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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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Norris gives up on home runs, but the hits are coming back

Derek Norris's home run swing is a thing of the past for the time being.

Derek Norris’s home run swing is a thing of the past for the time being.

A’s catcher Derek Norris was winged by a foul ball Tuesday and needed a few moments to shake it off, but he said afterward he was fine.

He also announced he’s no longer trying to hit home runs. He’s hit 10 this year, but none in his last 99 plate appearances.

His average had been sliding a bit as he got up in the desire to go deep. Since his last home run on Aug. 9, he’s averaged just .217 and his overall mark has slid from .299 to .277 entering play Wednesday.

“I’ve been swinging on `E’,’’ Norris said of his month-long homer drought. “I’m going to leave that to the other guys.’’

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Lester’s 8th inning effort vs. Viciedo doesn’t go unnoticed

Jon Lester came up big in the eighth inning Tuesday for the A's.

Jon Lester came up big in the eighth inning Tuesday for the A’s.

Even in blowout wins, there tend to be moments where the game is on the line.

For Jon Lester, that moment was in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s 11-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.

The A’s had just scored single runs in the seventh and eighth innings to take a 6-2 lead that should have been comfortable. But a walk and a single had Lester looking at Dayan Viciedo in the batter’s box where one swing could make the game close.

And Viciedo had given Chicago its first run when he’d homered an inning earlier.

“It was a big moment in the game, and I think he knew it,’’ catcher Derek Norris said of Lester. “He reached back and blew a couple of fastballs by him.’’

Norris said those were two of the hardest balls thrown by Lester, who threw 119 pitches in his eight innings.

“That was impressive the way he reached back right there. He really wanted it.’’

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A’s need Doolittle badly, but they won’t rush him off DL

Sean Doolittle wants to come back badly, but the A's won't rush him, even in a bullpen crisis.

Sean Doolittle wants to come back badly, but the A’s won’t rush him, even in a bullpen crisis.

How much do the A’s miss closer Sean Doolittle?

It’s not just that Oakland has blown one-run leads in the ninth inning the last two days and have lost 11 times in their last 15 games with their closer out to see a once firm grasp on the playoffs start to squirm away.

It’s that the A’s whole bullpen works better when he’s around. Over a longer stretch the A’s are 8-19, but the bullpen was holding together when before Doolittle landed on the disabled list with an intercostal (right side) muscle problem.

The A’s were 4-8 in the stretch from Aug. 10 to the time of Doolittle’s injury two weeks later. When he was around, the A’s had a 1.53 ERA in those dozen games. The team was losing, but not because of the bullpen.

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High anxiety for A’s with bases full central to current skid

While there are many mysteries surrounding the collapse of the A’s entering the start of this next-to-last road trip of the season Monday, none is more puzzling than Oakland’s sudden inability to convert bases-loaded situations.

Back when the A’s were still the winningest team in the game, the A’s owned a .318 batting average with the bases full. That was through Aug. 2. Oakland was 67-42 at the time, 25 games over .500 and, despite having slumped some with the Angels making a furious charge, still considered a shoo-in to the playoffs.

Oakland is 13-20 since then, seven games behind the Angels, and the Wild Card seems the only entry open to the A’s. Even that’s being tested.

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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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A’s find some life and energy after long dry spell

Scott Kazmir saw energy in the A's Saturday that had been lacking for a while.

Scott Kazmir saw energy in the A’s Saturday that had been lacking for a while.

For five weeks, the A’s were performing a number straight out of Jackson Browne, Running On Empty.

They showed up daily at whatever ballpark was on the scheduled, convinced they were playing hard. But something was missing.

That something showed up again Saturday in a 4-3 walkoff win over Houston. The Coliseum crowd could sense it almost from the time Josh Donaldson led off the ninth inning with a single.

The A’s were down 3-1 at the time. In recent weeks, scaling Kilimanjaro was easier for the A’s by far than putting together a ninth-inning rally.

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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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A’s aren’t same as three months ago, but they need to be

Celebrations like this May 27 grand slam from Derek Norris have been hard to come by for the A's lately

Celebrations like this May 27 grand slam from Derek Norris have been hard to come by for the A’s lately

The A’s could get Coco Crisp and John Jaso back this weekend and Sean Doolittle back early next week.

When they do, the A’s will start looking a little more like themselves.

This team is not the team it was at the end of June.

Back then they were trotting out a three-catcher platoon, with Jaso, Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt all major contributors. Yoenis Cespedes was in left field. Brandon Moss was at first base.

Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz and Brad Mills were all in the starting rotation.

With such a drastic makeover, it’s small wonder that the A’s aren’t playing like they did in April, May and June.

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Hits with men in scoring position may signal A’s turnaround

Brandon Moss was one of four A's hitters to deliver with a runner in scoring position Tuesday.

Brandon Moss was one of four A’s hitters to deliver with a runner in scoring position Tuesday.

There’s no masking the fact that the A’s lost again Tuesday, their second game of September looking very much like two-thirds of their games in August.

The A’s didn’t score for seven innings, which is the norm of late. But then something happened that was unexpected. They knocked Mariners’ starter James Paxton out of the game and came up with enough big hits to get the winning run to the plate in the ninth before losing, 6-5.

Oakland wound up with four hits with men in scoring position, all of them in the eighth and ninth innings.

Adam Dunn singled with men on first and third in the eighth.

Craig Gentry doubled with man on second and third in the eighth.

Brandon Moss doubled with a man on second in the ninth.

And Sam Fuld doubled with Moss on second in the ninth.

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