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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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A’s can make hay vs. losing clubs, but Astros not the pushovers they once were, plus Melvin on chat with Milone

Carl Steward here. Tuesday night’s game ran way late, so my final game story didn’t make the actual print newspaper. Here’s the final version, plus the expanded notes from the early version.

OAKLAND – As good as the A’s have been, gaining ground on the Los Angeles Angels has proved to be quite problematic for them for nearly two weeks now.

Oakland hasn’t picked up a full game on the Angels since July 8, when they upped their American League West lead to 4 ½ games after a win over the Giants. Since then, L.A. has been hovering at 1 ½ games behind before a loss on the A’s off day Monday made it a two-game deficit.

The A’s had a great opportunity to make it three Tuesday night after the Angels suffered a 4-2 home loss to Baltimore, but Houston’s L.J. Hoes spoiled the chance to widen the gap. Hoes’ 12th inning first-pitch solo homer off Fernando Abad gave the Astros a rare 3-2 win at the Coliseum before 22,908.

It was a missed chance for Oakland, but the A’s will have more opportunities coming on the horizon. The opening game against the Astros marked a stretch where Oakland plays 20 straight games against teams with sub-.500 records while the Angels must contend with the Orioles, the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the rejuvenated Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox over the same stretch.

That said, the Astros clearly aren’t a team that’s just going to roll over anymore for the A’s, who were 25-7 against Houston all-time before this defeat.
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Vogt has a dream couple of days at the park of his youthful dream, while Donaldson realizes own dream

Josh Donaldson whacked his 20th homer Thursday and also was named to the A.L. Home Run Derby squad.

Growing up in Visalia, Stephen Vogt was a big Giants fan. So were his parents. They even had season tickets at AT&T Park, so to hit a home run on Wednesday night and then drive in three runs with a pair of two-out singles Thursday in the A’s 6-1 victory left him feeling a bit high.

Vogt has been on a high for awhile, pretty much since his recall. He’s hitting .367, for crying out loud. During his current 10-game hitting streak, he’s hitting .457, and .412 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Bob Melvin has to have him in the lineup right now somewhere — right field, catcher, and now first base. He played some third base in college, so maybe second? Could he turn the DP?

But to do what he’s done at AT&T the past two days has been the highlight of his return to the majors.
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Loss aside, Hammel looks like a keeper

Just a few quick notes with a short turnaround to Thursday’s afternoon game at AT&T, the last between the A’s and Giants in 2014 unless they meet in October (and you know what that would mean).

As I wrote in the game story, Jason Hammel had a tough act to follow before he even took the mound Wednesday night. First start for the A’s, and he was making it on the road against a Giants team that knows him reasonably well. But most of all, he was following up a six-game string in which Oakland starters gave up one run or less and pitched at least six innings.

That streak was destined to end, and alas, the A’s now can’t finish the season at 129-33.

But if Hammel’s start didn’t measure up to the unreal standards of the past week, he showed reasonably well. Five innings, three runs (only two earned) and he kept the A’s in the game even though, as he said, he didn’t have command of his signature slider and walked more guys (three) than he’d walked in any start since April 16. Look, it’s not an open competition for the fifth spot — yet. Let’s see what Hammel does over his next three or four starts and possibly more. Tommy Milone threw four innings in Sacramento Wednesday night and gave up one run in four innings. Drew Pomeranz could be coming off the disabled list within the week, and with a rehab start or two, he could be ready to go. But it’s Hammel’s job until he loses it, and he didn’t do anything to suggest he can’t be a very solid fourth or fifth guy after one performance. His velocity was consistently in the 93-mph range and he did battle through a very tough 37-pitch third inning and allowed just one run. He did make a bad home run pitch to Hunter Pence, but that was really his only bad mistake.

What’s remarkable is that as rosy as things have looked for the A’s, their margin for error in the A.L. West still isn’t all that great. The Angels, who have the second-best record in baseball, keep applying the pressure, winning again Wednesday and cutting the Oakland division lead back to 3 1/2 games. With 71 games to go, there should be no breathing easy. While they would seem a virtual lock for the postseason, the A’s can’t let off the pedal or they could find themselves in that unenviable one-game wild-card playoff come October.

In other words, they could use the series wrapup before they head to Seattle for a very challenging weekend series that will end the first half. Scott Kazmir against Tim Hudson, facing his old team. Should be fun.

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World Series or not, 2014 A’s creation represents Beane’s finest, boldest work

Hollywood probably isn’t paying any attention anymore, but what Billy Beane has wrought with this 2014 A’s team would make a far better movie than “Moneyball.” It shouldn’t just blow your mind how good and how complete this club is, but how many machinations Beane and his cohorts have made to make to create what Oakland has today — a team that looks like it can finally break that postseason first-round spell and at least get to the World Series, if not win it.

