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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.

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Eight games left, and the unreal gripping continues

There’s not much left to be said about the amazing ability of the A’s to give away ballgames. They let a journeyman pitcher shut them down Saturday on four singles and a walk. And Jerome Williams is such a journeyman, he’s played with three different clubs just this year … and has now beat Oakland with each one — the Astros, the Rangers and Phillies.

They get a terrific, much-needed fill-in starting performance from Drew Pomeranz — five shutout innings, one hit — and can’t score for him. How many pitching performances can this team possibly throw away?

They know about the Kansas City Royals’ loss earlier in the day and their opportunity to gain ground in the wild card. The Mariners subsequently get whipped by the Houston Astros. So the A’s can gain on both teams yet don’t take advantage. Instead, a single game still separates three teams.

They have a bases-loaded situation with one out in the second inning and one of their best situational hitters much of the year (although not lately), Derek Norris, hits into a double play on a 3-1 count. The A’s are now hitless in their last 11 bases-loaded at-bats. Unbelievable and unconscionable.

Finally, the game-winning runs come on a two-run homer by the Phillies’ No. 9 hitter, a little guy named Freddy Galvis, who came into the at-bat hitting a mighty .158. Goodness, at least make Chase Utley or Ryan Howard beat you.

You’d swear this was a bad dream but it isn’t. Oakland has lost 8 of 10 and 16 of 22 at the most important time of the season and over the last 10 games, they’re hitting .182. Jon Lester gave them a shred of momentum Friday night, yet the club couldn’t run with it.

As stated initially, nothing new can be said. There are no signs of a breakthrough, and the games keep peeling away. One more against the Phils, three against the Angels (oh my) then it’s off to Texas, where this thing will surely be decided.

It’s either baseball’s best or worst soap opera at the moment. Whatever, come back tomorrow for another A’s episode of “As The Stomach Churns.”

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Vogt humbled as 2014 winner of the Jim “Catfish” Hunter Award

Versatile Stephen Vogt was named the 2014 winner of the A”s annual Jim “Catfish” Hunter Award on Saturday, which honors a player whose play and conduct best exemplifies the late A’s Hall of Fame pitcher.
Vogt has played four different positions for the A’s this season in addition to designated hitter and has been one of their most productive players, even though he started the season in the minor leagues. Vogt is currently hitting .300 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs and spent time at catcher, first base, left field and right field.
The Hunter award, established in 2004, is voted on by A’s players, coaches and staff.
“Obviously, it just means the world to me to have an honor like this,” Vogt said. “To have your teammates think of you in that regard is the highest honor you can have as a ballplayer. I’m so appreciative.”
Vogt said his inspirational qualities undoubtedly come from his father, who coached him from Little League through high school in his hometown of Visalia.
“My dad was a huge influence for me as far as my leadership,” he said. “With my older brother and me, it was just kind of bred in us that you don’t have to be an outspoken leader, that if you play the game hard and play it the right way, that’s leadership all by itself. So for me, it’s something I’ve always done naturally is just kind of lead by example.”
Vogt, 29, spent five seasons in the minors before finally making his major debut with Tampa. He didn’t get his first major league hit until he came to the A’s last season. He admitted a lot of people have told him his career is an inspiration to them.
“To me, it’s just my life,” he said. “I’ve never looked at it as this huge inspirational story. The way I kind of see it is if one kid looks at Stephen Vogt and says, `Wow, if that guy can play in the big leagues, I think I can,’ that’s kind of what you want. I’m a firm believer if you want something bad enough and you work hard enough for it and make enough people say `no,’ somebody’s finally going to say `yes.’ “
Vogt, who grew up a Giants fan, said his underdog hero was former outfielder Marvin Benard, a 50th round draft pick who beat the odds to play nine seasons in the majors.
Manager Bob Melvin said Vogt was a most deserving winner of the award.
“That’s terrific,” Melvin said. “I think we have several candidates for it, you certainly can’t go wrong with Stephen. I think he embodies the whole spirit of the award, such a versatile guy for us and one of those grinders who just wants to win, no matter how you do it.”

