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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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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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