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A’s need to loosen up at the plate and work pitchers over

Jon Lester's arrival has seen him pitch well while the A's have struggled.

Jon Lester’s arrival has seen him pitch well while the A’s have struggled.

There are no simple answers for the Oakland A’s.

There are some simple truths, however.

One is that they need to loosen up at the plate.

Oakland hitters spent four months working the count, forcing pitchers into untenable situations, then waiting for the pitcher to wilt under pressure.

Now, it’s not like that.

“What’s going on with their hitters?’’ one Major League scout asked me Thursday. “I saw them a couple of months ago and they knew what they needed to do. Now they’re up there hacking at everything.’’

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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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Hammel’s best game isn’t enough without support from A’s

Jason Hammel had his best start yet with the A's Tuesday, but wound up without enough support.

Jason Hammel had his best start yet with the A’s Tuesday, but wound up without enough support.

There’s no doubt Jason Hammel hasn’t done as much for the A’s he, or they, would have hoped.

The other side of the coin is that the A’s haven’t done all that much for Hammel, either, including Tuesday when they scored two runs in a 4-2 loss, Hammel allowing just one run in seven innings.

It was the eighth start for the right-hander, acquired from the Chicago Cubs on July 4, and in those eight games the A’s have scored 17 runs. That’s barely two runs per game.

If the A’s were somewhere closer to their season average of 4.8 runs per game when he pitches, Hammel’s record might look a little better that 1-5.

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A’s have traded youth for experience in pursuit of pennant

Alberto Callaspo no longer the old man on A's roster. (He's even changed his number and wears 7 now.)

Alberto Callaspo no longer the old man on A’s roster. (He’s even changed his number and wears 7 now.)

The idea that the A’s are a young, generally unknown team has lost some of its credence.

Starting with the trade of Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, the A’s have added older, more accomplished players and they don’t strut that young vibe as much anymore.

At the start of the season, 30-year-old infielder Alberto Callaspo was the oldest man on the team (he’s 31 now). Now he’s fourth, with 33-year-old outfielder Jonny Gomes leading the pack.

The A’s haven’t traded for a bunch of codgers – Jon Lester is 30, Samardzija is 29 and Hammel is 31, a week away from turning 32. But they aren’t kids any more.

As manager Bob Melvin said before Tuesday’s game, “we’ve quickly gone from a young team to a veteran team.’’

Change has been the order of the day with the A’s. Six of the 10 starters Melvin fielded for Tuesday’s game with the Astros weren’t on the roster to start the season.

More than that, 11 of the 25 men on the roster weren’t around and active in April. Three of the current five-man starting rotation – Lester, Samardzija and Hammel – came from other organizations.

And maybe that has something to do with the A’s uneven play in August. This is a group just getting to know each other.

The popular belief is that anybody can fit in in the Oakland clubhouse, and while that’s generally true, it’s unlikely everybody can do it overnight.

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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: 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: Lester addition forces Tigers to play catchup

Yoenis Cespedes is heading to Boston after big trade deadline deal Thursday.

Yoenis Cespedes is heading to Boston after big trade deadline deal Thursday.

Deny them what you will, the Oakland A’s aren’t boring.

They could have settled for just having made the Independence Day trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, but in the final six hours before the trade deadline they went out and completely rebuilt their roster.

At that point, the Tigers’ Justin Verlander said Oakland made the trade because of the A’s had to come through Detroit in the post-season.

But after the A’s moved Yoenis Cespedes from left field and shipped him to Boston in exchange for All-Star starter Jon Lester and platoon left fielder Jonny Gomes, it seemed like the Tigers were playing catch up with the A’s when Detroit made a three-team deal for the other big name starting pitcher out there, David Price.

With it being obvious there was no room at the inn for Tommy Milone in the A’s rotation near term, they traded the minor league starter to the Twins for center fielder Sam Fuld.

The moves spoke about the A’s on several levels.

One. They didn’t believe they could re-sign Cespedes to a long-term contract when his four-year deal ran out after next year.

Two. They didn’t see Jason Hammel or Jesse Chavez as giving them their best chance to win in a post-season start.

Three. Center field is a problem. Coco Crisp has trouble staying in the lineup ever since running into a pole holding up the Coliseum outfield fence and suffered whiplash. And Craig Gentry has a broken right hand that will keep him out two more weeks at a minimum.

Four. There is no time like the present. The A’s are playing to go to the World Series this season. Next season will have to take care of itself.

Things could change, but Lester seems to be a two-month purchase. He gives the A’s something that, with all their pitching, they didn’t have – experience pitching in the World Series. He was 2-0 in the series last year with a 0.59 and 4-1 in the three rounds of the playoffs overall and his career ERA in the playoffs is 2.11.

The A’s have the best record in baseball four months into the season, but that gets you nothing, particularly when the team with the second-best record in the majors is in your division. Because of that, general manager Billy Beane keeps pushing forward.

