Kazmir, Athletics Walk Off to Complete Game Win

By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. — The narrative surrounding the Oakland Athletics over the past three season states that the green and gold achieve with a line-up devoid of super stars but rife with supporting cast members. Josh Donaldson tossed that notion out the window with one swing of the bat Wednesday night, crushing a three-run walk-off home run off closer Joe Nathan to give the A’s (32-21) a 3-1 decision over the American League Central leading Detroit Tigers at O.Co Coliseum.

“For the fans that was a fun game to watch,” said A’s starter Scott Kazmir. “Throughout the game it seemed like (Detroit Tigers Starter) Anibal Sanchez and I were battling it out. We ended up getting a couple base runners in the ninth and you just kind of had that feeling when Josh came up. He swung at the first pitch and didn’t miss it. That was awesome.”

Kazmir pitched a complete game but watched the bottom of the ninth on the hook for a loss after allowing a solo blast to Torii Hunter with two outs in the fourth for the only Detroit run. Donaldson picked his starter up, launching his 13th four-bagger to extend his streak of reaching base to 43 games when penciled on the line-up card at third base.

The pitchers’ duel expected Tuesday night in the much ballyhooed showdown between ace Sonny Gray and 2013 AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer never materialized, instead morphing into a battle of the bullpens in a 6-5 home team loss. The true display of pitching prowess came Wednesday night, with Kazmir (6-2, 2.36 ERA) and Detroit’s Sanchez allowing a combined eight hits.

“You always want to give your starting pitcher support,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “Sanchez was unbelievable tonight. He pitched backwards. Fastballs in breaking ball counts, a lot of change-ups in counts where you’d expect fastballs. It took us a while to score some runs at the end but we kept grinding.”

Sanchez dazzled the Oakland hitters, scattering three hits over 8 1/3 innings, striking out nine while only walking one. He appeared en route to his ninth career complete game, but a one out double in the ninth by Coco Crisp knocked him out of the game after 111 pitches. First-year Detroit manager Brad Ausmus tabbed Nathan to close out the contest and nail down his 13th save of the season.

“I don’t think anybody thought we were going to come up short,” said Melvin. “Once Coco got on I think we had a really good feeling we were going to win the game. That’s what this team has been great at here in the last couple years. Until that last out is recorded, we always feel optimistic that we have a win.”

John Jaso continued the rally, flipping a 2-2 Nathan delivery over the third baseman Nick Castellanos’ outstretched glove for a single, setting up base runners on first-and-third with one away for Donaldson, the fourth place finisher in the 2013 AL MVP voting.

“In that situation, they’re looking for a double play,” said Donaldson. “I was just trying to hit something in the air and get one run.”

Donaldson wasted little time against Nathan(2-1, 4.58), crushing the first-pitch offering from the four-time All-star deep to left field to hand the righty his fourth blown save of the year. The A’s third basemen stood at home plate watching as his blast sailed dangerously close to the foul pole.

“I was just trying to watch it to see if it stayed fair,” said Donaldson. “If it went foul, I didn’t want to waste my energy running.”

The ball indeed landed fair for Donaldson’s second career walk-off home run, the first also coming against Detroit last April. While the homer, Donaldson’s 13th of the campaign, marked a huge highlight in the young slugger’s career he remained humbled about its significance.

“It’s just one of those things,” said Donaldson sheepishly. “I just go out there and play to win.”

The homer, which no doubt will play repeatedly on sports highlight shows until the next news cycle tomorrow, boosts Donaldson’s candidacy for a 2014 All-Star game starting spot. He currently sits in first place amongst third basemen in the fan vote, and could be the A’s first position player to appear in a Mid-Summer Classic in 11 seasons.

Donaldson entered play Wednesday second in the AL in runs scored (42), tied for second in go-ahead RBIs (38) and fifth in home runs (12). He’s also ranks in the top ten in slugging percentage, walks, RBIs and extra base hits. Those numbers are reminiscent of former A’s basher Jason Giambi, green and gold member elected by the fans to the All-star squad back in 2000.

No stranger to the All-star game, Torii Hunter made his presence felt earlier in the game. The right fielder crushed Kazmir’s only mistake, a full count pitch to deep right center field for his second home run in as many nights. The 38-year-old Hunter now owns eight long balls on the season along with 29 runs batted in for the Motor City Kitties. Kazmir finished the night with eight strikeouts and no walks for his first complete game since 2006.

“We’ve seen him pitch pretty similar to this a few times,” said Melvin. “He’s been consistent for us. It probably rates up there with some of his games. But when you’re pitching against a guy that’s throwing the ball that well, you’re not scoring very many runs. You have to be perfect. He was close to that.

Melvin would like to receive another near perfect performance when he sends Jesse Chavez to the mound to stymy the AL’s best offensive team in the matinee finale of the four-game set Thursday afternoon. Detroit (29-20) sends Rick Porcello, owner of seven wins in 2014, to the hill seeking a series split after losing the first and third games in Oakland.

