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Head’s up – Mr. Head-first joins the A’s

The A’s may be the early favorites to win the head-first-slide title in the American League in 2014.

That’s because they signed Nick Punto Wednesday. He’s 36-year-old utility infielder who is revered around baseball for his willingness to go head-first into any base – including first base – in an effort to help his team.

“Yeah – the head-first slide,’’ A’s assistant general manager David Forst said laughingly Wednesday. “We’ll probably lead the league in head-firsts at first base. Actually I’d like him to do it a little bit less.’’

When he heard that, Punto chuckled.

“Diving into first base, that’s definitely not something I think about when I hit a ball,’’ Punto said from his Southern California home Wednesday. “But it’s part of the way I play.’’

Punto is one of those hard-charging players who tends to maximize his talents playing the game. He’s 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds and he doesn’t have a lot of power – just two homers last year – and it took him until the fifth of his 13 big league seasons to get more than a quick look.

He’s a career .248 hitter who averaged .255 last year with Los Angeles and who begins more games on the bench than he does in the starting lineup. But between his ability to give his team above-average defense at three positions – second, third and short – and his ability to switch-hit, he has managed to play in two-thirds of his team’s games the last decade.

“But the fact that Nick can play shortstop, third and second is a real plus. As far as where he fits in, there is a long time to get that figured out.’’

There seems to be a reasonable chance that Punto will free the A’s up to trade Alberto Callaspo, who is another switch-hitting infielder, but one whose defense isn’t as good and who doesn’t play shortstop. The A’s picked up Callaspo from the Angels at the trade deadline, and he turned out to be a valuable part of the lineup, although his defense at both second base and third wasn’t the best.

More than anything, however, the A’s picked up Punto because he is one of those players who has a tendency to make a good team better. He did it with the Dodgers last year, he did it for years with the Twins, and he won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011.

And for Punto, he sees some of that ring potential in the A’s.

“This is a team that fits the way I play,’’ Punto said. “I won a World Series with the Cardinals, and now I’m trying to find a way to win another one. You watch this team from the other side and they play hard, they play right, and they have good young pitching and a terrific manager.

“Bob Melvin being a great manager was a huge influence in my wanting to come here. His teams always play so hard; you have to love watching them play. Watching on TV and again in the playoffs this year, I saw those young pitchers. They have young, talented arms. I’m hoping to add what I have to that clubhouse.’’

Part of what he adds is in the clubhouse as a player others rally around. He’s called “Shredder’’ for his habit of celebrating ninth-inning and extra-inning wins by tearing the jersey off that day’s hero, shredding it.

Will that be brought to Oakland? Well, maybe. With a contract that brings him $2.75 million for this coming year, plus a $250,000 buyout if his option for 2015 isn’t picked up, the man who calls himself “@ShredderPunto’’ on Twitter just might be able to keep on doing it.

“The shredding, that’s never a planned thing,’’ Punto said. “And every time I do it, it can cost me a little. Those shredded jerseys are $150 a pop.’’

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Game 156 wrapup: Beane says depth crucial to A’s West title; Crisp surprises himself with 20-20 output; This celebration means more to Sogard

The fact that the A’s were able to clinch the American League West title on Sunday, the final home date of the regular season, worked out well for Billy Beane.

Securing the title meant the A’s general manager could stay at home and not join the team Monday in Anaheim for a possible clinching party there. Beane isn’t much for road trips these days.

As it was, Beane stayed mostly out of the clubhouse celebration Sunday and was uncontaminated by the sprays of champagne and beer that coated most of the rest of the members of his organization.

He was with his twins, Brayden and Tinsley, when I caught up with him far from the madding crowd.

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Game 122 wrapup: A’s in better shape, but worse, too, with 40 games to play; Reddick’s cannon a thing of beauty; Sogard’s superior skill at shortstop

After 122 games last year, the A’s were five games behind Texas, so it’s clearly better that after 122 games this season Oakland trails the Rangers by just 1.5 games.

Right?

Well, maybe.

At this point last year, the A’s had clearly turned a corner. After a stretch of four losses in five games, the A’s had gone 5-1 in Games 117-122. They would only lose 12 of their final 40 games.

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Game 98 wrapup: Sogard trying to make a case for staying the course; bunt, double steal open up offense a bit and Moss discovers left field

After spending two days generating virtually no offense, the A’s were in a whatever-it-takes mode Sunday against the Angels.

