Finishing Blow Elusive as A’s Strand 10 Against Darvish, Rangers

By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. –Few teams can say they own All-World talent Yu Darvish, staff ace for the Texas Rangers. The Oakland Athletics can stake claim to that distinction, sporting a 6-1 lifetime record against the Japanese import including a sterling 2-0 record against the international sensation at O.Co Coliseum. Though Darvish didn’t manage his first win in his career in the confines of Alameda County Monday evening, his Rangers outlasted the Oakland A’s (13-6), erasing a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 victory.

“It was a very competitive game,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “It was about as close as you can get. They had their ace on the mound. We had them on the run early but recovered well enough to keep him in the game and go to their key bullpen guys.”

Neal Cotts (1-1, 3.38 ERA) picked up the win in relief, Shin-Soo Choo homered for the Rangers (12-8) and former Oakland middle infielder Donnie Murphy singled in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning to lead the Rangers to a come-from-behind triumph over the American League West leaders. Brandon Moss hit his fourth round tripper of the season and Coco Crisp moved into sole possession of fourth place on the A’s career stolen base list, swiping two bags to move past Carney Lansford with 147 pilferings in his time in green and gold.  Crisp also made an incredible leaping catch in center with his back to home plate, but came up lame clutching his ribs on a diving attempt later in the game.

“We’ll see how he feels tomorrow,” said Melvin. “It’s the second time he’s dove and knicked that area up a little bit.”

Dan Straily battled Darvish pitch-for-pitch before relinquishing a tied game to his bullpen in the sixth inning. Texas saddled reliever Sean Doolittle (0-1, 3.38 ERA) with the loss after the lefty struggled in the eighth to snuff out a Ranger rally. Jason Frasor, Cotts, Alexi Ogando and Joakim Soria held the A’s scoreless over three innings of relief.

Choo greeted Straily with his 12th career leadoff homerun, launching a liner to right for his second long ball of the season and a 1-0 Rangers Lead. Choo later left the game in the seventh inning after suffering left leg tightness when he grounded out on a slow roller to third. Josh Donaldson barehanded the ball for the bang-bang play at first with Choo originally being called safe by first base umpire Adrian Johnson. Melvin challenged the play and, after the replay was reviewed, the call of safe on the field was overturned by crew chief Larry Vanover.

“I heard that he was out,” said Melvin. “Based on the replay I was seeing, I wasn’t sure about it. At that point in time I’m going to challenge it anyway. After the seventh inning the umpires get together, so that was one I would probably challenge either way.”

Moss answered Choo’s dinger with a solo shot of his own in the home half of second, depositing a Darvish delivery just inside the foul pole and beyond the fence. For Moss, the four-bagger marks his fourth of the season and fourth-career off Darvish. Moss accounts for 4 of 41 total career round-trippers for Darvish, nearly ten percent.

The Athletics rally continued when a two-out single to left by Crisp brought Josh Reddick and Eric Sogard around for a two-run edge. It would complete all the scoring Oakland mustered off Darvish, who saw his string of consecutive seven-plus innings starts snapped at three 2014 appearances.

“When he’s out there, we know it’s going to be a pretty low-scoring game,” said Donaldson of Darvish. “We jumped out pretty early. Early on he was coming at us, throwing harder. He ran it up to 96 (miles per hour) then once he got settled in, he started changing speeds which is what he does best.”

The 56-million-dollar man came into play Monday with a 0.82 ERA after allowing two runs in 22 innings on the campaign, but the A’s nearly doubled his ERA to a still-miniscule 1.61 with their three earned runs over six innings. Monday also marked the first time in nine-straight starts that an opposing team scored more than two runs on last season’s batting-average-against leader. Darvish collected six punch-outs in the no-decision, firing a laboring 116 pitches.

Texas cut the deficit in half off Straily after Prince Fielder opened the fourth inning with a double to the corner in left followed by a RBI single by Ex-Athletic Kevin Kouzmanoff. Straily settled down to retire the next three batters in order. Kouzmanoff, the reigning American League Player of the Week for his 10-for-29 performance with two home runs and eight RBIs, finished the day with two hits, an RBI and scored the game-winning run.

A two-out rally in the visiting portion of the fifth inning led to the game-tying run. Fielder hit the third of three consecutive singles to plate Elvis Andrus. Straily then threw a wild pitch to put Alex Rios, the second single of the trio, and Fielder in scoring position, but got Kouzmanoff to chase a 1-2 slider to end the inning and close the book on his day.

“He was spotty at times,” said Melvin on his starting pitcher. “He recovered nicely from the first batter in the game hitting a home run. He had two outs in the fifth and tried to finish that one off, couldn’t do it. At times I thought he threw the ball well, there were times he was maybe a little bit off his command.”

Straily’s pitching line including five innings of work with three runs, all earned on 84 pitches. He struck out six and walked only two but turned the game over to Ryan Cook with no chance at being named the winning pitcher.

“Tonight I was pretty proud of myself,” said Straily. “I never really felt like I was out of any at-bats except having to work my way back into it early. I don’t really feel too down on myself. My first-pitch command was just terrible tonight. That’s something you can’t have out there. I gave it everything I had, I just wasn’t able to get it done there in the fifth.”

Oakland looked poised to add a cushion to its lead after Daric Barton singled to center on a soft liner, marking the fourth-straight inning the A’s leadoff man reached base. Sogard bounced into the momentum-sapping double play but Crisp and catcher John Jaso reached base then stole third and second respectively with Jed Lowrie at the plate. Lowrie coaxed a two-out walk to load the bases for Josh Donaldson, but the “Bringer of Rain” continued an A’s drought with runners in scoring position on the night. Donaldson went around on a check-swing for the third strike on a ball low in the strike zone.

