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.
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.
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.
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.”