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.
John Jaso knows all about Felix Hernandez. He’s had the best seat in the house — right behind home plate — for many of his most dominating performances, including King Felix’s perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012. But as good as that game was, Jaso said Hernandez might have been even better against the A’s on Saturday, particularly over the first seven innings.
Jaso said he and Hernandez gave each other a head nod before the former’s first at-bat, but afterward, the pitcher showed him no mercy. The two converged at first base when the pitcher covered first base on a slow roller.
“I ran down the line and he was like, `What are you doing over here?’ ” Jaso recounted. “I just told him he was nasty today.”
Hernandez, who was my pick to win the Cy Young this year, doesn’t get as much recognition as Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw, but when he’s on, he can be as overwhelming as any pitcher in baseball. Early in the game, he had thrown 27 pitches, 24 for strikes. I honestly thought in the third inning we might be seeing a no-hitter on this day. So did manager Bob Melvin, who managed Hernandez at a very young age.
“For seven innings, that may the best we’ve ever seen him,” Melvin said.
After a very long 13-hour day at the ballpark, a very short blog post.
You can give Jim Johnson credit for one thing after his disastrous opening series with the A’s. The new closer isn’t afraid to face the music for a bad effort, whether it be a torrent of boos or a probing media horde wanting to know how a guy who saved 50 games last year suddenly looks like he’s lucky when he gets an out.
Johnson, who didn’t have a great spring, is off to an even worse start in the regular season. As he admitted himself after Wednesday night’s three-run blow-up when he was entrusted with a 4-3 lead in the ninth, the A’s should be 3-0 and they’re 1-2 primarily because of him. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the fact is Oakland has been exceedingly fortunate with closers over the last several years, so to see Johnson blow games in his first two appearances is a bit shocking.
And the fans, what few of them showed for this latest disaster, don’t like it one bit. They started booing after Johnson gave up a leadoff hit to start the inning, and it only got louder as the inning progressed. It’s tough enough to blow a couple of games, but Johnson’s predecessor, Grant Balfour, was an extremely popular guy and his rage act won over the fans.
It went by way too quickly. I’ve filled in for John Hickey for five days and it’s already over. Now I head crosstown to the Giants to fill in there for five days before heading home.
Even in this short time, however, I saw enough to build a pretty strong assessment. The A’s are going to be very tough to beat again. They have the deepest rotation in the division. And they may have the ridiculous bullpen in baseball, even with Ryan Cook still working his way back from a shoulder issue and Eric O’Flaherty, recovering from Tommy John surgery, not likely to join the team until July.
I got to see all five starters throw and they all looked sharp. I’m quickly over my concerns about Scott Kazmir after watching him throw Wednesday. He throws strikes, works quickly, has a very good pitch arsenal, and beyond all that, it’s just nice to have a lefty back in the A’s rotation. He looks like the guy who pitched for Tampa Bay when he was at his best. He may not be able to match Bartolo Colon’s incredible year in 2013, but he shouldn’t have to. You can see all five of the starters winning anywhere from 12 to 15 games this year, backed by a bullpen I can’t wait to see terrorize the American League. Sonny Gray could be better than that if he shows the kind of stuff he did in the playoffs, both in terms of his stuff and his mental approach. So could Jarrod Parker, who is a breakout year waiting to happen. Even if someone falters, you’ve got Tommy Milone, who pitched four sterling shutout innings a few days ago. When Milone is your starter safety net, you are filthy deep.
I don’t see many issues with the position players, either. Josh Donaldson looks like he’s primed to back up his monster year of 2013 and become a bona fide star. I equate him a bit to Stephen Curry of the Warriors. Curry was shafted out of an All-Star spot two years ago when people didn’t recognize his total game until this year. Same thing happened to Donaldson last year, but now they know who he is. He’s not just a tremendous hitter with amazing power to all fields for a man his size, he’s a superb defensive third baseman and a good runner. Bottom line, he’s already a star. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.
Hiroyuki Nakajima made his arrival with the A’s Tuesday in a far less “Hiro-ic” atmosphere than he did a year ago, when he was showered with attention from the U.S. media and hordes of reporters from his native country of Japan.
In fact, using the word Nakajima tossed out regarding general manager Billy Beane at his memorable first press conference, there was absolutely nothing “sexy” about it. After reporting in at the A’s minor league spring training camp Tuesday at Papago Park, Nakajima was probably fortunate to even be playing in a spring game his first day due to an injury to prospect Addison Russell. And there was nothing too dramatic about his interview sessions, either.
Nakajima, who signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract last year but wound up never playing a day in the major leagues, is not on the 40-man roster and his chances of getting back onto it at this point are probably slim. Face it, the A’s made a mistake in signing the Japanese infield star last year, but at least they didn’t compound it by forcing him into the lineup. They quickly covered their error by acquiring Jed Lowrie, who had a terrific year. As for the money lost, that’s back pocket pain for John Fisher and Lew Wolff, not A’s fans.