“It’s just one of those things,” said Donaldson. “He’s a good pitcher. He started to bear down on us a little bit. We came up there with the bases loaded and he came in there with a pretty good slider for strike three. The guy’s good. He’s not just your run-of –the-mill guy.”

Donaldson represented one one of seven A’s outs in 10 opportunities with runners on second or third. The A’s left 10 men on base Monday.

“The goal is to get guys on base,” said Donaldson. “We were able to do that. More times than not when we’re going to come through in those situations. Tonight was one of those days where it didn’t happen.”

Ryan Cook and Fernando Abad combined to pitch a scoreless inning apiece before turning the game over to heir-apparent to the closer role, Sean Doolittle, in the eighth inning. Doolittle recently received a five-year extension with the A’s that many suspect puts him in line to take over the ninth inning role at some point in his career. Oakland fans hope Monday doesn’t represent a harbinger of things to come from the bearded southpaw.

Texas opened Doolittle’s frame with Kouzmanoff rocketing a ball to right center that Reddick couldn’t snag on a leap at the wall. Designated hitter Mitch Moreland advanced Kouzmanoff to third on a sacrifice bunt then Kouzmanoff scored on a Murphy bouncer up the middle, the game-winning base knock. Doolittle got Leonys Martin to fly out for the second out before being lifted for Dan Otero. Otero finished off the inning, then pitched a scoreless ninth to keep Oakland within one.

“After they got the bunt down, I snuck one past Murphy,” said Doolittle. “I thought I was going to find a way to get him out. I was doing a good job of staying short. I thought I made a good pitch. The pitch to Kouzmanoff was not a good pitch. The pitch to Murphy was well-executed. He just did a good job of smoking it back up the middle.”

Rangers manager Ron Washington, a former infield coach with the A’s, called on his closer Soria to shut the door on the A’s in the ninth. Soria got Jaso to strike out for the fourth time Monday night before Lowrie reached base then advanced to second on an error at short by Andrus. Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes, who nearly tied the game on a deep drive in a pinch-hit pop-out in the seventh, lifted fly balls for the final two outs and Soria’s fourth save of the season.

“I thought when he hit it, it was out,” said Melvin of Cespedes’ loud out in the seventh. “I know on a cold night it’s difficult here, especially in the big part of the ball park. He hits one good and it normally goes out.”

The A’s will look to get on track again in Tuesday night’s tilt which will feature Tommy Milone opposing Rangers right-hander Nick Martinez before a finale between young pitching sensations Sonny Gray and Martin Perez Wednesday afternoon. The Rangers will look to hand Oakland its first loss of more than two runs this season.

A’s On Wrong Side in Extra Innings for First Time in 2014

By Matthew Harrington

For the first time in 2014, the Oakland Athletics ended up on the wrong side of an extra innings affair. The A’s suffered a walk-off loss 5-4 against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium Wednesday night in their fourth game requiring more than nine innings this season. Despite a 4-1 lead on a three-run home run from right fielder Brandon Moss and a two earned run performance over six-plus innings from starter Tommy Milone, the A’s bullpen failed to hang on to the lead. The Angels comeback, capped by Chris Iannetta’s game-winning blast off Drew Pomeranz in the bottom of the 12th inning, rallied the Halos (7-8)to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Athletics.

Oakland (10-5) appeared to have the game wrapped up after taking a 4-1 lead in the top of the fourth inning on Moss’ second long ball of the season. The left-hander’s no-doubter to right  off Angels starter Tyler Skaggs plated Alberto Callaspo and Derek Norris with two outs in the inning. For Moss, who hit out of the eighth spot against the lefty Skaggs instead of his usual spot in the heart of the order, the dinger marked RBI’s number 13, 14 and 15 of the season, tops on the Athletics and the best mark in the American League. Moss matches fellow AL-er Chris Colabello of the Twins for third place in the major leagues.

Earlier in the top of the fourth inning, Callaspo doubled home Josh Donaldson for a one-out, game-tying double. Callaspo finished the night 1-for-4 after entering play flirting with a .400 batting average, good for the second best mark in the American League behind Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez.

In the previous half inning, the Angels opened the scoring after Erick Aybar lead off the inning with a single to center then scored on Mike Trout’s double with one out.

Milone opened the seventh inning by hitting Iannetta with a pitch that bounced in the dirt before skimming the LA backstop’s toe. After A’s manager Bob Melvin challenged the play, replay evidence proved inconclusive with crew chief Chris Segal rewarding Iannetta first base. The next batter, Collin Cowgill, singled on the first delivery from Millone, prompting Melvin to lift the left-hander in favor of reliever Dan Otero. Milone finished the night with only one strikeout and two free passes in six-plus innings of work.

Otero coaxed Aybar to ground into a fielder’s choice with second baseman Eric Sogard electing to force Cowgill out at second. J.B. Shuck reached base on an error by Callaspo, making just his second career appearance at first base, allowing Iannetta to cross the plate for a 4-2 A’s lead. Otero downed Trout on a full-count swing-and-miss but Albert Pujols wrapped a single up the middle to cut the A’s advantage to one run at 4-3 after Aybar came around to score. Pujols’ base knock was the only Angels base hit in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position Wednesday evening.

After the A’s went down in order in the top half of the eighth, Otero, Fernando Abad and Ryan Cook combined to pitch a scoreless bottom half. Angels reliever Fernando Salas pitched his first of two scoreless innings to keep the home team down by one entering the ninth.