That included the second homer of the month from Eric Sogard, who’d come into July homerless in over a year. It included three hits to left field from dead pull hitter Brandon Moss. It included a double steal from Josh Reddick and Chris Young. And it included a sacrifice bunt from Coco Crisp that turned into a hit and more.

Sogard, who’d broken a drought with a homer in Kansas City on July 7, said he was trying to move Young from second to third by hitting behind him in the third inning. He did that, and more, elevating a pitch from Jerome Williams enough to settle it into the first few rows of the bleachers near the foul pole.

“I just wanted to hit behind the runner,’’ Sogard said. “We’d been having some trouble scoring runs. I got a fastball inside and I was able to get it up a little.’’

With the trade deadline coming up, there are suggestions that the A’s might look to upgrade at second base, a position currently shared by Sogard, the left-hander, and the right-handed Grant Green. Sogard would like to make a case for staying the course.

His homer, single and two runs scored will help, although he’s just 11-for-47 (.234) in his last 18 games. However, seven of the 11 hits are for extra bases – five doubles and two homers.

 

–In the fifth, Sogard opened with an infield single to shortstop. With third baseman Alberto Callaspo playing about even with the base, Crisp decided on his own to drop a bunt down.

He did that. Callaspo charged, fielded the ball and threw it where first baseman Mark Trumbo had no chance to catch it. Sogard scored and Crisp wound up at third, from where he would score on the second of three Moss singles.

“I wasn’t bunting for a hit,’’ Crisp said. “I mean I was, but I was more focused on getting the ball down and moving the runner over. That was the important part of getting the ball down.’’

Manager Bob Melvin called the bunt, and Callaspo’s throwing error that made it 3-0, “the key part of the game.’’

“It’s not usual that Coco will be up there where the third baseman isn’t in,’’ the manager said. “But he wasn’t as close, and Coco went out and made something happen.’’

 

–That same kind of thought process and effort was behind the double steal by Reddick and Young. The A’s had a four-run lead in the sixth before Reddick singled and Young walked on four pitches, forcing Williams out of the game in favor of Garrett Richards. Sogard struck out, then with Crisp at the plate, Reddick lit out for third and Young for second.

Catcher Chris Iannetta threw wildly past third, giving Reddick a chance to bounce up and race home. Young would score on another Angels’ throwing error later in the inning.

“When the opportunity is there, we’ll push it,’’ Melvin said. “When you’re not swinging great is a good time to push it.’’

 

–Moss hadn’t been swinging great, and he hadn’t been swinging pretty either, so he decided to do something about that Sunday.

“I’ve been in the cage a lot, and I’m still searching for it,’’ Moss said. “This morning I said to somebody I was just going to go up and try to swing pretty. At least that way I’ll look better up there. Maybe I won’t look silly.

“If I’m going to hit .230, I might as well look good doing it. I was just trying to take good, fluid swings and stayed through some balls instead of trying to do too much, trying to hit a home run on every pitch. I’m not trying to take away my power, but holy crap, at a certain point, you have to do something.’’

Moss said that he’d never had three opposite-field hits in a game and, together with a second-inning pop to shortstop, he’d never hit the ball to the left side four times “in a game in my life. Not ever.’’

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Game 87 wrapup: Reddick value is more than a bat

The A’s have gone a long way (51 wins) without a lot offensively from Josh Reddick this season, but now is as good a time as any to remember that Reddick is not a one-dimensional ballplayer.

He had two hits – and Oakland manager Bob Melvin would argue that he should have had a third – and a sacrifice fly in the A’s 6-3 win over Kansas City Friday. He scored three of the A’s six runs and drove in two others.

Still, that’s been the kind of game that’s been an anomaly for Reddick this season. What hasn’t been weird has been the rest of his game. He plays first-rate defense and on Friday he showed that he hasn’t lost his edge when running the bases.

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Game 83 wrapup: Sogard’s running catch saves the day; Donaldson’s collision with tarp steals the show

If you want to break down the difference between winning and losing for the A’s and the Cardinals Sunday at the Coliseum, you have to look to the seventh inning.

You have to look at the run the Cardinals did not get and the run that the A’s did score.