Since Jan. 1, Beane has added a left-handed reliever who has been one of the best in the game, Eric O’Flaherty; added a right-handed hitting first baseman in Kyle Blanks, claimed lefty pitcher Jeff Francis from the Reds, traded for left-handed starter Brad Mills, traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, then traded for Lester and Gomes and reacquired Fuld.

That nine additions this year already, and even with Blanks injured and Francis no longer around, as A’s co-owner Lew Wolff told me Thursday, “there’s time yet.’’

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A’s: Looking at options 48 hours out from trade deadline

It’s closing in on 48 hours before the trade deadline hits (1 p.m. PDT Thursday), and just where do the A’s stand?

For one thing, they’re in a position where they don’t need to make a trade, although they continue to explore second base options. And while they don’t need an outfielder long term, they could use one until they know that Craig Gentry (disabled list, broken right hand) and Coco Crisp (neck) are healthy.

With the July 4 trade for starters Jeff Samardzija (pitching tonight in Houston) and Jason Hammel (pitching the series finale Wednesday), the A’s addressed their most pressing need going forward. On the other hand, you can never have too much pitching, so there’s that.

But the trade deadline is not to be trifled with, so let’s have a look as A’s possibilities:

 

–Second base: Probably the best option for the A’s is the Rays’ Ben Zobrist (.269, 8 homers, 29 RBIs). He was an All-Star last year, and at 33 is something like perfect for the we’re-all-about-versatility A’s because he can play second, third and the outfield, although he hasn’t been in center field since last year. He’s under club control through 2015, which would fit nicely into the Oakland narrative, too.

The Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera (.249, 9 homers, 40 RBIs) has been strictly a shortstop since 2010, but he came up as a second baseman/shortstop and if the A’s were convinced he could give them the defense they need, he could be a nice bit of 28-year-old adrenalin for the A’s lineup.

Then there’s Aaron Hill. The Diamondbacks’ second baseman is, at 32, having the worst year of his career (.255, 8 homers, 49 RBIs), but it was just last year that he hit .291 and two years back he hit .302 with 26 homers, and a change of scene could do the right-handed hitter well. He’s owed a lot of money, though, $24 million over the next two seasons and the A’s wouldn’t take that on without getting a bucket of money back from Arizona.

Talk about adding Nick Franklin from the Mariners has happened, but it’s tough seeing Franklin a fix for this year. He’s never played a full season in the big leagues and has spent most of this year in the minors after the addition of Robinson Cano. His defense is unproven, but he’s been a consistent .300 hitter the last two years at Triple-A Tacoma, even if he’s hit just .128 in 17 games for Seattle this year.

 

–Center field: Marcell Ozuna (.272, 16 homers, 57 RBIs) is someone who probably shouldn’t be mentioned, because why would the Marlins trade a 24-year-old who might be an impact player? Well, the Marlins have approached the A’s about starting pitcher Tommy Milone, and if the A’s are going to entertain thoughts of trading Milone, who was 6-0 over an 11-game stretch before getting bumped to the minor leagues by the arrival of Hammel, Oakland may as well ask for someone they could really use over the long term knowing that the Marlins seem to have available center field options in their minor league system.

The A’s couldn’t hold on to left-handed hitting center fielder Sam Fuld because there was no room on the roster after early April, but Fuld, now with the Twins, would seem to be just what the A’s need – a defensive whiz with the ability to play off the bench. He’s done a decent job (.272, 1 homer, 17 RBIs in 51 games) for Minnesota, but he’s probably available.

 

–Pitching: As we said above, the A’s don’t really need another starting pitcher, but they’ve called the Red Sox in the last few days with left-hander Jon Lester (10-7, 2.42) available from last-place Boston.

And the Marlins have contacted the A’s about possibility of the left-handed Milone, currently pitching at Triple-A Sacramento, heading to Miami.

Sean McAdam of CSNNE first reported the A’s interest in Lester, although Oakland is far from being at the top of the heap. Toronto, St. Louis, Seattle, Baltimore and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the A’s join the Brewers and the Braves in being interested enough to see if there is room at the table.

The Red Sox are willing to move Lester, and Lester is willing to be moved, but any decision is likely to come down to the final hours leading up to the deadline. At a minimum, the A’s would have to send Milone to the Red Sox, but it’s not clear the A’s have enough in the minor leagues system to complete a deal for the veteran, who would be just a two-month addition.

Lester isn’t the only starter the A’s have asked about. They tried to get David Price from the Rays a month ago, but they moved to Samardzija and Hammel when the Rays said they weren’t ready to make a move. Since then, it seems that Price will stay put with the Rays playing better, but you never know.

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A’s: Second base upgrades in short supply

Before Friday’s game with the Rangers, A’s manager Bob Melvin said he didn’t see Oakland in a position where it had to trade for a second baseman for the stretch run.

Having acquired starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel on July 4, Melvin said, was good enough and the club could make do with at second. Eric Sogard has picked this week to up his game a little, and Alberto Callaspo is due off DL Sunday.

And that may be just as well, because the pool of available candidates seems to be evaporating. Six weeks ago, it seemed a sure bet the Rays would trade Ben Zobrist. Then Tampa went on a surge.

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