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Trouble signs from the bullpen for a second straight day could portend a longer-term problem

I’d have to go back and check, but I don’t know that the A’s bullpen gave up two three-run homers all year in 2014. Maybe, probably, but back-to-back days like we saw Saturday and Sunday? Doubtful. And of the six home runs allowed by the pitching staff over the first seven games, five of them have been hit off the relief corps. That’s not good.

Of all the trouble signs that emerged over the weekend in two dispiriting extra-inning losses to the Seattle Mariners, the performance of the bullpen is perhaps the most disturbing.

“We’re better than that,” said manager Bob Melvin.

But are they? Think about it. The A’s are without their closer, Sean Doolittle, whose return from a shoulder injury is still sketchy. Before Sunday’s game, Melvin said he didn’t know when Doolittle would get on a mound, and he offered up late May as a guess-timate regarding his return, but he wasn’t really basing it on any hard and fast evidence. If there’s still a shoulder tear in there, even a small one, the A’s have to brace for the possibility that even if Doolittle does return on the late-May timetable, there will be a question if that shoulder can hold up.

Last year’s two primary set-up men, Luke Gregerson and Ryan Cook, aren’t here. Gregerson left via free agency and Cook is in the minors trying to figure out some serious mechanical issues.

Hence, everyone else is being pushed back into roles where they may not be quite as comfortable. Tyler Clippard, a very good setup man in Washington, is closing. Eric O’Flaherty and Dan Otero are pitching later in the game than they normally do, and in O’Flaherty’s case, even though he is in his second season following Tommy John surgery, he still isn’t showing the kind of explosive stuff he possessed that he had in Atlanta before the injury.

Fernando Abad, a situational lefty, is being asked to pitch to lefties and righties. Evan Scribner couldn’t make this bullpen a year ago, and R.J. Alvarez is a hard-throwing young guy who is just getting his feet wet as a major-leaguer. Jesse Chavez is the long guy, probably more suited to starting than relieving, but he may be pressed into seventh- and eighth-inning service if the problems continue.

So right now, it’s tough to say they’re “better than that.” Maybe better than what we’ve seen so far, but perhaps not good enough without Doolittle and an effective Cook.

The A’s had bullpen issues out of the gate last season, mostly with Jim Johnson, but Melvin and Co. were able to work around Johnson because of the depth of the pen. That depth isn’t there this year, nor is the experience or the quality. After a week, you have to give this group the benefit of the doubt that they can, as Clippard said, “clean some things up.”

We’ll learn more on this upcoming road trip, for sure.

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Billy Butler has a grand time with his ex-Royals mates, then makes them pay

Billy Butler mashes a two-run double against his old team, the Royals.

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Billy Butler admits he still feels the tug of the Kansas City blue, and the pull was particularly strong Friday when the A’s met the Royals for the first time in Cactus League play.

“I’ve got a lot of friends over there, and it doesn’t matter if you’re playing on the other side,” Butler said. “This game brings you together and bonds you, and what we accomplished last year, that stuff stays with you for life.”

Butler received a huge ovation from Royals fans when he came to bat with runners on first and third and one out in the first inning. He then gave A’s fans in attendance something to cheer about when he pulverized the second pitch he saw past fleet center fielder Lorenzo Cain for a two-run double.

“I told Cain I was going to burn him,” said Butler, who also had a fielding highlight at first base when he alertly tagged out Brett Eibner stepping inside the baseline toward second base following a single.

Butler spent time in the Kansas City clubhouse once the A’s arrived at the ballpark, even sitting on his old locker stool. The Royals also poked some fun at their former DH. Someone posted a bogus notice on an information board denoting “Billy Butler Tribute at 12:20.” Talkative outfielder Jarrod Dyson asked Butler if he’d like to step on a scale for old times’ sake.

“I think they would have mad if I didn’t go over to see them,” said Butler, who was lifted after two solid at-bats. “I had to let Dyson have his way with me for a little while.”

The A’s will visit Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City during the second week of the regular season and Butler believes that will be a lot more emotional.

“Spring training’s one thing, but in April when we go there, that’ll be the tough one,” he said. “I spent my whole career there. I did a lot of stuff in the community. Just being in the organization for so long, I have a lot of friends in the city that I’ve met. And it’ll just be weird going over to the other dugout.”
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Kazmir’s spring training debut coincides with Ferrell’s, but pitcher revels in the spirit of it

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If it wasn’t tough enough for Scott Kazmir to wait a week to make his first spring training start with the A’s, he had to do it Thursday with comedian Will Ferrell playing behind him at shortstop.

Kazmir was held back from making his first Cactus League appearance, as was fellow starter Sonny Gray, because of the load both pitchers had during the 2014 season. Kazmir threw 190 1/3 innings, the most he’s thrown since 2007, and the club wants to take it slow this spring with the starters who worked the most last season.