A year from now, it will be just another what-if story to tell, with Russell likely moving into the shortstop spot for the next several years and nobody giving Nakajima a second thought. Even if he does show well in Sacramento and winds up in the majors, it’ll be as a bit player trying to help, and he’ll likely be gone from the organization at season’s end.
Manager Bob Melvin was frank about the 31-year-old Nakajima’s chances of playing in the majors with Oakland this year.
“There would probably have to be some injuries to guys we have here,” Melvin said. “But who knows? Anything could happen in baseball, and I think he realizes that, and I think that’s why he’s here working as hard as he is and trying to get back to the big leagues.”
Year Three of Jarrod Parker’s emergence into a mature, top-flight pitcher should be an interesting case study in 2014. Most people think, myself included, that he’s got it in him to be 15-20 game winner and a potential All-Star. Parker thinks so, too, which is one of his best attributes. He has a staff-ace outlook, and that’s something for a pitcher who’s still only 25.
Parker is ultra-serious about his craft, too, to the degree he often looks and sounds miserable, even after a good game. He’s a perfectionist. Part of it is his demeanor, too. He’s a quiet, cerebral type with high expectations of himself, and nothing is ever really quite good enough.
For instance, I was a little taken aback Monday when he said he thought his very creditable 2013 season was “mediocre” and not one that left him terribly satisfied. You can see some of his point. After all, his ERA went up a half-point from the previous year to 3.97. He gave up 14 more home runs and he finished with one less win even though he made more starts while finishing 12-8.
On the other hand, counting the playoffs, Parker exceeded 200 innings for the first time in his pro career, had a 19-start unbeaten streak –- longest in franchise history since Lefty Grove in 1931 (Lefty Grove!) — and won his only playoff start against Detroit in the American League Division Series. Most pitchers wouldn’t call that mediocre, but that’s the kind of bar Parker sets.
“I want to be great and continue getting where I need to be,” he said. “I always look and think there are adjustments that could have been made. There are just a lot of things you aren’t content with in a mediocre season. And in my mind, it was. I want to be better.”
The most highly anticipated event of the spring — the A’s first annual player talent show — was also the highlight of a day in which the A’s played to a fairly mundane 2-2 with the Chicago White Sox.
Organized by new closer Jim Johnson, who staged similar shows while with the Baltimore Orioles, the mid-morning show – held behind clubhouse doors in lieu of the usual morning workout – was a huge success, according to manager Bob Melvin and several players. Melvin said his players showed off surprising array of talent, and said the timing of the event came just at the right time to ease the monotony of mid-spring.
“I’ve seen several of these over the years, but I can’t remember a time when there was actually talent involved,” the manager said. :Usually it’s more laughing and booing somebody off the stage, where this was a very talented group, each and every guy. Jim Johnson said it best afterward, that we could have a fundraiser with the talent we had today.”
My first day in A’s camp this spring didn’t really need Bob Melvin getting run in a spring training game for basically saying nothing. There were enough other things going on to easily fill my notebook, but the Melvin ejection may have been the most intriguing development of the day.
Melvin almost seemed embarrassed that he was thrown out in the top of the seventh. He was tossed by home plate umpire Adam Hamari, who only started umpiring in the majors the middle of last season. Hamari, whom Melvin said afterward he didn’t know, called a first-pitch strike to A’s hitter Shane Peterson that Melvin thought was outside. The manager said, “Get ’em on the plate.” When Peterson was subsequently called out on strikes, Melvin said “you made your point” … and was promptly tossed.
“Usually the magic words come with four-letter words,” Melvin said, looking nonplussed. “What are you going to do? Usually when you get thrown out there’s some intent involved.”
Melvin, who was only ejected four times last season in 162 regular-season games, said it was only his second spring training ejection ever. His previous one came with Arizona, when he went out to plead the case of Luis Gonzalez, who had been ejected. This one seemed mild by comparision. And just a bit ridiculous.
In for John Hickey …
One win and a Rangers loss. Or two wins and to hell with the Rangers. The A’s are on the doorstep of a second straight A.L. West division title, it’d definitely going to happen, and maybe the only surprising thing about that is that so many of them are unprepared for the scenario of a possible clinch Saturday, which would involve beating up on the Twins again and then waiting around — perhaps several hours — to see if the Rangers lose again to Kansas City.
As I wrote in the game story, the A’s have never really encountered this kind of clinching situation in their Oakland history. In 1992, they clinched the division on an off-day, and everybody simply gathered at a sports bar in Jack London Square to celebrate, according to clubhouse manager Steve Vucinich. But winning and then waiting? Never. So it should be intriguing to see what they do.
In for John Hickey …
Struggling reliever Ryan Cook worked in the bullpen well before the game under the observation of Bob Melvin and Curt Young. The A’s know they have to get Cook straightened out before the playoffs, but Melvin is confident that will happen.
“If you remember, he went through one of these last year and he got through it,” Melvin said. “He’s a competitor and it bothers him when he’s not contributing how he’d like to. So he’s going to fight his way through it, and he’ll get through it. Sean Doolittle went through a little bit of a tough time, and so will Cookie.”