Luke Gregerson, Melvin’s top candidate in the closer-by-committee approach adopted by the A’s amidst deposed closer Jim Johnson’s struggles, entered the ninth seeking his third save in four opportunities. Instead, the righty blew his second save of the season, allowing back-to-back singles to Trout and Pujols. Gregerson then yielded a run-scoring force out on a failed game-ending double play chance after Howie Kendrick beat out Eric Sogard’s pivot to first to knot the game at four runs apiece.

Angels relief arms Michael Kohn and Yoslan Herrera held Oakland scoreless in an inning each to set up Joe Smith as the winning pitcher in the 12th. Smith (1-0, 5.14 Era) struck out Gentry to open the inning, then plunked shortstop Jed Lowrie with a wild pitch to put the go-ahead run on first. Donaldson, the hero in Tuesday night’s 11 inning A’s win, advanced Lowrie into scoring position but clean-up hitter Yoenis Cespedes struck out to end the inning and the scoring threat. The left fielder went 0-for-6 on the night to join Nick Punto and Sogard as the only members of the A’s starting line-up to be held hitless.

With the A’s bullpen pitching 7 1/3 innings in Tuesday’s barn burner, Melvin used Gregerson to pitch the tenth as well before handing the ball over to lefty Drew Pomeranz in the 11th. Pomeranz (1-1, 2.16 ERA), a starter-turned-reliever, pitched 2 and 2/3 innings Tuesday night before taking the hill in Wednesday’s game. Pomeranz allowed a Pujols single in an otherwise uneventful 11th inning then stayed in the game looking to hold the Halos off the board in the 12th.

Pomeranz started the 12th on strong footing, inducing a David Freese ground out and a Raul Ibanez pop out to retire the first two men to the plate on only eight pitches in the inning. Iannetta ended Pomeranz’s run on the first pitch he saw, rocketing a 91 mph fastball at the belt to center field just right of the 396-foot marker. Center fielder Craig Gentry leapt at the wall to try to pull the game-winning shot back in from the brink, but the ball grazed off the glove’s tip and into the grass at the base of the rock pile in beyond the fence.

For the Angels, Wednesday’s win helped to skew the numbers in their favor at their home turf. In the last 22 meetings at Angel Stadium, the A’s have been victorious a lop-sided 15 times. Oakland wrapped up a nine-game road trip, going 7-2 after sweeping Minnesota and taking two-of-three from Seattle and Los Angeles.

Oakland gets an off-day Thursday to travel home before opening a weekend series at the O.Co Coliseum against the Houston Astros who, after a hot start, once again find themselves in the American League’s basement in the standings. They’ll counter A’s Ace Sonny Gray with Zach Cosart in Friday’s series-opener.

Norris’ 11th-Inning Homer Salvages Oakland’s Afternoon As Johnson’s Woes Continue

By Matthew Harrington

Athletics closer Jim Johnson blew his second save of the season, but a Derek Norris three-run homer in the eleventh inning salvaged a 7-4 A’s win in Minnesota Wednesday afternoon. Oakland took a 4-0 led over the Twins in the first inning from Target Field, but a home team rally capped by a two-run ninth forced extra innings for A’s for the second time this season.

Athletics starter Jesse Chavez had a second-straight solid start spoiled, picking up a no-decision after seven innings and only one run allowed. Chavez also was the victim of circumstance in the A’s previous extra-inning game, a 12-inning 3-2 walk-off over the Mariners last Thursday.

Phil Hughes failed to retire the first six batters he faced Wednesday, walking leadoff man Sam Fuld and Jed Lowrie before giving up four-straight base hits including a two-RBI single by Brandon Moss and run-producing hits by Josh Donaldson and Alberto Callaspo for a 4-0 lead with no outs. Hughes righted the ship, yielding no runs for the next four innings then four relievers combined to leave the A’s scoreless over the next five innings before Norris’ blast.

Designated hitter Jason Kubel cut the lead to three, launching a 2-0 Chavez delivery to deep right for a solo home run. It’d be the lone run the Twins produced off Chavez but second baseman Brian Dozier pulled the Twins within two on a solo blast of his own off A’s reliever Sean Doolittle to cut the lead in half.

The ninth inning continued to be a rocky ride with the two-time MLB saves leader Johnson on the mound. The leadoff hitter Kubel reached base on a single to center then ex-Athletic Kurt Suzuki drew a walk with two strikes to put runners on first and second. Johnson coaxed a bunting pop-up off the bat of Chris Hermann but Aaron Hicks took ball four with on another two-strike count to load the bases.

In a series of strange events, the Twins scored runs on the next two plays, but not without an umpire review for each. Eduardo Escobar flared a ball to left that Yoenis Cespedes scooped up and fired to third, looking for the force-out. The umpires ruled Suzuki safe at third after protest from Melvin, who then lifted his closer on the verge of blowing a second lead in three save opportunities in favor of Dan Otero.

Otero suffered the same fate as Johnson when guarding the one-run led. Brian Dozier lifted a sacrifice fly to right field, but Josh Reddick unleashed a laser to home plate to try to cut down Suzuki at home. After review, the call on the field was upheld, Suzuki was ruled safe and the Twins had forced a tie. Otero would walk Joe Mauer before ending the ninth with a ground out off the bat of Trevor Plouffe.

