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They still like Shark in Chicago, even if A’s can’t win for him

Jeff Samardzija threw seven shutout innings Wednesday, but for A's it wasn't enough.

Jeff Samardzija threw seven shutout innings Wednesday, but for A’s it wasn’t enough.

Jeff Samardzija spent much of the first half of the season fielding questions from the media about whether or not the Cubs would trade him.

Once they did, on July 4 to Oakland, the questions got turned. When he came to town this week with the A’s, everybody wanted to know if he’d like to come back to Chicago.

After the crowd dispersed, Samardzija having said how much he liked his time in Chicago, he just shrugged his shoulder and grinned. They couldn’t wait to get rid of him, now they can’t wait to have him back.

The fact is, there is much about the man his teammates call Shark to like, particularly when he pitches against the White Sox. He’d thrown a two-hit shutout in his only previous start against the Sox, and when he stepped to the mound Wednesday with a career 1.24 ERA against Chicago, he lowered it to 1.00 with seven shutout innings.

He has now made four consecutive starts of seven or more innings, giving up two runs or less in three of the four starts. That the A’s have lost three of those four says much more about the sad state of the Oakland offense than it does about the value of Samardzija as a member of the A’s rotation.

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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.

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With Doolittle and Jaso headed to DL, A’s need starting staff to be special, and a Moss sighting would be nice, too

Suddenly, the A’s are in medical crisis mode. Sean Doolittle is down with a ribcage muscle pull, and there’s no telling when he’ll be back. John Jaso, suffering concussion symptoms from a hard foul tip he incurred two weeks ago, is in the same boat. When a guy is suffering from headaches and dizziness that long after the fact, there is legitimate cause for concern that he may not be able to get back behind the plate for a good long while, if at all.

Oakland’s middle infield is being held together with baling wire with Jed Lowrie and Nick Punto out. Lowrie, on the DL with a fractured index finger on his throwing hand, probably has at least another week before he can even think about returning. Punto hasn’t yet resumed baseball activity.

Josh Donaldson had an MRI on his left knee Sunday, and the A’s took a deep sigh of relief that there was no structural damage found. But he was already playing hobbled (nagging hip), as is Stephen Vogt (foot), Coco Crisp (neck) Josh Reddick (braced knee), Derek Norris (back stiffness) and Sam Fuld (jammed left knee trying to make a spectacular catch Sunday). Craig Gentry is back from a fractured hand, but that doesn’t tip the balance of health back nearly enough.
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This could just be the beginning of a great A’s-Angels battle that could spill over into October

The A’s and Angels may consider themselves rivals, but let’s face it, they’ve never really had the kind of storied rivalry the Giants and Dodgers have built. Of course, the two National League teams had roughly an 80-year head start before the two American League clubs started facing off as NorCal-SoCal opponents starting in 1968. But even over the last 46 years, the A’s and Angels have had comparatively few pennant race battles against one another, and they’ve never met in the postseason.

They have had some good ones. In 2002, the A’s won 103 games to take the division and the Angels won 99. Oakland was upset by Minnesota in the ALDS, while the Angels rolled all the way to the World Series and beat the Giants in seven games for the only championship in their history. Two years later, in 2004, the Angels beat out Oakland by a single game to win the division and the A’s missed the playoffs altogether as a result. In 2006, Oakland returned favor, holding on to win the division by four games over the Angels, who missed the playoffs despite going 89-73.

This year could top any of those races. As teams with the two best records in baseball — and right now they’re tied for that honor with identical 76-52 marks — this could wind up being the wildest and woolliest A’s-Angels finish ever, and what’s more, it might not be done in the regular season. Because of the way the postseason rules are set up now, there is a pretty strong chance the A’s and Angels could meet in the A.L Division Series as well, provided whichever team winds up as the wild card subsequently wins the one-game playoff.
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A’s rediscover themselves a bit in their home sweet decrepit home, begin tuneup for Angels

Bud Selig said for about the 1,000th time Tuesday that the A’s need a new ballpark, but for the moment, the old gray cement mare is pretty crucial to their more immediate concerns. They needed to regain their equilibrium following their worst road trip of the year (1-6), end their five-game losing streak and get back to the things that made them the best team in baseball the first four months.

A 6-2 victory over the New York Mets was pretty much textbook A’s. Scott Kazmir delivered six strong innings and allowed just one run, even though he didn’t quite find his groove until Oakland broke things open with a four-run fourth, sparked by Coco Crisp’s bases-loaded triple. The bullpen got to do its more customary shutdown thing, with Ryan Cook (helped by an Eric O’Flaherty one-out cameo), Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle slamming the door once Kamzir was done.

As for the much-discussed offense, the A’s finally put together a big middle inning, got a two-run longball add-on from Josh Reddick and just generally looked like the Oakland offense we saw before the Yoenis Cespedes trade. The game story focuses on the reemergence of Crisp as a necessary component for the A’s down the stretch, and you can read it >here.

“The offense was a little bit more like we’re used to seeing, making pitchers work and drawing some walks, getting some big hits,” concurred manager Bob Melvin. “That was good to see.”

To be sure, the mix of everything that suggested the A’s were getting back to being themselves with a huge home weekend series against the Angels looming was significant. It helped, too, that the A’s drew a crowd of over 23,000 for Tuesday night’s game. It portends well that the weekend could be big at the gate when Oakland needs its home crowd to perhaps unnnerve the Angels a bit.

The A’s aren’t talking about the Angels yet but you know they’re on their minds. They want to put their best foot forward this weekend, so an off day Monday and another Thursday should do wonders.

“Coming back home, having the day off yesterday to reset and recharge a little bit, being able to get the first win of the homestand in the first game, I think it’s huge,” said Doolittle. When (Travis) d’Arnaud hit the home run, it would have been really easy for everybody to say, `Uh oh, here we go again,’ but Kaz did a great job shutting them down after that and Coco and Reddick had some big hits for us.”

So one more game with the Mets Wednesday afternoon and then it’s on to the showdown.

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Calm down, A’s fans, your team ran into a red-hot club in Kansas City and it’s no time to go ballistic

At one of the myriad papers I’ve worked for in what is now the Bay Area News Group empire, we used to have a desk man who would get uncommonly frazzled on deadline, and if you tried to ask him a question when the heat was on, he had a retort that became infamous over the years for some of us:

“No time to think, gotta panic!”

This suddenly seems to be the mindset of a lot of A’s fans right now after a pretty good barbecuing of the green and gold here in Kansas City. Susan Slusser of the Chronicle got a Twitter response whining, “They’re not a playoff team anymore.” Noting that Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jeff Samardzija all took tough losses in this series, I got one that read, “Three very overrated pitchers.” We could probably go through all of our feeds and comments sections and pull out 10 such doomsayer pronouncements.

Chill, everybody. Your team is still 25 games over .500, and it still has the best record in baseball. It simply ran into the hottest team in the game right now and lost three out of four. No reason to lose too much sleep. All of the Oakland starters pitched reasonably well. Ryan Cook took a licking Thursday, but he was coming off 20 straight scoreless innings.

The Royals just happened to pitch better in this series, and they got some timely clutch hits in favorable pitcher’s counts. As I wrote a few days ago, they are potentially a dangerous team for anybody in the playoffs if they get there. But they are not better than the A’s. That’s a delusion.

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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.