Hence, it just happened that Kazmir finally got the nod on the day Ferrell was filming for his HBO special about playing all nine positions in one day for 10 different teams, shuttling from park to park over the course of the day.

Kazmir pitched a scoreless first inning with Ferrell playing behind him but admitted it was a challenge to his concentration. He wound up throwing 2 2/3 innings, giving up three hits, two walks and striking out four. He threw 48 pitches, but none were more challenging than those first innings one with Ferrell chattering behind him.

“That was tough,” he said. “Pretty much all I wanted to do was turn around and see what he was doing. I heard him pretty much every pitch. But it was awesome, it was cool to have him back there.”
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Will Ferrell’s a comic hit in long morning session with A’s

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Trailed by an army of production officials from HBO and Major League Baseball, comic actor Will Ferrell invaded Oakland Athletics spring training camp for nearly five hours Thursday as part of his film day-long odyssey to play every baseball position with 10 different teams around the Cactus League.

It was every bit the circus it was expected to be and then some. Ferrell arrived promptly at 8 a.m. to do the bulk of shooting for a forthcoming HBO special entitled “Ferrell Takes The Field” and told gathered media, “Can’t talk now. I’m in Beast Mode.” He didn’t stop for the next several hours prior to initiating an ambitious playing schedule in five Cactus League games, moving from park to park around the Phoenix area by helicopter.

He spent more time with the A’s in Mesa than any other place. He worked the clubhouse and met players, stretched with the team and had a long conversation with Bert “Campy” Campaneris, who Ferrell has said he’s honoring on the 50th anniversary of the former A’s shortstop great playing all nine positions in a major-league game in 1965.
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Moss not bitter about breakup of 2014 A’s, believes they would have made World Series by beating K.C.

MESA, Ariz. – Brandon Moss’ first two at-bats against his former A’s teammates went pretty much like the last couple he had with Oakland — a pair of crush jobs most mortal men aren’t capable of delivering.

The first traveled well above the 410-foot marker in center field at Hokokam Stadium, and without the high hitters’ backdrop that knocked the ball back into play, Moss would have been an epic homer. He had to settle for an epic triple, but then he did homer in his next at-bat — against tough lefty Fernando Abad, no less.

In short, Moss delivered a pretty loud message – the A’s just might miss this guy who slammed 76 home runs for them over the past three seasons. That total doesn’t count the two he launched in last year’s American League wild-card game against Kansas City that should have pushed Oakland deeper into the playoffs but didn’t.

That sobering fact still burns a bit in Moss’ belly, even though he is plenty happy to be a new member of the Cleveland Indians this spring.

“I honestly felt if we’d gotten through that game, we were going to the World Series,” said Moss. “I honestly believed that. The way we were going to match up against all the teams that were there, I just felt like we were better. It was just a matter of getting through that game. But we didn’t.”

When the A’s lost 9-8 to the Royals in 12 innings, it also represented the end of an era for a team in which Moss not only established himself as a major league slugger but played on a team that went to the postseason three straight seasons. But with the A’s never really getting very far once they got there, he thought a breakup might happen.

“I didn’t make much of it, but I could kind of see it coming,” he said. “We were losing some guys (to free agency), guys were getting more expensive, and some of us were hurt. So there were questions on the production and what it was going to be like the next year even though we were going to be more expensive. So I don’t think I really ever questioned it. I just took it for what it was and ran with it. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Moss was traded to Cleveland on Dec. 8, 2014, for minor league infielder Joey Wendle. Arbitration eligible, he settled for $6.1 with the Indians, and he expects to fulfill the same role he did in Oakland — a little first base, a little outfield, a little DH, and a lot of long-ball hitting.

The Moss trade, just part of a bigger Oakland overhaul, was a quiet end to an impressive run. He was an All-Star last year but a hip condition that troubled him all season and resulted in a horrific second half – a .173 average and just four homers and 15 RBIs after hitting 21 homers with 66 RBIs before the break. And when Moss’ offensive numbers plummeted, particularly following the Yoenis Cespedes trade, so did Oakland’s.

“It started to be where I couldn’t hit on the front side anymore and I tried to figure out ways to combat that and I started hitting away from the front side,” Moss said. “That’s why even when I hit a ball and barrel it, it didn’t go anywhere. I get my power driving through my front side. I was one of those situations where what do you do? Do you play through it because you’d been playing so well? Or do you end the season right there?”

Moss elected to play even though he struggled, and just before the playoff game, received a cortisone shot he thought would get him through a deep playoff run. When he hit the two homers against Kansas City, it seemed like a sound strategy.

“I couldn’t even feel my hip, and I should have gotten that earlier,” he said. “But I was afraid to get that sooner because it’d wear off as we were progressing through the playoffs.”