Neither team found the scoreboard in the tenth, with Glen Perkins and Otero pitching perfect innings to set up Norris’s blast. Norris, a pinch-hitter in the ninth who remained in at catcher for John Jaso, rocketed a delivery from Jared Burton (0-1, 9.00 ERA) to deep center to knock in Daric Barton and Callaspo for the decisive blow. It’s the right-handed backstop’s second dinger, both coming off right-handed pitchers. Otero (1-0, 1.69 ERA) walked a tight rope in the 12th, loading the bases on two singles and a walk before retiring Plouffe for the victory.

The A’s wrap up the series against Minnesota with another early afternoon game Thursday. Oakland’s Dan Straily and Minnesota’s Mike Pelfrey each take the hill looking for their first win of 2014.

Crowded Outfield Means Catalyst Fuld May Be Odd Man Out In Oakland

By Matthew Harrington

When the Oakland Athletics dealt power-hitting prospect Michael Choice to the Texas Rangers for Josh Lindblom and outfielder Craig Gentry, the idea was that Gentry would serve as the team’s fourth outfielder. Gentry brought all the requisite skills; the ability to play all three positions, a proven track record performing in the role and faith in management that the role was his to lose. Now, with Gentry ready to return from the disabled list potentially as soon as Saturday fresh, the A’s have a tough decision on their hands. What do they do with their bench when everyone is healthy?

The platoon in place at catcher means both backstops are safe, not that John Jaso or Derek Norris would have been a victim of a crowded bench in the first place thanks to their offensive profiles. Nick Punto brings the intangibles, representing the type of glue guy franchises need in the club house if they hope to survive the 162-game grind with morale intact. Alberto Callaspo, who made his debut at first base in Tuesday’s afternoon half of the doubleheader, now boasts experience at every position on the diamond except catcher, pitcher and center field. The switch hitter stands firmly entrenched as the right-handed bat in a right-left platoon with Daric Barton at first. That leaves fourth outfielder Sam Fuld as the odd man out.

Fuld came to Spring Training a minor league free-agent competing for a position on the Major League roster that he was far from first in line for. The A’s gave prospect Billy Burns, possessor of plus-speed and the eye at the plate Billy Beane adores, an extensive look with 72 spring at-bats over 26 games. The speedster did not disappoint, pilfering 10 bases to pace the green and gold in Arizona while producing a .370 on-base percentage. Gentry, of course, was acquired to be the man off the bench to patrol the grass at O.Co Coliseum and every sign still points at him filling the role. His spot on the roster were only slightly derailed by a lower back strain. There was also always the option that Beane and co. would stick with no true fourth outfielder, electing to have Callaspo or first baseman/designated hitter Brandon Moss, who broke into the majors as an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, spelling Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes when one of the triumvirate needs a breather.

Instead, the A’s saw something in Fuld, who hit a respectable .271 (abeit, less impressive than Burns .306 mark) with a .348 OBP in 59 preseason at-bats. The veteran outfielder, a product of Stanford University, led Oakland with four triples in the valley of the Sun. His March performance landed the 32-year -old a roster spot on Opening Day for just the third time in his seven seasons at the Major League level, not counting the 2008 season when he didn’t play above the AAA level. He’s certainly the one slated to head to the Sacramento Rivercats, if not elsewhere in the bigs, but he’s done nothing but excite in his time in Alameda County. If he hasn’t won a permanent spot in Oakland, he’s certainly shown value to the 29 other general managers in the league.

The compact left-hander, in hitting and throwing alike, has sparked the A’s offense in the leadoff spot when the coaching staff grants Coco Crisp a day of rest, something they plan on doing often this season for late-season preservation. Fuld currently sits behind only Callaspo, buoyed by the lone A’s home run of the season, in slugging percentage and OPS. Fuld is tied for second on the team in RBI’s with two, though five other Athletics have a pair as well. Fuld was denied another Thursday night when attempting to stretch an RBI triple into an inside-the-park homer proved ill-advised.
The 5-foot-10 journeyman with a career .235 batting average and only two seasons of 100-plus games-played may not be in the plans full-time for Oakland, but as long as he can produce like he is Fuld deserves a roster spot.

Every time number 29 steps to the plate or has a ball hit his way elicits an excitement that something electric is happening. He’s the one-man rally, the highlight reel grab, the game-changer in every sense of the word. It’s no wonder that he’s gained a cult-level status in his stops in Chicago and Tampa Bay. Rays fans watched the phenomena that was Fuld, dubbing the outfielder’s blossoming the so-called “Legend of Sam Fuld”. He soon saw his status elevated to tall-tale heights, with Chuck Norris jokes being altered to feature Fuld as the larger-than-life protagonist in Norris’ stead.

The Oakland A’s are now 2-0 when Bob Melvin pencils Fuld into the starting line-up. Perhaps it’s coincidence. Perhaps a season of Fuld can lift the Athletics over the playoff hump and bring the East Bay its first World Series title since 1989. Fuld’s future in the clubhouse at 7000 Coliseum way remains uncertain, but one thing is. A’s supporters would gladly watch Fuld’s legacy expand over this season over the likes of Punto or Gentry if it involves bringing the A’s more wins and some hardware in October.

Struggling Johnson’s Blown Save Forces A’s Split of Doubleheader

By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. – Oakland Athletics closer Jim Johnson’s rocky start in the Bay Area went from bad to worse Wednesday night at the O.Co Coliseum. For the second time in a three-game series against the Cleveland Indians (2-1), Johnson (0-2, 45.00 ERA) entered the ninth inning with the A’s tied or ahead and coughed up the lead, turning a 4-3 edge into a blown save and ultimately a 6-3 loss to split the day-night doubleheader. Indians reliever Cody Allen (2-0, 0.00 ERA) bookended the series with wins in the first and third games while Jon Axford pitched a perfect ninth for his second save of the season.

