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Game 5 start in ALCS vs. Tigers put Gray in line for opener

Sonny Gray is the last  man standing in drive to start opener for the A's

Sonny Gray is the last man standing in drive to start opener for the A’s March 31.

Nothing is official, but the A’s have an opening day starting pitcher.

His name is Sonny Gray.

The 24-year-old, with just 10 big league starts to his name, was being considered for the job all along, but it seemed likely the call would go to Jarrod Parker or, perhaps, newcomer Scott Kazmir.

Parker is out for the season with the news that he needs a second Tommy John-style ligament replacement surgery in his right elbow and forearm.

As for Kazmir, he was scratched from his start Monday because of triceps pain. He was pain-free Tuesday and wanted to pitch, but the A’s have decided that he’ll throw a bullpen session, probably Wednesday, then return to the starting rotation Saturday.

That rules him out for the opener, because to get to March 31 against the Indians, he’d either have to pitch on long rest or on short rest. The A’s aren’t going to have him do that for the sake of one game, so that leaves Gray to pitch the opener and Kazmir to follow him in Game 2 against Cleveland, the team for which he pitched last year.

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A’s impress new closer Johnson with off-season moves

The A’s became very comfortable knowing that Grant Balfour was their closer the last few years.

Their comfort level figures to be as good or better this time around, even with Balfour gone.

Jim Johnson, who has saved 50 games in each of the last two seasons for the Orioles, is the A’s new closer. He was in Oakland Friday in preparation for Saturday’s FanFest at the Coliseum and Arena, and he said he’s excited that spring training starts next weekend.

“Once the Super Bowl is over, it’s time to go,’’ Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to this opportunity.’’

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Melvin sees this A’s bullpen as his best yet

Bob Melvin ended the 2013 season with a bullpen he believed was the best he’d ever had at his disposal.

The relievers A’s manager Melvin called on last season went 24-18 with a 3.22 earned run average. The bullpen was the backbone of a second consecutive American League West title. The relievers won or saved 70 of the A’s 96 wins.

Now with spring training’s start drawing close, the manager says the Oakland bullpen for 2014 could be his best ever.

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A’s should come out ahead in `swap’ of closers

In the current baseball market place, it seems as if the Orioles got a relative bargain today when they locked in Grant Balfour, who’d been the A’s closer most of the last two seasons.

Baltimore’s opening for Balfour came after they’d traded their 50-saves closer of the last two seasons, Jim Johnson, to the A’s in the week leading up to the Winter Meetings.

So who comes out ahead here? The A’s have to pay Johnson more (he’s likely worth in the $10 million range in salary arbitration) for less – he’s a free agent after this year. The Orioles have Balfour locked in for two years for less – just $14 million.

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There’s nothing evident about the A’s anymore

The additions of Scott Kazmir to the starting rotation and Jim Johnson to the bullpen should have the A’s in good shape heading into the winter meetings.

The A’s will go to Orlando next week, because they have to at least make an appearance, but history suggests they may not do much past taking part in the Rule 5 draft, the same process that brought them first baseman Nate Freiman last year. History may prove to be wrong about that.

Already the A’s have shown a major ability to surprise. And they’d like more, because they need more. Oakland would like to add a bat, but most of the ones they’d want they can’t afford. Many of the one they can afford, they wouldn’t want. Maybe there is one out there they’d like.

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Martinez-Balfour good theater, but not much else

There’s something about seeing the benches clear that elevates baseball.

Or at least it seems to elevate interest in baseball, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

The question is – should it?

When Victor Martinez, who is a fiery guy, took exception to the nonstop chatter put forward by A’s closer Grant Balfour in the ninth inning, it made for great theater.

Players, coaches and managers from both benches swarmed the field. Umpires tried to get between Balfour and Martinez. Members of the bullpens, always late to this kind of party, jogged in. A’s starter Jarrod Parker, on his way from the clubhouse to the field just so he could watch the last couple of outs, had to have somebody tell him what happened.

As it turned out, not much did. Martinez was ticked off. Balfour Rage is not a concept he’s familiar with, apparently, but the A’s clsoer is always yelling, mostly at himself, and most of the time opponents don’t give it a second thought.

This time they did. Did it matter? No. The A’s were ahead 6-3 with three outs to go and Balfour on the mound. After things settled down, Balfour got the three outs and the game went in the books as a 6-3 A’s win.

Will there be any carryover? It seems unlikely. Torii Hunter, one of the Tigers’ leaders, has known Balfour as an opponent for years. He said that the talk was just the way Balfour is and there wouldn’t be any carryover.

But it’s a good bet that the first clip on ESPN will be the benches clearing.

Like we said. It’s great theater.

 

 

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Game 159 wrapup: Last two games aside, A’s have done well vs. top pitchers; It’s rookie hazing day for flight to Seattle

Dan Straily as Wolverine

Dan Straily as Wolverine

This is perhaps an odd time to concern oneself with the Oakland offense, but the A’s have gone from scoring early and often in game after game to having scored one run in the last two starts.

That in itself wouldn’t be too miserable if it were not for the fact that the A’s face Felix Hernandez in Seattle Friday and they haven’t scored a run off the King in two starts this year.

Having three of the final five games before the playoffs start be games in which they haven’t been able to score much is not the tone the A’s want to set.

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Game 148 wrapup: Moss, A’s impressed by Darvish; Magic number at 10; Rangers accomplish none of their goals so far; Balfour says all credit to Bartolo

Brandon Moss homered in the first inning the last time he faced Yu Darvish, a two-run shot that led to what would become an 11-4 A’s win back on Sept. 4.