After six innings, the A’s had a 6-5 lead and had dipped into the bullpen for lefty Sean Doolittle. The Cardinals got a leadoff double from Matt Carpenter, who looped a ball down the left field line in wide-open turf and suddenly the Cardinals’ high-powered offense was primed with the National League’s leading hitter, Yadier Molina, at the plate.

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Game 78 wrapup: Straily sent down as A’s consider options; Jaso pinch-hits, catches, still feels pain; Melvin alters pinch-hitting strategy

Dan Straily was caught off guard Sunday afternoon when he was summoned into a quick meeting with A’s manager Bob Melvin after a 6-3 loss to Seattle.

Straily, who has been in the Oakland rotation since a stress fracture in Brett Anderson’s right foot put the opening day starter on the disabled list, was given the word. He was being sent down to Triple-A Sacramento, at least for a short time.

Oakland has a day off Monday, another Thursday and a third next Monday. With all that extra time, the A’s will not need to employ a fifth starter until July 6. So the A’s will bring up a fresh face, although the club said no decision has been made yet on who might get the call.

Since the bullpen will be, theoretically at least, rested with two days off in four days, it’s unlikely to be a reliever. It won’t be a starter, since there’s no need. So it almost certainly will be a position player. The A’s are a little short at catcher and at middle infielder, so the likely choices would be catcher Luke Montz or one of two infielders, either Andy Parrino or Hiro Nakajima.

The A’s aren’t getting much production out of catcher Derek Norris (.188) or part-time shortstop Adam Rosales (.195). Montz is hitting .265 with some power and did an adequate job as third catcher when he was up earlier. And Nakajima, who had a big hot streak to get up to .320 for Sacramento, fell down to the low .270s before rebounding to .279 entering Sunday.

As for Straily, he may be the man who gets the call when the A’s need a fifth starter again, but as both he and manager Bob Melvin said, there are no guarantees.

“There’s nothing promised,’’ Melvin said. “Do we want it to be Dan? Absolutely. But we don’t want him going do there with no sense of urgency.’’

For his part, Straily took the demotion in stride as much as was possible.

“With all these days off, it was either this or be the long man in the bullpen,’’ he said. “I have the confidence I’ll be back. There’s no reason to get down. This isn’t the desired (move).

“But I have to go down and make sure I’m still first on the list. Just like every other time I’ve gone down.’’

 

–John Jaso enter Sunday’s game as a pinch-hitter after having missed three consecutive starts with a nasty abrasion on the palm of his left hand.

Did he come back too early? Jaso seemed to think he did.

“I took some swings off a tee, and it felt OK,’’ Jaso said. “(But in the game) I took a swing and it still hurt.’’

The A’s are hoping that a day off Monday will leave Jaso good to go Tuesday night against Cincinnati.

Jaso was involved on one of the key plays in the game in the 10th inning when he couldn’t block a pitch in the dirt that had the Mariners’ Mike Zunino struck out. Zunino wound up getting to first base safely on the wild pitch from Grant Balfour and the Mariners went on to win on a three-run homer by Kendrys Morales.

“I rushed the throw a little, and I didn’t have to,’’ Jaso said. “And that cost us there. If I’d slowed down and collected myself, I would have had him.’’

–Melvin likes to use as few players when making a move as possible.

He went against that philosophy in the ninth inning when he used first baseman Nate Freiman to hit for second baseman Eric Sogard with a man on first base and one out.

In the past he would have used Adam Rosales, who could then have come in to play second base for Sogard. Instead, Freiman was used (he flew out) and Rosales came in to play defense, leaving only Chris Young available on the bench.

It turned out to be not a huge deal, but it could have been if the Mariners and A’s had gone past the 10th inning.

Rosales is 0-for-11 with five strikeouts as a pinch-hitter and it may be that Melvin is running out of time waiting for Rosales to contribute in that situation. The shortstop/second baseman is hitting just .195 overall, but take away those 11 at-bats and he’s hitting a marginally more respectable .214

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Lowrie’s `D’ isn’t suffering by alternating positions

Jed Lowrie doesn’t get defensive when he’s congratulated for his defensive prowess, which has been happening a lot lately.

He does wonder what the big deal is, however. Patrolling at shortstop is part of his job description, and he takes great pride in it.

But all you have to do is look at Thursday’s lineup against the Chicago White Sox, where Lowrie and his .319 batting average are batting second to see what the issue is.