“It sucks every time,” said losing pitcher Johnson of blowing the save opportunity. “You have to trust the positives and have to trust the work that you’re doing. I’m going to sleep it off tonight. I’m not going to do anybody any favors hanging my head. These guys need me. These guys have been playing their butts off. We should be 3-0. I’ll take the blame. If I sit here and sulk though, it’s not going to do anybody any good.”

A’s starter Josh Lindblom, called up to start the Wednesday’s second game to keep the rotation on track for the upcoming four-game set against the Seattle Mariners, pitched 4 2/3 innings and left with a 3-2 lead but the Oakland bullpen surrender four runs to drop two-of-three against the visiting Tribe.

“Anytime you lose a game with the lead in the ninth inning it hurts a little bit,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “You have to move on. You have no choice.”

Like in the afternoon game, the A’s (1-2) struck first in their very first at-bats of the game. After Lindblom fired a 1-2-3 inning, center fielder Sam Fuld debuted in style by tripling on a 1-1 McAllister fastball lifted to deep center. Josh Donaldson struck out but Jed Lowrie singled Fuld home for the 1-0 lead. Lowrie moved to second with on a wild pitch with designated hitter Brandon Moss batting. Moss joined Lowrie on the base path working a walk against Indians starter Zach McAllister to put Yoenis Cespedes at the plate with a runner in scoring position. Cespedes plated Lowrie, launching a 1-2 fastball to the corner in right field for a double with right fielder David Murphy’s  vision impaired by the setting Sun.

Cespedes opened the season with critics scrutinizing his long swing that produced a .167 batting average over 60 Spring Training at-bats. The Cuban masher silenced those critics, at least momentarily, going 2-for-5 in game one of the doubleheader then producing the RBI hit in the night cap. Cespedes finished the night cap with a hit in two at-bats paired with a tandem of walks, including one of the intentional variety.

Lindblom found himself in a jam in the third, surrendering a single to ninth-place hitter Lonnie Chisenhall to open the inning then issuing a walk to leadoff man Nyjer Morgan. The righty induced a fly ball off the bat of Nick Swisher and then walked Carlos Santana to load the bases with two outs. Lindblom finished the escape act, forcing a Michael Brantley flyout to leave the three Indians base runners stranded.

The Tribe found the run column an inning later when Asdrubal Cabrera singled sharply to right. Murphy flew out to Fuld but Mike Aviles ripped a 0-1 slider 350 feet over the wall in left for his first home run of the season to pull Cleveland even, 2-2. Lindblom retired the next two hitters.

Fuld again anchored the A’s offensive in the bottom of the fourth by singling home Reddick from second base and moving Nick Punto to third with two outs. Reddick reached base on a one-out single then moved to second on a base-on-balls to second baseman Punto. Fuld stole second, his first pilfering as a member of the A’s, but Donaldson bounced out to Cabrera to end the threat with the A’s leading 3-2 with four innings complete on the scorecard.

“Outstanding,” responded Melvin when asked to judge his replacement center fielder’s performance. “We didn’t want to play Coco (Crisp) both games of the doubleheader. We want to give Coco his days off this season. (Fuld) knows how to play that role. He knows how to get himself ready when he’s on the bench for a few days.”

Lindblom retired the first two batters he faced in the fifth before allowing a first-pitch double to Santana, catching the evening tilt after Yan Gomes did the honors in the afternoon game. Melvin lifted the righty in favor of Drew Pomeranz, a 2010 first-round draft pick (fifth overall) of the Indians. Lindblom, called up from the Sacramento Rivercats as part of the special 26th roster spot allotment for doubleheaders, finished the afternoon with two earned runs surrendered on five hits and a pair of walks and strikeouts respectively. Having only pitched 4 2/3 innings, Lindblom would not have qualified for the five-inning requirement to be named winning pitcher if the score held up.

“He was good,” said Melvin of Lindblom. “It was tough to take him out with 4 2/3 innings. I think he was at 85 pitches, we had a left-left match-up. I thought he kept us in the game. We got to the ninth inning with a lead so he did his job.”

Indians fans recognize Pomeranz as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to to Cleveland from the Colorado Rockies for a package that included the 6-foot-5 southpaw. The Rockies later dealt the Memphis, Tenn. native to the A’s for Brett Anderson. The 22 year old, who made the bullpen after a strong spring showing, struggled with four straight balls to Brantley before Reddick nabbed a pop-up off the bat of Cabrera to close the books on the first half of the game.

Marc Rzepczynski replaced McAllister in the bottom of the fifth after the righty surrendered three earned runs on six hits with four walks and four punch-outs over four innings.  The lefty with the consonant-heavy surname held the A’s hitless over the next two innings to keep the deficit at one run.

For the A’s, Pomeranz opened the sixth, getting David Murphy to roll over on one that was handled by Daric Barton at first. Pomeranz then worked a full count after throwing three straight balls to Aviles, but ultimately lost the second baseman on a 4-seamer out of the strike zone.

Melvin and the A’s were on the losing end of a challenge that confirmed an out call on a tag play at home plate in the afternoon, but in the sixth inning Oakland became victim of their first overturned call off the season. Mike Aviles broke for second on an 0-1 delivery with pinch hitter Elliot Johnson at the plate. The throw from Derek Norris, subbed into the game as a pinch hitter in the fifth before taking over for starter John Jaso defensively, beat Aviles to the bag.

