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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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Pitching guru has great expectations for Zito’s return to A’s

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.

Ron Wolforth won’t throw an inning in the big leagues this year, but he could have a huge impact on the A’s starting rotation.

It was Wolforth, something of a pitching guru working out of Houston, who resuscitated Scott Kazmir’s career a couple of years back. Kazmir, a 15-game winner and an All-Star last year, is the No. 2 man in the Oakland rotation behind Sonny Gray.

And Monday came the news that another Wolforth reclamation case, Barry Zito, has signed with the A’s. Zito will be on a minor league contract, but if the left-hander does as well as Wolforth seems to believe he will, the one-time Cy Young Award winner could easily fit into the A’s rotation.

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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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Lester ready to throw as if it will be last game he’ll pitch

Jon Lester says he wants to pitch every game as if it's his last.

Jon Lester says he wants to pitch every game as if it’s his last.

Jon Lester, who pitches Sunday in the series finale against the Mariners, has been through the final weeks of a pennant race with the Red Sox more than many of his A’s teammates have.

And he says his start in a must-win game for the A’s against the Mariners in Safeco Field will reflect that level of experience.

Simply put, he approaches the game “as if will be the last game I’ll ever pitch.’’

It’s not that Lester wants to be buried in pennant race pressure. It’s that the 31-year-old lefty wants to eliminate the pressure by making himself as prepared as possible for the start.

That includes his physical work the last few days on the sidelines and the mental work of studying the charts and the video of the Mariners so that he can go into the start assured that he’s done everything he can to be ready.

“I don’t like to add more pressure than is already there,’’ he said Saturday afternoon. “And it’s a little different for me. I only get out there once every five days. I would have loved to be a player and be out there every day, but I didn’t have to the talent for that. So I go out and do what I can.

“It helps that I’m pitching for a team like this that is doing what it can to win every day. The results aren’t always what you like; they haven’t been for the last few weeks. But I go out there knowing that the (team’s) effort is always going to be there.’’

Lester said as bad as things have been with the A’s having lost 22 of the last 31 games, one way to measure the team’s effort is that “we’re in almost every game we’ve played.’’

“I can’t remember the last time we played a game where we didn’t have a chance to win at the end,’’ he said. “Like last night, we had the tying run on first base with no one out against one of the best closers in the game (Fernando Rodney). He got us, but not before we worked him hard, really made him struggle.

“It was another case of being one at-bat or one inning pitched away. There have been a lot of those, but as long as we’re right there, we’re doing what we can and now we just need to get that one hit or make that one pitch.’’