So perhaps it should have been no surprise that when Moss faced the Rangers’ ace in the first inning Saturday, he’d unload with a run-scoring double.

The difference this time was that there would be no scoring on either side, and the A’s would claim a 1-0 win that would move Oakland to 5½ games in front of Texas in the American League West. The A’s magic number to win the West — any combination of 10 A’s wins or Rangers losses would give Oakland the title.

It never occurred to Moss that his hit would produce the game’s only run.

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Game 147 wrapup: Balfour angry at being skipped? A’s pretty sure Rios was out at third; Anderson back, not foot, hurts; Dad visits Donaldson

The move was so by-the-book as to be automatic.

The A’s had a one-run lead in the ninth inning. Closer Grant Balfour was up and loose in the Oakland bullpen.

Balfour was coming into to close out Friday’s 9-8 win over the Rangers. The A’s got the win, but Balfour never left the bullpen. Instead, left-hander Sean Doolittle, who’d gotten out of the eighth inning with a bit of magic, pitched the ninth to get the save.

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Game 146 wrapup: It’s time to let Moss play against leftties; Donaldson likes A’s plan for success; Young soars to .201; Balfour finally back in action

Are the A’s about to play the Texas Rangers, their last competition in the American League West title fight, with one arm tied behind their back?

Maybe. The Rangers are scheduled to start two left-handed pitchers, Derek Holland on Friday and Martin Perez on Sunday, against the A’s.

Oakland generally sits lefty cleanup hitter Brandon Moss against left-handed pitchers, and the A’s have had some success doing so. Nate Freiman has had a big year against left-handed pitching at .314 with four homers and 22 RBIs, and Freiman, a right-hander, is the usual starter at first against lefties.

There are times to throw away the numbers, however, and this may be one of them. Moss is an impact player, and more now than ever. The A’s are 13-4 since Aug. 26, going from 2½ games behind Texas to 3½ games in front of the Rangers in that time.

The driving force? Brandon Moss. He’s a .356 hitter in those games with five homers and 17 RBIs, an average of an RBI per game although he’s only starter 13 of those games.

He didn’t play Thursday when the Twins threw lefty Scott Diamond at Oakland and the A’s came away just fine with an 8-2 win. But since Aug. 26, in the limited time Moss has had against lefties, he’s been much better than his .216 season average against them.

Specifically he’s 5-for-10 with two homers and five RBIs.

Moss isn’t going to ask to play against lefties. Ask him, and he’ll say that he hasn’t hit well enough to earn the right and that it’s all about the team winning and “it’s not about whether it’s hard for me to sit and watch.’’

Ask manager Bob Melvin and he’ll say he doesn’t know yet what his lineup will look like. But Moss has stood up and been counted when the A’s needed him to be The Man. A couple of swings from Moss in games Friday or Sunday could be the difference between winning and losing for Oakland.

And the A’s very much need to win to keep the Rangers at bay.

“If I play, I play,’’ Moss said. “This (platooning) is what we’ve done for two years, and it’s worked pretty well. It’s about what we have done, not about what I have done.’’

Moss was slogging along in the minor leagues last June when the A’s pulled him back to the big leagues for one last shot. Since then he’s hit 46 home runs in less than a season and a half, a figure that is tied for the 12th-best total over that stretch in the Major Leagues.

He’s immensely grateful for the chance the A’s have given him.

And that explains, at least in part, why he’s not going to push his case to play.

“When you think of where I was last year and where I am now,’’ he said, “obviously I’m very appreciative of the chance I’ve gotten. I’ve got 100 percent confidence in the team and the (front office) staff to make the right decisions.’’

That’s the company line, too.

But it’s difficult to see the A’s putting their best lineup forward against the Rangers in a series Oakland needs to win and not see Moss a part of it.

 

–Josh Donaldson says the A’s don’t have to do anything differently against the second-place Rangers this weekend to move closer to another playoff spot.

“Pitching and hitting is what it’s about,’’ the third baseman said. “We’ve done that the majority of the year, and when we have, we’ve done fine.’’

Donaldson was in the lineup at third Thursday less than 20 hours after being hit on the right hand by a pitch. He singled, walked twice and scored a run in five plate trips. Defensively, he made a pair of above-average plays, getting plenty on the throw with his injured right hand.

“At this point of the year,’’ he said, “it’s going to take a lot to get me out of the lineup. It was a little sore, which I expected, but I’m going to play.’’

 

–Chris Young, who generally plays only against left-handers, got a start against one Thursday and had a double and a triple, although both of the hits came against right-handed relievers.

The two hits got him over .200, all the way to .201, for the first time since May 25, when he was hitting .207. It’s been a tough year for Chris Young.

“I feel like I’ve been swinging well,’’ Young said. “Today some balls found some holes. It’s not about the numbers anymore, not at this point of the season.

“It’s about winning games, just winning games. Our season depends on that.’’

 

–Grant Balfour, talking before Thursday’s game, said “we aren’t there yet’’ when asked if it was possible he was getting too much time off. Balfour hadn’t pitched since Sept. 6 before throwing the ninth inning Thursday.

After the game the Oakland closer was talking as if the long layoff, his tired arm notwithstanding, was perhaps a little too long.

“I felt good,’’ he said. “But you do need to be out there more consistently to have your command. But it went OK, and I’m ready to go.’’

And he’s looking forward to the three games this weekend against the Rangers.

“I don’t think about three games,’’ he said. “I just think about the next game. Tomorrow is the most important day for us.

“We’ve played well to put ourselves in good position going in. Now it’s up to us to make the most of it.’’