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Just when the A’s look like they’d snapped out of their funk, they deliver another disturbing dud

Derek Norris and Scott Kazmir clearly had issues with each other that carried on in the clubhouse after the game.

I’m with Bob Melvin. I don’t get it. The A’s looked like they’d turned the corner and gained some momentum with two huge weekend wins over the Mariners in Seattle. Then they even got a day off Monday to savor it and reload mentally and physically.

Maybe they thought the Texas Rangers would come into town and just roll over for them, or that they could play without a sense of urgency and still have no problem with the lowly visitors, who came to Oakland with baseball’s worst record at 57-92. Instead, it was Texas that showed the zest and grit, and the A’s simply didn’t look ready to play. They lost 6-3, never led, got outhit 12-6, 4-10 Nick Tepesch outpitched Scott Kazmir, the A’s had two physical errors, one big mental one, three wild pitches and managed just one hit over the the final 11 batters.

Charles Woodson, you want to chime in here? What Woodson said about the Raiders on Sunday pretty much could have been applied to the A’s Tuesday night. They, er, stunk.

You get a strong sense that the A’s are really such lovey bunch right now, either. Kazmir and catcher Derek Norris were still having discussions in the clubhouse after the game about some sort of pitch selection disagreement. Kazmir wouldn’t reveal the details, that it was something between him and his battery mate. Nobody seemed too happy with shortstop Jed Lowrie after a horrible fifth-inning overthrow and a lapse in heads-up when, after getting an out at second on a perfect throw from Josh Reddick, he allowed Texas baserunner Rougned Odor to steam around third base and score. Lowrie was claiming afterward that nobody communicated with him that Odor was heading home and wound up making a desperate throw way too late. So who’s that on? Lowrie or other infielders to yell something? Probably both.

In any case, it was an ugly loss at a very bad time of the season, one of Oakland’s worst during this most disillusioning second half. Kazmir was gone after 4 1/3, clearly unnerved by the plays not being made behind him and whatever issues he was having with Norris, who also had a bad throwing error trying to cut down a bases stealer.

The sad thing is that the A’s could have gained a game against Kansas City in the wild-card race with a win. And they could have kept Seattle three games back of them. Instead, the Royals are a game behind and the Mariners two with 12 games left to play. The schedule still favors Oakland, but not if they play like this against a challenged team like Texas.

As Kazmir said afterward, “That was a game that just doesn’t happen in September when you’re in a race to make the playoffs,” said Kazmir. “You just don’t play like that, that’s just the way it is, all the way, top to bottom. To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like that at the major-league level.”

Pretty strong stuff following a very weak performance.

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Cook’s meltdown just another element to a potential wholesale collapse

The A’s really needed Ryan Cook to step up when Sean Doolittle went down. But after a 20-inning scoreless string in which opposing hitters batted .108 against him, Cook’s been abysmal since.

Over Cook’s last nine games: 7 1/3 innings, 6 hits, 9 earned runs, five walks, nine strikeouts, 11.05 ERA, two losses and two blown saves.

Try blaming that on the Yoenis Cespedes trade.

There is no middle ground with the hard-throwing righthander. It’s either awesome or awful. Unfortunately, right now he’s in one of those awful streaks. He has no rhythm, his mechanics are a mess, he can’t find the strike zone, and when he tries to guide the ball over the plate, he gets raked. He didn’t get raked Sunday, because he couldn’t find the strike zone with a GPS device.

“I struggled as much as I could to make pitches, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “There are no excuses. I didn’t make pitches. That’s all there is too it.”

Manager Bob Melvin had no explanation for Cook’s latest disappointing outing.

“As far as the walks go, I’m not sure,” he said. “He gets pretty amped up out there, his velocity was good, he just had a tough time getting it in the zone where he wasn’t missing up and away to the left.”