It appeared that the swipe tag from Nick Punto was on the mark. After some argument from Aviles, Francona emerged from the first base dugout to argue the call. Replay clearly revealed that Punto had missed the tag by a couple of inches, so the umpiring crew overturned the call after video review from headquarters in New York City and awarded Aviles the steal.

Aviles wound up stranded at second as Pomeranz got Johnson swinging on an 80-mph curveball for the second out, then Luke Gregerson came out of the bullpen to get pinch hitter Ryan Raburn to end the inning on a fly to Cespedes to maintain the one-run gap.

The A’s went down in order in the bottom of the 6th, opening the door for the Indians to tie it in the 7th after Brantley’s RBI ground out brought designated hitter Jason Kipnis in from third base. Kipnis drew a one-out walk, stole second with Santana at the plate then advanced to third when the Indians catcher singled later in the at-bat. Gregerson got Cabrera to line out to Fuld in center to strand Santana in scoring position.

Rzepczynski got Fuld, the lefty’s last batter of the day, to pop out to short to open the bottom of the seventh before giving way to right-hander Bryan Shaw. Josh Donaldson, laboring with a .143 batting average on two hits in 14 plate appearances this season, reached base and advanced to second to welcome Shaw when Brantley flubbed a routine fly in center. Brantley had shifted to center after Raburn pinch hit for Morgan and took over left field and narrowly avoided a collision with Raburn on the play. It was his first error in a franchise-record 247 games, with his last miscue coming June 3rd, 2012 against the Minnesota Twins.

Donaldson jogged to third on a wild pitch past backstop Santana, known more for his bat than defensive prowess behind the dish, but three-spot hitter Lowrie grounded out to a drawn-in second baseman prepared to cut an advancing runner down a home plate. The clean-up hitting lefty Moss, who ended the day 4-for-7, got the job done by rolling a ball into the hole at second with the Indians defense shifted to the right of the diamond. The slow roller got by first baseman Swisher but Aviles was able to scoop it and fire to Shaw racing to cover the bag. Shaw couldn’t close his glove on it with Moss bearing down on him, allowing the leading runner Donaldson to cross the plate with Oakland now up 4-3.

Sean Doolittle, a candidate to replace Johnson at closer should the offseason acquisition continue to struggle, pitched a perfect eighth inning. He now has pitched two innings this season, collecting three strikeouts and no hits along the way.

Francona lifted Shaw after 2/3 of an inning and an unearned run in favor of Monday’s winner Allen to open the eight. Allen retired the side in order to keep Cleveland within one run with the beleaguered Johnson loosening in the pen. Johnson took the mound showered by a hail of boos, with Monday night’s two-hit, two-walk, two-run performance fresh in A’s fan’s minds.

“He’s been around long enough,” said Melvin. “He’s had some ups and downs. It’s unfortunate. When you’re with a new team you want to get off to a good start. That’s tough on him, but we have to be behind him, we have to support him. He’s going to get better.”

Again Johnson failed to retire the first two batters he faced, giving up consecutive singles on two-seam fastballs to Raburn and Swisher. Kipnis bounced into a fielder’s choice with Raburn moving to third and Swisher out at second. With Santana at the plate, Kipnis stole second without a throw from Norris. Santana worked a five-pitch walk off Johnson, who also was roughed up in spring training to the tune of five runs in nine spring innings, loading the bases for Brantley.

“A lot of veteran guys don’t have a good spring,” said Melvin. “The velocity’s there, some of the movement’s there, maybe not as consistently as he’d like it. He’s been up in the zone a little bit more than he’d like.”

Brantley hit a first-pitch changeup, a sinking liner to right that bounced in front of Reddick. Reddick couldn’t field it cleanly with Raburn and Kipnis coming home and Brantley winding up on second with a two-RBI single and Cleveland’s first lead in 17+ innings of play Wednesday. Melvin had Johnson, usually an efficient groundball pitcher, set up the force play by issuing an intentional walk to Cabrera. David Murphy foiled the plans, hitting a sacrifice fly to Fuld to bring Santana home. Melvin called on reliever Even Scribner to mop things up in his first appearance of the season. Scribner got Mike Aviles to float one that Fuld gloved easily, limiting the damage to three runs and a blown save for Johnson.

Axford pitched a 12-pitch ninth, overpowering Fuld with a third-strike fastball before coaxing Donaldson and Lowrie to pop out, handing Cleveland a split of the twin bill and a 2-1 series win. Johnson ended up on the losing end, extended a streak of winless appearances against the Indians. Johnson is 0-7 against the Indians in his career. Though Melvin was coy about any shattered confidence he has in his $10 million closer, he did rule Johnson out for game one of a four-game set against visiting Seattle starting Thursday night. The Mariners come to town buoyed by a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels, their best start to a season since the Ken Griffey Jr.-Jay Buhner-Edgar Martinez era.

“You know what, it’s been two games,” said Melvin after being asked if the thought of unseating Johnson at closer had crossed his mind. “Potentially because of the pitches he threw tonight (29 pitches), as far as tomorrow that’s tough. We traded for him for a reason. He has a terrific track record.”

 

Kazmir Shines, Bats Break Out For A’s First Win Of 2014

By Matthew Harrington

The first game of Tuesday’s twin bill between the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians didn’t have the same pageantry or anticipation as Monday night’s Opening Day game at O.Co. That’s just fine for the A’s (1-1), who also welcomed a different end result, erasing the doubts of a 2-0 season-opening loss with a 6-1 thumping of the Tribe (1-1).