Moss had offseason surgery to repair the problem and says he now feels great. And despite the bitter outcome in the playoffs, Moss definitely wasn’t bitter about his departure from Oakland, even though he called the Coliseum a hitter’s “graveyard” he won’t miss.

“Obviously, I’m more than appreciative of my time in Oakland,” he said. “I wouldn’t be standing here without it. But I understand that it’s part of it, and I’m happy I got traded to a place that there’s a great group of guys and a good team and the opportunity to be in a similar situation as I was the past three years. Anytime you get traded, you can wind up in some places that aren’t the best situation. but I don’t think I could have ended up in a better one than over here.”

Moss said he will always reflect on Oakland’s three-year run fondly, even with the short-circuited ending in Kansas City.

“Win or lose, that was the most exciting baseball game I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “I’ve never played in a baseball game that was that much fun, that there was that emotion. And I’ve never been that un-disappointed after we lost the game. We literally gave it everything they had. Guys were playing hurt. D-No (Derek Norris) was hurt, J.D. (Josh Donaldson) was hurt, Redd (Josh Reddick) was hurt. Coco (Crisp) had a broken neck, basically. Jed (Lowrie) had a broken finger. (Stephen) Vogt was playing with a broken foot.

“So to accomplish what we did as a team when we were on balance, I was proud of us. We were all proud of each other.”

–Carl Steward

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Gray over-amped in spring debut but stuff is there, Zito keeps teasing for a spot somewhere

In a numerical quirk, both Sonny Gray and Barry Zito emerged from their spring training outings in Mesa on Tuesday with 7.71 ERAs. Beyond that, their respective future paths couldn’t be more different to predict.

For Gray, an inconsistent first outing means nothing. He’s the A’s ace and will surely be starting on Opening Night against Texas on April 6. Already held out a week and with his infant son Gunnar in the park attending his first baseball game, the 25-year-old A’s ace admitted he was simply emotionally over-heated while allowing five hits and two runs in 2 1/3 innings.

As for Zito, the latest chapter of his comeback bid to make the A’s rotation was harder to project going forward. Following up Gray to start the fourth inning, Zito opened with two dazzling shutout innings in which he allowed just one scratch single. But in his third frame of work, the veteran left-hander allowed two runs on a walk and two hits, including a long home run to Arizona’s Jake Lamb and a ringing Cody Ross double in a 6-5 Oakland victory.

If nothing else, Zito sustained the intrigue that if he can’t make it with the A’s, he’s very likely going to make it with somebody. At 36, he clearly can still pitch, and at least for his first two innings against the Diamondbacks, his command looked better than it did before he took the entire 2014 season off.

“I felt pretty good today, I just lost a little focus on a couple of hitters in that third inning,” Zito said. “I don’t know about velocity, but my location felt pretty good. I was down, riding it in on their hands, missing barrels. That’s what you want – weak contact, whether it’s in the air or on the ground.”

Leading off his third inning, however, Zito hung a big looping curve to Lamb, who pummeled it over the right field fence. After walking Cuban rookie Yasmany Tomas, he then got a pitch up in the zone to Ross, who drilled it into the right-center gap. Zito recovered, however, to retire Danny Dorn on a short fly to left and then got Oscar Hernandez on a slow bouncer to second to end his 45-pitch outing on a positive note.

So what now for Zito? Manager Bob Melvin has so many rotation candidates to look at, he wasn’t sure when he will take the mound again. But there’s little question the A’s will continue to take more looks after Tuesday. And perhaps other clubs in search of pitching will be paying close attention, too.
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Crisp scheduled for MRI today on throwing elbow; Gray, Zito pitch today

Outfielder Coco Crisp will have an MRI today on his strained right lower triceps injury near his right elbow after X-rays proved inconclusive. Results are expected on Wednesday, and while this doesn’t seem to be a serious injury, manager Bob Melvin said, “Anything’s possible.”

Crisp, who came out of Monday’s game complaining of elbow soreness, seemed to be in good spirits when he came to the ballpark Tuesday morning and wasn’t wearing any kind of protective wrap for the injury. So stay tuned on the latest Crisp malady.

Elsewhere, Sonny Gray makes his first game appearance of the spring today and will approximately 40 pitches. Barry Zito will follow up with roughly 45 pitches. With all of the starter candidates pitching so well, it remains to be seen what Zito’s odds will be of making the rotation. Pitching well may be a bit more important to him than some of the other candidates.

“He knew coming in that the odds were a little longer than maybe some of the guys we traded for,” said Melvin. “That’s where performance for him comes into play. You never know where it’s going to go as far as injuries, too. And then with as many guys we want to see start games against first lineups, it’s tough to get consistent starts for him. But if you pitch well, you have a chance. We didn’t bring him in just to bring him in. We brought him in because the potential is there to possibly make the team.”