In Claiming Francis Off Waivers, Athletics Seek Another Successful Salvaging of a Southpaw

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By Matthew Harrington

The Oakland Athletics hope lightning strikes three times this season after claiming reliever Jeff Francis off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds Sunday afternoon while option reliever Joe Savory back to Sacramento. In claiming Francis, general manager Billy Beane takes on his third southpaw reclamation project of the season after signing former All-star hurler Scott Kazmir in the offseason and trading for once highly-touted prospect Drew Pomeranz during the winter.

Francis, a former first round pick (ninth overall) of the Colorado Rockies in the 2002 draft appeared bound for Super Stardom in the Mile High City after his first full season in 2005. That year he finished with the sixth-fewest hits allowed in the National League at the ripe age of 24 years old.

He blossomed into a dominant pitcher in 2007, finishing ninth in the NL Cy Young voting despite a hitter-friendly Coors-field aided earned run average of 4.30. The Vancouver, British Columbia native took the ball 34 times that season with only five other qualifying NL starters allowing fewer hits. As the staff ace, Francis led Colorado to the franchises’ lone World Series appearance. While he played a large role in getting the Rockies to the Fall Classic, Francis was shelled to the tune of six runs in four innings of game one of what ultimately became four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox.

From there, Francis’ narrative is all too familiar. The fireballing stud becomes a lame-duck dud after arm injuries limited him to 24 starts in 2008. Francis missed all of 2009 after going under the knife to repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. In 2010, he returned to piece together a respectable but unremarkable 5.00 ERA over 20 games (19 starts) before heading to Kansas city. With the Royals, Francis appeared to be a cobble together a bounce-back year, producing a 4.82 ERA over 31 starts. The Reds liked what they saw in Francis, signed him to a contract but released him in June without reaching the majors, setting up a reunion with the Rockies. The move saw his runs against rise just like his new home park’s elevation. By 2013 he eventually lost his role in the rotation and finished with a career-worst 6.27 ERA earning a ticket out of the Centennial State.

The Reds again took a flier on Francis this winter with a minor league deal then called him up to the big club after a strong showing at Class AAA Louisville where he allowed 18 earned runs over eight starts and 48.2 innings. He made his MLB season debut on May 15th against the Padres, allowing three earned runs a loss and a demotion back to AAA after five innings. The A’s, in need of an emergency starter, claimed him off waivers and returned him to the relief role he occupied last season with the Rockies.

If Francis needs a muse, he need only look at a former teammate, the man whose promotion created his opportunity in a long relief. Drew Pomeranz, a former first round pick himself, came to Oakland in a trade with Colorado for Brett Anderson in the offseason, making the A’s his third team already before reaching the age of 25. With the expectations of excellence met by the actuality of average performance coming into the season, Pomeranz found himself a longshot to make the A’s roster coming into Spring Training. With injuries sidelining the one-two punch of starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, Pomeranz leveraged a strong spring into a bullpen spot as the long man in Oakland. From there, the former All-American impressed, allowing a scant three runs over 13 and 2/3 innings, giving way to an impromptu audition for a rotation role with Dan Straily and Tommy Milone struggling at the backend.

Pomeranz’s appearance on the line-up card as starter of game two of a make-up double header against Seattle on May 7th came as an initial surprise, but how he delivered in his spot start sparked the real headlines. Pomeranz fired a two-hit five inning performance without yielding a run to the M’s. Once is an anomaly, but twice is a trend. With that in mind, Pomeranz backed up his first look with a worthy encore, baffling the Chicago White Sox his next time out to three hits and no runs, again going five strong. Suddenly Pomeranz again resembles the former Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year at the University of Mississippi, a can’t-miss prospect generating buzz after notching 13 punch-outs over his ten innings as a rotation member.

If Pomeranz scuffles, Francis can look to the rock-steady performance of another rebound role model, Scott Kazmir. Kazmir came to Oakland after his early All-World stock with Tampa Bay plummeted with injuries. After All-star seasons in 2006 and 2008 capped by a trip to the World Series with the Rays, the lefty bounced around with the Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland before hitting the open market this past offseason. Beane and co. opened the pocket book in hopes of finding an ace-in-waiting, inking the southpaw to a cool $7 million in 2014 with another $11 million on the books next season. So far, Kazmir has proven a wise investment, appearing on his way to a Mid-Summer Classic six years removed from his last All-Star appearance. Kazmir boasts a 2.39 ERA and a 5-1 mark over his first nine starts.

While it’s unknown what Francis can bring to the A’s, it’s clear he’s in good hands with manager Bob Melvin, pitching coach Curt Young and staff. So far, they’re two-for-two in redemption stories. Even if they swing and miss with Francis, a .667 batting average isn’t bad in baseball. At the very least, the game plan to success has clearly been laid out for Francis.