Left-hander Scott Kazmir (1-0, 0.00 ERA) fired 7 1/3 innings of three-hit, shutout baseball and an Oakland offense that stranded nine runners and mustered only five hits in Monday’s home opener exploded for a dozen base knocks and six runs. Tribe starter Corey Kluber (0-1, 13.50 ERA) departed after just 3 1/3 innings after surrendering five earned runs. Kazmir, facing the club that signed him to a career-reviving contract last season, quickly received the kind of run support Opening Day starter Sonny Gray is still waiting for.

After the southpaw dispatched the Indians in order in the first, center fielder Coco Crisp opened the A’s first at-bat by lacing the Corey Kluber 1-1 delivery to center. Designated hitter Josh Donaldson took strike three looking but Crisp put swiped his first bag of the season with to put himself in scoring position Jed Lowrie at the plate. Crisp then advanced to third on a deep pop fly by the shortstop. First baseman Brandon Moss drew a walk before Yoenis Cespedes brought Crisp home on a single to right for the first A’s run of the season. Josh Reddick grounded out to end the threat with the home team leading 1-0.

The bottom of the second mirrored the first with third baseman Alberto Callaspo and catcher Derek Norris, both making their season debuts Tuesday afternoon, singling back-to-back and second baseman Eric Sogard drawing a walk. With the bases loaded and no outs, Crisp lofted a sacrifice fly that plated Callaspo and moved Norris 90 feet from home plate.

Oakland Manager Bob Melvin used the first coach’s challenge in A’s history on the next batter after Donaldson bounced into a fielder’s choice. Carlos Santana fielded the grounder at the hot corner and fired home to cut an advancing Norris down at the plate. Melvin challenged the out ruling, but after 4 minutes and 45 seconds of deliberation it was ruled that there was insufficient evidence to overturn the call. Lowrie brought Sogard around from second on a single in the next at bat before Moss closed out the inning on a fly out to right fielder Elliot Johnson to strand a pair of runners.

For the third-straight inning, a member of the green and gold crossed home plate. Callaspo smoked a liner over right field wall with Reddick on first following a one-out walk to stake Oakland to a 5-0 edge with a third of the game played. Moss completed the A’s scoring by doubling in Lowrie on a 3-1 Vinnie Pestano fastball in the sixth. In total, the A’s three-though-seven hitters went a combined 8-for-19 after the heart of the line-up collected one hit in 15 trips to the plate Monday night.

Kazmir spared the A’s bullpen for the second half of Wednesday’s bizarre early season day-night double-header, a make-up of the first rain-out in 15 years at O.Co Tuesday night. One season removed from a 10-9, 4.04 ERA season with the Indians, allowed only four base runners with no walks and only one extra-base hit, a double by Mike Aviles with one out in the eighth inning that chased Kazmir. Aviles represented the first member of the Tribe to reach third base when Yan Gomes welcomed A’s reliever Dan Otero into the game with a ground out that advanced the runner. Aviles remained stranded at third after Elliot Johnson bounced out to Sogard for the third out

The Indians broke up the shutout, scoring in the ninth inning, their second-straight game against the A’s where they plated a run in the ninth after new Oakland closer Jim Johnson surrendered two runs in Monday night’s game to get saddled with the loss. Jason Kipnis doubled with two outs and Santana’s line drive single off Otero brought him home. Otero coaxed Ryan Raburn to ground out softly to the pitcher’s mound to finish off the game and seal the A’s 6-1 win.

The A’s enter the second of Wednesday’s two-game set in perfect position with only one reliever exhausted. Tribe starter Zach McAllister will be called on by Indians’ manager Terry Francona to go deep into the P.M. tilt after using four different relievers in the afternoon session. For Melvin’s A’s it will be right-hander Josh Lindblom on the bump. Lindblom was called as part of the special 26-man roster allotted for double-headers up to start game two over expected rotation candidates Dan Straily, Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone. Lindblom appeared in eight games, including the only five starts he’s made over three seasons, pitching 31.1 innings with a 5.46 ERA.

Opening Day A House of Horrors Once Again as Athletics Make History For Wrong Reasons

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By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. – San Francisco owns the rights to baseball torture, but over in the East Bay seamheads suffer from a case of downright misery every opening day. While Opening Day arrives on a stream of promise crested by the red, white and blue bunting of the occasion du jour, the wave of excitement came crashing down on the Oakland Athletics (0-1) with the brutal reality of a 2-0 night loss to the visiting Cleveland Indians (1-0) With Monday night’s loss at O.Co Coliseum marking the club’s 10th-straight loss in a season’s first game, the A’s etched themselves forever in dubious MLB history, breaking the record for most consecutive losses in a row on Opening Day.

“You don’t talk about it,” said A’s start Sonny Gray. “You know it’s here, going around.”

Gray dug deep to produce a six-inning, zero-run effort but a ninth inning struggle by new Oakland closer Jim Johnson (0-1) yielded two Tribe runs to be saddled with the loss. Indians closer Jon Axford, called upon by the Brewers last season for ninth-inning duties, likewise sputtered in the ninth but kept the home team from crossing the plate to pick up his first save of the season.

Justin Masterson, a 2013 All-Star for the Indians, pitched an effective seven inning surrendering only three hits and a lone walk while striking out four. He departed the game with a no decision. Tribe reliever Cody Allen (1-0) was tabbed the winning pitcher after producing the final two outs of the eighth inning with the bases loaded.

Gray, who received opener honors for the reigning two-time American League West champions after injuries to rotation mates Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin forced the A’s to scramble for back-up plans, performed like a true ace despite entering play with only one season and 64 innings of major league service time.