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Game 43 wrapup: Melvin’s against-the-book move; Doolittle doing a lot; Okajima back in MLB again

If you want an unsung hero for Friday’s 2-1 Oakland win over Kansas City, look for the man who made out the lineup.

Manager Bob Melvin did something Friday he hadn’t done all season. He had Adam Rosales, who generally starts only against left-handed pitching, start “because I liked the right-handed matchup there’’ against K.C.’s James Shields.

And it was Rosales who hit the tie-breaking solo homer off Shields in the eighth inning that gave the A’s the win in the first of a three-game set.

Rosales did have some stat cred against Shields. He’d only faced him five times, but he’d had two hits, both of them doubles. Eric Sogard, who had only three at-bats and no hits against Shields, normally starts against right-handers, but Melvin went with the numbers, including the fact that Sogard was hitting .178 in his last 20 games.

It won’t necessarily happen again, but Melvin is perfectly comfortable going against the lefty-righty book if circumstances suggest it.

“It’s not something I’ll be doing,’’ he said when asked if he would play Rosales at short against right-handers with regularity. “But in this instance, with Rosey’s two doubles off Shields, that made a difference.’’

Make that two doubles and a homer.

 

–One reason the A’s were able to track down the Rangers in 2012 was the performance of a previously unheralded bullpen.

It’s not as unheralded this time around, but the performances from the likes of Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour have been every bit as good as they were last year. Or better.

Doolittle improved to 3-0 with one scoreless inning, the eighth, Friday against K.C., and Balfour closed out his seventh save by getting the Royals in order, cutting through the 3-4-5 spot in Kansas City’s batting order.

Doolittle, a lefty, has a 1.00 ERA. Balfour, the right-handed closer, is down to 1.65. And when you throw in right-hander Ryan Cook’s 1.93, Oakland has eighth- and ninth-inning performance worth of note.

“In that situation in the eighth or ninth, that game is yours,’’ Doolittle said. “you’ve got to go out there feeling invincible. I’m just trying to keep it simple and not giving the hitter room to get comfortable.’’

Melvin admits his job is made easier knowing he can count on his club dominating the game if it’s close in the eighth or later.

“That’s one of the strengths of the club, when it’s late in the game and we’re in position (to win),’’ he said. “Doolittle is throwing lights-out. It’s tough for anybody to put a good swing against him.

“Today it all fell together, getting the homers late, then getting Doolittle and Balfour out there in that spot.’’

 

–For four seasons and a portion of a fifth, Hideki Okajima pitched in the big leagues, and he loved every minute of it.

But the Red Sox let him pitch most of the 2011 season in Triple-A Pawtucket, then the Yankees let him go in the spring of 2012, after which he pitched for Soft Bank in Japan.

Now he’s back in the Major Leagues, called up Friday when the A’s released right-handed reliever Chris Resop, who’d struggled the last three weeks.

“I was hoping to make it back to the Major Leagues,’’ Okajima said through interpreter Jason Eda. “I’m very excited to get back here. I was surprised when they told me I was coming up, but to come back from Japan (in 2012) to the United States is a good feeling.’’

Okajima’s catcher for much of his time at Triple-A was Luke Montz, and Montz gave the move a solid thumb’s up.

“Just before I got called up, he pitched in back-to-back games for the first time,’’ Montz said. “He saved them both. He got to where he was throwing his changeup, and they hitters, they just were not seeing that pitch. He was fun to catch.’’

The move made sense for a couple of reasons. One, Okajima’s changeup and curve had been dominant pitches for him at Triple-A after he’d ironed out some kinks. Two, his contract said that if he wasn’t called up by June 1, he’d have the right to declare free agency, so if there was ever a time to give him a try, it was now.

“He’s been throwing really well,’’ Melvin said. “We’ve been having to be careful with (lefties) Doolittle and (Jerry) Blevins, but we’d been using them a lot. Adding a third left-hander makes a lot of sense, all things considered.’’

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Game 23 wrapup: Letting Milone down gnaws at A’s; Cespedes cut down again in crucial steal try

Tommy Milone walked out of the Oakland clubhouse Tuesday seemingly having put the 1-0 loss to Cleveland behind him.

His teammates weren’t so fortunate.

They not only didn’t hit behind Milone, the A’s not getting a runner to second base, but they didn’t play defense behind him, either.

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