Melvin was in a pinch. He used Luke Gregerson in the eighth, where the veteran is most comfortable and effective. He used Dan Otero to get the last out of the seventh. His stand-in closer for Doolittle, lefty Eric O’Flaherty, hasn’t been available the last few days due to back stiffness (and may not be available Monday, either). So it was Cook pretty much by default, with Fernando Abad in reserve.

Bottom line, as with other areas of the A’s team that are faltering at present, the bullpen has to suck it up and do the job. Just as the hitters aren’t hitting, the relievers aren’t relieving. Doolittle can’t get back soon enough, and the hope is that he’ll throw a bullpen Monday and be ready to go by mid-week.

If he can’t go, it’s tough to say what the A’s options are. The fact is, if the A’s are going anywhere when and if they make the postseason, they will need Cook in certain situations. If he can’t get back in alignment, the whole train may jump the track.

Grant Balfour, where are you?

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Could the A’s actually blow the playoffs altogether? Let’s just say they’re making folks more nervous than anyone thought possible

Thanks to an inability to deal with Chris Carter and an offense that continues to sputter, the A’s have fallen six games out of first place with 22 games to go. Simply put, a third straight American League West title suddenly isn’t looking very likely.

What’s really scary, though, is that the A’s have fallen so far so fast since they had a four-game lead in the West on Aug. 9, they’ve actually backed up to the wild card contenders. Seattle is two games behind them, anxiously awaiting that three-game series at Safeco next weekend. Detroit is 2 1/2 back. Kansas City’s record is just a half-game worse than Oakland’s, and could be right there should the Tigers ultimately assume the lead in the A.L. Central.

Let’s just say it: In what seemed inconceivable only a couple of weeks ago, the A’s could be the odd team out altogether after 162 games the way they’re playing. They’ve lost three in a row (all at home), seven of eight, nine of 12, 17 of their last 24. This is not looking good. Brandon Moss is MIA. Josh Donaldson is running on fumes. Coco Crisp was back Friday night, but he just doesn’t look right. Ditto Jed Lowrie. Stephen Vogt is out for the Houston series with bad ankle, and who knows for how long after that. Sean Doolittle isn’t back yet. Neither is John Jaso. Neither is Nick Punto.

Yes, the A’s still have the pitching to turn this thing back around, but because of the lack of offense, the margin for error has been miniscule. Just as Jon Lester paid the price with two solo homers that resulted in a 2-1 loss to Seattle on Wednesday, Jeff Samardzija met the same fate Friday night. This game should have been a cruise for him. He had great stuff, consistently in the 95-99 mph range and terrific command on top of that. The A’s cobbled together three runs in the third inning for a 3-1 lead over Houston. The Astros scratched for a run in the fourth to cut it to 3-2, but the A’s loaded the bases in the bottom half with nobody out and should have put the game away right then and there. In May, they would have. In June, they would have. Now? Craig Gentry hit a one-hopper to third for a force play at the plate. Donaldson followed with an identical one-hopper for a third-to-home-to-first double play. Inning over, no runs.

Two innings later, Carter worked back from an 0-2 count to 3-2, then unloaded on a Samardzija 3-2 97-mph fastball middle away. It was the fourth straight game Carter has homered against the A’s, the seventh time this year (the most ever by an opposing player in one season vs. Oakland). He now has 20 RBIs against his old team out of his 85 total.

Yes, the A’s can take some comfort in the remaining schedule. They play 16 of their final 22 against teams with losing records. They have seven against Texas, including the last four of the year at home. The Mariners, by contrast, have seven left with the Angels, not to mention a brutal 11-game road trip after they host Oakland next weekend. The Tigers and Royals have six against one another, and K.C. finishes with seven on the road.

But schedule doesn’t mean much if you can’t take care of your own business at home against a team like the Astros, significantly improved but still looking at 90 losses. The way they’re playing, even losing teams are a threat to them. Something better change quickly.