Let’s just start with the rotation. Somehow, a club that lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin on Day 1 to season-ending injuries, AND lost Bartolo Colon to free agency, AND lost Brett Anderson in trade, AND wound up sending Dan Straily to the minors early on somehow comes out better on the other end by Beane beating the competition to Scott Kazmir, and now Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammels, to go along with Sonny Gray and 3-4 guys who can ably fill the fifth spot (Jesse Chavez, Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz and Brad Mills). Really, that’s a shell game success story unlike I’ve seen in years with any baseball rotation reclamation.
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Bullpen finally rounding into shape, which is going to make A’s that much tougher to beat

Thursday night at the Coliseum was pretty much another chapter in the Scott Kazmir first-half roll (9-2), and the lefthander’s latest gem is detailed in full in the game story here.

But the real development of the A's in recent weeks has been the stabilization of the bullpen after a shaky first two months. Suddenly, the roles are rounding into shape and Oakland is making it even tougher on opponents as they start to close down on leads in the late innings.

Sean Doolittle settling into the closer's role was the first step. The A's really needed that ninth-inning stopper, and Doolittle has so far been up to the task and then some. But now the A's are also building an effective bridge to the ninth.

Luke Gregerson got off to a slow start with the A's but of late he's become a lockdown eighth inning guy. Adding another 1-2-3 eighth Thursday night in which he struck out pinch-hitters Daniel Nava and David Ortiz in succession and then got a routine grounder to second by Boston leadoff man Brock Holt, Gregerson now has 12 consecutive scoreless appearances during which he has thrown 13 2/3 innings, allowed just six hits and three walks and struck out 17. Opposing hitters are just 6 for 45 (.133) over that span.
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Quite an achievement for the A’s to have baseball’s best record near halfway point

The A’s are not likely to stop to applaud themselves after just 72 games, but by all rights, they should. Who would have expected a team that lost two-fifths of its starting rotation at the outset of the season to have the best record in baseball nine games shy of the midway point?

Think of all the other things that haven’t gone so swimmingly. Jim Johnson, for instance, and the bullpen as a whole early on. Dan Straily, a rotation mainstay last year, has spent most of the season in the minors. Remember how horribly Josh Reddick started the year, and then came the Josh Donaldson slump. Jed Lowrie still hasn’t hit a hot streak all year and he’s currently hitting just .222. Ryan Cook still hasn’t found his old self yet, and we have yet to see Kevin O’Flaherty. Eric Sogard, despite playing consistently on defense, is hitting .199.
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PREGAME NOTES: Reddick to begin rehab, Pomeranz replacement still up in the air

Just a few quick notes before Wednesday’s afternoon affair pitting the A’s Sonny Gray (6-3, 2.93) against Texas’ Nick Tepesch (2-2, 3.94):

–Josh Reddick (knee) will begin his minor league rehab tonight. He’ll DH the first game, play right field the second, then get a day off. The A’s will reevaluate after four days, manager Bob Melvin said.

–Brad Mills, acquired from Milwaukee, will be in Oakland Thursday but not necessarily placed on the roster. The A’s want to work him out first, then make a decision. If it isn’t Mills, other candidates for the fifth spot to replace injured Drew Pomeranz are Dan Straily, Arnold Leon and Josh Lindblom, all at Triple-A Sacramento.

–Coco Crisp is out of the lineup after running into the wall and also making a diving catch try in vain Tuesday night. Melvin said Crisp is “a little banged up again” but he was scheduled to be off Wednesday anyway. The manager was unsure if Crisp would be available off the bench; he hadn’t talked to the player yet.

–After a five-game stint with the Class A Stockton Ports, shortstop prospect Addison Russell was bumped up to Double-A Midland and went 1-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored Tuesday night. Russell is back after missing nearly 2 1/2 months with a hamstring tear.

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Don’t worry, Fuld isn’t going anywhere … at least he’d better not be

The A’s waded through the opening homestand to a 3-3 upside finish. The final game, which looked like it was going south badly over the first three innings, picked up with a Brandon Moss three-run homer, three hits from Eric Sogard, a long opposite field homer from Yoenis Cespedes, a gutty turnaround from Sonny Gray and a save by Jim Johnson. They sent a crowd of over 32,000 home happy, which is always a good thing.

Oh yes, and they also got two electric plays from 32-year-old utility outfielder Sam Fuld, playing in place of struggling Josh Reddick in right field. Fuld gunned down Seattle’s Abraham Almonte with a throw that even Reddick would have been proud of, an on-target seed that beat Almonte to the bag by at least 10 feet. Then later in the game, he robbed Logan Morrison with a full layout catch that is sure to make all the highlight reels.

Even though he also got thrown out taking too wide of a turn on a single, Fuld had a pretty good week offensively, too, for a player who hit .199 last year. He had a couple of triples, hit .308 and also posted a .357 on-base percentage. The A’s couldn’t have asked for much more from their backup outfielder. Bob Melvin loves the guy.
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