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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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A’s: Abad continues as the A’s secret weapon out of bullpen

A's lefty Fernando Abad has been perfect this year when it comes to stranding inherited base runners.

A’s lefty Fernando Abad has been perfect this year when it comes to stranding inherited base runners.

There may be no unsung hero on the A’s whose praises have been sung less than Fernando Abad.

The left-handed reliever has toiled mostly in anonymity while being just a part of one of the best bullpens in baseball.

The numbers he’s putting up this year are anything but the performance of just an anonymous reliever, however.

He came into Sunday’s game with one out in the seventh inning for starter Jason Hammel, who was in a jam with men at first at third and one out. It wasn’t an easy situation to face, but Abad has faced worse.

He threw an unhittable slider that foiled the Twins’ plan for a squeeze bunt in what was at the time a tie game, 1-1. Once the runner, Eduardo Nunez, was trapped for the inning’s second out, Abad then struck out Jordan Schafer for the final out.

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A’s: Hammel finds himself again thanks to his slider

Jason Hammel is confident he's back pitching the way he wants to with A's.

Jason Hammel is confident he’s back pitching the way he wants to with A’s.

It’s not like Jason Hammel has been born again in his last two starts.

But the veteran starting has come back home, metaphorically at least.

Home is where his slider crosses the plate at the knees or a little lower. Home is where his sinking two-seam fastball clips the corners instead of crossing the fat part of the plate.

And Hammel is now pitching like he did when the A’s traded with the Cubs five weeks ago. When Hammel and Jeff Samardzija came over in the deal that sent Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to Chicago, Hammel had a 2.98 ERA and an 8-5 record for a bad team.

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A’s: Sogard a bit of an intimidator at the plate these days

Eric Sogard surprised himself and everyone else with four walks Saturday night.

Eric Sogard surprised himself and everyone else with four walks Saturday night.

Second baseman (and sometimes shortstop) Eric Sogard has been hitting up a storm since the All-Star break, but not even he expected what happened Saturday night – walks in his first four plate trips.

He was batting ninth, and he became just the 14th No.9 hitter since 1914 to draw four walks in a game.

“I must have looked intimidating,’’ Sogard said, laughing. “If I’d known that 1914 thing, I might have looked at a couple more pitches in my last at-bat.’’

Sogard, who said “three walks was probably my max,’’ bounced back to the pitcher in his final plate trip in the eighth inning of the A’s 9-4 win. He’d never walked more than twice in a game this year and his career best was three walk against the cardinals on June 28, 2013.

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A’s: Norris’s homer swing keeps showing up with men on

Derek Norris's power number skyrocket with multiple men on base

Derek Norris’s power numbers skyrocket with multiple men on base

Derek Norris doesn’t expect to hit home runs in the kinds of numbers that Josh Donaldson or Brandon Moss might put up.

He does expect that his home runs will have an impact. Time and again, they have, including Saturday when he capped a 9-4 A’s win over the Twins with a three-run homer in the sixth inning.

The score when he hit it was 6-2, and the extra three runs that made the differential seven runs was vitally important to the A’s in cruising home in this one.

It was the seventh time this year he’s hit a home run with at least two men on base. Three-run homers and grand slams are game-changers, and Norris has those locked in.

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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: Bullpen is bullying opposing offenses these days

Ryan Cook is on a major roll, unscored upon in his last 18 games, pacing a red-hot a's bullpen.

Ryan Cook is on a major roll, unscored upon in his last 18 games, pacing a red-hot a’s bullpen.

In the middle of a tight pennant race there’s a tendency to look at the things that should be better than they are.

The things that are better than they should be can get glossed over.

That brings us to the A’s, who, it is true, have been struggling to score runs. And that’s an issue.

Equally a part of the equation, however, is just how difficult Oakland pitchers are at making it difficult for other teams to score.

Eric O’Flaherty, Ryan Cook, Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle combined to throw 3.1 perfect innings in relief of winning pitcher Jason Hammel Tuesday.

It’s just part of a bigger picture.

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A’s: Crisp delighted to join the team in a victory again

Coco Crisp returned to the A's lineup in a big way Tuesday.

Coco Crisp returned to the A’s lineup in a big way Tuesday.

It had been less than two weeks since the last time Coco Crisp had been in the A’s starting lineup.

Quite a lot has happened in that seven-game interval. The A’s traded Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. The Angels have crept closer in the standings. The Oakland offense had stalled.    Tuesday night’s 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rays doesn’t change all of that. It does modify it some, though.

The offense is still struggling, but it was Crisp who came up in the fifth inning, looked for the biggest whole on the infield and guided the ball into right-center field for the game’s first RBI.

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A’s: Rally Possum delivers as Norris hits walk-off single in 10th to beat Balfour, Rays

Derek Norris gets the pie and Gatorade treatment after his walk-off hit. (Staff photo/D. Ross Cameron).

Derek Norris gets the pie and Gatorade treatment after his walk-off hit. (Staff photo/D. Ross Cameron).

The A’s might have found themselves their new mascot — the Rally Possum.

Oakland ended a night of frustration with runners in scoring position when Derek Norris singled with the bases loaded in the 10th inning off former A’s closer Grant Balfour to beat the Rays 3-2.

Norris’ hit — the A’s first breakthrough of the night after stranding the bases loaded three previous times — came shortly after a possum appeared in the corner of the outfield.

Whether it remains as a good luck charm or not is to be seen, but for one night the A’s were happy to have it around. The win allowed Oakland to stay one game against of the Los Angeles Angels in first place in the American League West. Continue Reading