In the first of what will be many Opening Day nods for the 24-year-old, Gray struggled with command early, walking the first two batter he faced before striking out Jason Kipnis and inducing ground balls from Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley in a 29-pitch inning. Despite lacking a feel for his pitches and precision control, Gray performed like a savvy veteran, getting the outs when needed. In total, Gray stranded seven Tribe base runners while racking up seven K’s, five hits and three walks on 105 pitches on a night when the threat of a postponement due to rain loomed.

“You always want to prepare as if you’re going to play,” said Gray. “We felt coming in that the rain was going to be clearing up. There was a little bit in the afternoon, but that was it.”

Gray didn’t just excel with the arm on the soggy Monday night, he also did it with the glove on multiple occasions. After Santana opened the top of the fourth with a walk, Brantley advanced him to third on a double to right. With a pair of runners in scoring position and no outs, Gray got Indians designated hitter Ryan Raburn out on strikes before fielding a grounder up the middle off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera. Gray caught Santana stranded between third and home plate and slung the ball to A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson for the fielder’s choice. He then induced a David Murphy ground out to wriggle out of trouble.

“He was a little off-kilter early,” said manager Bob Melvin. “He worked his way through it though. With the number of pitches he had in the first inning, we didn’t think he would go six innings. He recovered well and he fought.”

Two innings later, Gray’s fielding prowess would be tested again. After getting Santana to fly out to first baseman Daric Barton in foul territory, a double by Brantley and a bloop single by Raburn put runners on the corners with only one gone in the inning. Cabrera once again smoked a ball up the middle that Gray took off his trailing leg then barehanded and fired home in time for Jaso to make the tag on Brantley.

“That was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen,” said Johnson. “I’ve never seen anybody wiggle like that out of trouble.”

Two occurrences that wouldn’t have been possibilities last season occurred on the play. With a new rule banning collisions at home plate on bang-bang plays being instated this season, Cleveland bench boss Terry Francona came out to argue that Jaso had not granted Brantley a clear path to home plate. He attempted to use his coach’s challenge, another new rule implemented this season, to send the play to video review at the MLB war room in New York City. After crew chief Mike Winters conferred with his umpiring crew and the review booth, the ruling was confirmed. Francona, however, was not charged with use of a challenge as the play itself could not be reviewed.

“You can’t challenge the play, you can only challenge if he’s out or safe,” explained Melvin. “As far as blocking the plate, you have to just ask for them to get together and review it. That’s what they did, so (Francona) wasn’t charged with a challenge. There’s still a lot of plays where we’re trying to figure out if we can challenge them.”

The A’s received two innings of lights-out relief in the seventh and eighth innings from new addition Luke Gregerson and last year’s relief corps stalwart Sean Doolittle, giving Oakland a chance to break the shutout in the bottom of the eighth and stand three outs away from reversing the trend of Opening Day defeats.

Masterson was lifted for lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who surrendered a single to Barton before coaxing pinch-hitter Nick Punto to pop out to right on a first-pitch hack for the first out of the inning. Francona went to the pen to match righty Cody Allen with the switch-hitting leadoff man Coco Crisp and righty Donaldson. Allen lost Crisp on a full-count pitch to walk the center fielder and move Barton into scoring position.

Donaldson, who finished fourth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting last season, crushed a 2-2 offering from Allen to deep center, caroming off the very top of the padding above the 400-foot marker. Barton, however, delayed to tag up on second base in case the ball was caught, and failed to score, holding up at third base. Shortstop Jed Lowrie struck out and Brandon Moss grounded out leave the bases loaded. In total, the A’s stranded nine baserunners.

Johnson took the mound in the ninth looking to preserve the shutout. The righty, replacement for fireballing Grant Balfour, came over in the offseason along with a $10 million contract from Baltimore for second baseman Jemile Weeks to take over ninth-inning duties for the former All-Star. Johnson, unlike Balfour, pitches less for the strikeout and more to induce contact, something he excelled at in leading the majors in saves in each of the last two seasons.

“He’s the type of guy who is always one pitch away from a double play ball,” said Melvin of Johnson. “It’s just didn’t happen for him today.”

Monday would not be as fortuitous for Johnson, who walked Cabrera to open the ninth, then hung a pitch at the waist to Murphy who singled the mistake into right. Johnson then pushed catcher Yan Gomes to a 2-2 count but plunked the backstop on a pitch inside to load the bases.

Nyjer Morgan, who made the Indians after an injury forced starting center fielder Michael Bourn to the disabled list, plated Cabrera on a lofting sacrifice fly to Coco Crisp to make it 1-0. Former Athletic Nick Swisher, greeted with a cacophony of jeers to start every at-bat, singled sharply to center to push across the second and final Indian run and chase Johnson amid a chorus of boos in favor of Fernando Abad. Abad k’d Kipnis swinging then got Santana to bounce one that Donaldson fielded to end.

“I would have booed me too,” said Johnson after the game. “I deserved it. Hopefully they’ll be cheering for me next time.”

The A’s opened the ninth with a John Jaso walk sandwiched between a Yoenis Cespedes flyout and Josh Reddick strikeout. In total, the A’s 3-through-7 hitter went a combined 0-for-19 with one walk and one hit both courtesy of Jaso. Jaso advanced to second on a wild pitch from Axford with Barton, who ultimately drew a walk, batting. Nick Punto struck out swinging to end the game and mar the A’s chances at a perfect 162-0 season.

Tuesday brings a chance at redemption with free-agent signee Scott Kazmir taking the bump for the green and gold. The southpaw will be opposed by Indians hurler Corey Kluber.