comes in at 2:45.

Bob Melvin had seen the bit live, and before he was even asked a question in his pre-game press conference, the manager had to hype it.

“Did anybody see Intentional Talk today?” he said. “Oh my god, Vogt and Gomes, it was unbelievable. Best I’ve ever seen. Vogter wore his basketball referee outfit and put on quite the show. Between the two of them, it was very entertaining.”

MLB.com wisely put the video up ASAP, and it’s sure to increase the stature of Vogt’s vast comedic talents. Seriously, if this guy wasn’t a baseball player, he could probably get a cast spot on Saturday Night Live. One of his favorite routines, in fact, is his Chris Farley “down by the river” reprise that it is a total gut-buster. We haven’t seen it here in Oakland, but when Vogt was with Tampa, he nailed an impression of Rays manager Joe Maddon that is still legendary down in those parts.

So how did this latest national breakout take place?

“Jonny texted me at 12:30 today and said, `Do you want to go on with me as the ref, and I said YES,” Vogt said. “He was nice enough to include me in his interview today. I enjoy that kind of stuff. In this job, we are 30-year-old men, but we get to act like 5 year olds. It’s pretty fun.”

Before the second game of the series against Tampa Bay, Vogt was in the clubhouse and noticed things were kind of quiet, possibly even a little tense. After all, the A’s are still adjusting to life without Yoenis Cespedes, and it’s shown at the plate. Vogt has been perhaps the most notable victim of the tension, heading into Thursday night in an 0-for-23 slump. Anyway …

“I just brought my whistle out and started calling fouls,” Vogt recalled. “You’ve got to save it for times when guys are maybe a little nervous or there are times when it’s kind of quiet and dead in here, and you try to liven things up a little bit and have some fun. That’s something I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do.”

It not only worked on the A’s, it worked on Vogt himself. He slammed a two-run homer in his first at-bat, and as he said, he felt like his old self for a change at the plate.

“I don’t think I necessarily corrected anything, so to speak,” he said. “Over the last week or so, I’ve gotten away from who I am as a hitter. I’m trying too hard to do what I did tonight, get a big hit, forgetting that I’m not a home run hitter. I’m a guy who waits for a good pitch and hit it hard. If it goes out of the yard, it goes out of the yard. I was trying create more than I needed to create. But I felt great tonight. I just need to be sure I’m seeing the ball and being selective, swinging at good pitches. I feel like I did that tonight. I felt like I was back to my normal self.”

Vogt not only snapped out of his 0 for 23, Brandon Moss and John Jaso also broke out from 0 for 18s, Moss with a double and Jaso a single. For Vogt’s part, he said it’s all part of how baseball plays with the psyche.

“This game is funny,” he said. “Myself, I was locked in for 90 days. You go four days without a hit and all of a sudden there’s panic. Why? Why? But that’s just the nature of this game. It’s a game where you fail 70 percent of the time, but we expect to be perfect with results. I just need to relax and not be as hard on myself. It’s a mental battle, and particularly at this point in the season, we know what the ramifications are if we don’t win. There’s a lot of pressure we put on ourselves we don’t normally need to.”

Now if Vogt can only sell his referee routine to his wife Alyssa, who will start her first season as head girls basketball coach at Tumwater High this winter up in Washington state.

“She doesn’t think it’s funny,” he said. “Obviously, she’s a coach, and she keeps telling me, `I honestly don’t know why people think it’s funny.’ I think she just likes to give me a hard time by saying that.”

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A’s finally cut the cord on Jim Johnson, designate $10 mil reliever for assignment, plus good news on Cespedes

The A’s finally put struggling high-priced reliever Jim Johnson out of his Oakland misery Thursday, designating the right-hander for assignment after his latest in a series of mound meltdowns.

Johnson, 31, entrusted with a 9-2 Oakland lead against Houston Wednesday night, gave up four straight hits – in just 11 pitches – and was quickly removed by A’s manager Bob Melvin. All four runs eventually scored as the A’s hung on for a 9-7 victory at the Coliseum.

It was just the latest in a long list of setbacks, starting with a loss in his first A’s appearance on March 31 and a blown save in his second.

Johnson, 4-2 with a 6.92 ERA and just two saves before losing his job as the closer, was a major disappointment for the A’s this year. Signed to a $10 million one-year deal after the departure of Grant Balfour in free agency, the A’’s looked secure with a pitcher who had saved 101 games in his previous two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.

A’s manager Bob Melvin said it was difficult giving Johnson the bad news.

“It was very tough,” Melvin said. “There’s a human side to all this, too. The performance wasn’t great, but it’s not like he wasn’t accountable. I just couldn’t get him in a spot where he could get on a roll, and I feel awful about it, too, because it’s my job to get him in a position to succeed, and it just didn’t happen here.”
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After an even 100 games, A’s still have enough questions to make fans nervous

Yoenis Cespedes had a big breakout with two home runs, but a thumb injury put a damper on his great night.

No one should be complaining about the A’s after a 62-38 record after 100 games, right? This is more than anybody had any right to expect at season’s outset, when the A’s were two starters down and they were still playing Daric Barton at first base with a straight face. While the division title still figures to be a fight with the Angels, Oakland is better positioned to win it schedule-wise and it would require a monumental collapse to miss the playoffs altogether.

But worry? Yes, it’s OK to worry, and there are plenty of things to worry about.

It’s OK to worry about the unpredictability of Yoenis Cespedes, who hit his first home runs in 25 games (102 at-bats), but promptly got injured in the same game. The A’s absolutely need Cespedes to be a driving force in any deep playoff run, and things were looking great until he left the game Wednesday night with a thumb injury of uncertain seriousness. Cespedes is just now getting his stroke where he wants it, and another health setback could derail him from being the difference-maker he needs to be when it matters most, down the stretch and in the postseason.

It’s OK to worry about the A’s starting staff being to maintain its brilliance to this point (Jim Johnson excepted). Can Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez handle a heavy innings load down the stretch, or will Oakland have to scale them back. And really, Scott Kazmir probably should be added to that list since he hasn’t pitched more than 200 innings since 2007.
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