Melvin said versatile Ben Zobrist would make his first start in right field on Wednesday. He’s at second base today. Stephen Vogt will go five innings behind the plate on Wednesday after making his 2015 debut behind the plate with three innings on Monday. Vogt said his foot feels pretty much 100 percent but he’ll continue to wear a protective steel plate in his shoe for much of the first half of the season.

Jarrod Parker was scheduled for another full bullpen session, and if it goes well, Melvin said he could have some news on Parker’s next step. Melvin also noted that he’s still holding out hope that Josh Reddick (oblique strain) could be ready for Opening Day.

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Speaking from experience, Zito says ex-teammates Ellis, Hudson could find retirement tougher than they think

Barry Zito's winter spent with pitching guru Ron Wolforth has resulted in an invitation to A's spring training camp.

Barry Zito’s winter spent with pitching guru Ron Wolforth has resulted in an invitation to A’s spring training camp.

Barry Zito hadn’t heard that Mark Ellis had announced his retirement. He also hadn’t heard that Tim Hudson has indicated this might be his last year in the game as well.

After hearing the news on both longtime teammates, Zito smiled and offered a word of caution Thursday to any player who may be thinking about calling it quits – think long and hard about it.

“I think hanging it up is going to be harder for guys than they realize, after being out of it for a year,” said the 36-year-old lefthander, who is trying to revive his career with the A’s after a year’s hiatus from the game. “You feel like you’re in control of the game, and then you’re not in it, and you want be back in that game so bad.”

Based on his own experience, Zito said players may look at retirement a little too cavalierly.

“We’ve got a long way to go in life once we get out of this thing,” he said. “That’s not a factor for you when you’re in it. You say, `Ah, I’ve had enough.’ But it’s a difficult decision.”

Zito had his year off pre-planned before his 2013 season had ended with the Giants, and added that it was hard to watch, particularly in the playoffs when his competitive juices would start to kick up.

“The playoffs are such an intensified version of what we do,” he said. “That’s really what we live for. It was difficult in ’13 and ’14. Watching the Dodgers go up against the Cardinals, I was wishing I was out there.”

As far as his own career resuscitation, Zito took another key step Thursday. He faced live hitters for the first time, threw 30 pitches, and came away satisfied.

“It definitely felt pretty good for the first time out,” he said. “It’s not quite game intensity, but it’s definitely a step up from throwing bullpens.”

Zito admitted he can’t gauge where he is compared to where he might be if he hadn’t taken a year off, but said his conditioning is good and his motivation to pull off his return is off the charts.

“I definitely want to come out and bust my tail and leave everything on the field every day,” he said. “If you’re getting comfortable in spring training, that’s probably not the mindset to have. I’m definitely giving more every day than I would if I hadn’t been gone for a year.”
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With the first-half A’s offense, Gray might have 20 wins instead of just 13

Sonny Gray was special Tuesday night. Eight Ks through three innings, 10 through five, and ultimately a career-best 12 strikeouts in seven. He allowed three hits, one a home run on the kind of pitch he was getting outs with most of the night.

And thanks to the nonexistent A’s offense, he lost. Again. Gray is 1-7 since the end of July, though it’s hardly an indicator of how he’s pitched through this tough stretch.

True, Gray has had a few rough outings of late. He gave up four first-inning runs in his last start. He gave up six against Seattle on on Sept. 2 and six against Tampa back on Aug. 6. But in most of his other starts, he has kept Oakland in the game and realistically could have won. He had a 1-0 loss to Kansas City on Aug. 1. He lost 3-2 to the Royals on Aug. 11. He lost 4-3 to Atlanta on Aug. 16. He had no-decisions in three games where he gave up three runs once and two runs twice. And then came Tuesday night.

So that’s seven games he could have won, maybe should have won if the A’s had any offensive thrust when he took the mound. That conceivably could have put him at 20 wins.

For his age, and he’s still just 23, Gray has had a marvelous season despite a few hiccups along the way. He’s now thrown 210 innings, and he dashed any notion against the Angels that he’s wearing down. He struck out Mike Trout three times and Albert Pujols twice. He had all of his pitches working, and in this performance, offered up a killer slider he admitted he hasn’t been throwing much of late.

Even if this season limps to a disappointing finish from a team standpoint, A’s fans can take heart that this kid is going to be around for awhile and a potential staff ace for as long as he stays healthy. He has given up three runs or less in 25 of his 32 starts this year. We’ve already seen what he can do in the postseason, and he has an almost dangerous will to win.

It’s important to remember all this after yet another disappointing defeat. Not all is lost when you have a pitcher like this to build your future around.