Joy is gone from the A’s season

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — The joy is gone from the Athletics’ season. There’s a sense of helplessness at Coliseum, a feeling that no matter what happens — and technically, they even could get to the World Series — the ending will be gloomy.

They’ll never catch the Angels, who remarkably about a month ago they led by 3½ games and now trail by 10½. That’s a given. The Angels got hot as the A’s went cold. And even by losing, the Angels on Tuesday night reduced their magic number to two.

What the A’s needed in their return home after a tough road trip with a decent ending was not only a victory but an efficiently played game, one that their fans — starting with the 19,385 in attendance — could use as a benchmark. Hey, they’re out of it, but they’re in it.

No, they’re not.

The A’s were dreadful Tuesday. Scott Kazmir threw two wild pitches. The infielders threw balls all over the place, charged with only two errors. The Texas Rangers, the team with the worst record in the majors, beat Oakland, 6-3. And everyone including A’s manager Bob Melvin was rocked mentally.

It’s like dressing up in a new suit and five minutes at dinner spilling ketchup on the trousers. It’s embarrassing. Or in Melvin’s words, “It’s disappointing.”

Poor Bo Mel. All a manager can to is encourage his players and fill out the lineup card. OK, in that madding lefty-right business, in the eighth, he can yank Brandon Moss, who had homered in the sixth, for righthanded batting Nate Freiman, who struck out. But playing percentages isn’t entirely sinful. Playing as did the A’s — spaced out, it seems — is very sinful. And very irritating.

“We just didn’t look like we were ready to play,” said Melvin, “for whatever reason. We got beat all the way around.”

The A’s yet may get to the wild card game. Then what? Do they perform as they did Tuesday night, watching Rangers' grounders bounce their way to hits and then watch Jake Smolinski hit his first major-league home run? Or are they able to reach back to the team they used to be in May and June?

“It was a hard thing to do,” Melvin said of pinch-hitting for Moss. Moss hasn’t had much success against lefties, and the Rangers had brought in Neal Cotts. Well and good, but a guy puts one into the seats his previous at bat, even against starter Nick Tepesch, and you figure he’s doing something right.

Then again, pulling Moss and inserting Freiman wasn’t the reason the A’s got bounced. They were, in a word, inept. They were too much like the team that lost 21 of its last 31 games. Whatever happened to the team that won 30 of its first 51?

“We didn’t play very good defense tonight,” said Melvin. “That’s the disappointing part. There’s an urgency.”

There’s also a mystery, or is there? The A’s have not been the same since they traded Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester the last day of July.

The A’s surmised with their budget they couldn’t sign Cespedes when his contract expired at the end of the 2015 season. The A’s — general manager Billy Beane — surmised, as the last two years in the playoffs they couldn’t beat Detroit without one more great starting pitcher.

Everything flip-flopped. Now the A’s not only might not face the Tigers, they might not even make the postseason. And the young A’s, who were built both physically and mentally around the enthusiastic Cespedes, fell apart after the deal.

The other kids start thinking, “If they trade him, what’s going to happen to me?” They lose their confidence. The team starts losing games.

So, Cespedes, a fan favorite, is gone. Lester probably also will be gone. And worst of all, the A’s postseason chances may be gone. Such a fragile balance.

Melvin, who’s been through the good times and bad times, with Arizona before coming over to manage the A’s, was asked how he deals with what happened to the A’s against Texas.

“Yes,” he admitted, “it bothers you. But you have to come back and play another game.”

And, they hope, play it far better than the last one.


49ers Were ‘Terrible’

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA — This one is summed up perfectly by Colin Kaepernick, who as most everyone on the 49ers was perfectly imperfect. “Terrible,” said Kaepernick.

Indeed. And maybe worse than that.

Another opening, another show. Another stunning letdown.

The first NFL game at billion-dollar-plus Levi’s Stadium, the jewel of Silicon Valley. A 17-0 lead over the Chicago Bears. And then?  

Well, 16 penalties by the Niners. Four turnovers by Kaepernick. Ineptitude at the highest level, and finally, painfully, Sunday night a 28-20 loss.

“It stings,” said Niner coach Jim Harbaugh. Yes, and it stinks, in a figurative way. The new place, 70,799 fans paying some very high prices. A beautiful beginning, and then clunk.

This one belonged at Kezar Stadium, where in 1946, their inaugural season, the Niners lost their first game ever played. Or at Candlestick Park, where in 1971 the Niners lost their first game after the shift from Kezar.

Who even thought the script would be the same? Start like a klutz.

This is a Niner team headed for the Super Bowl? Please! Sixteen penalties for 118 yards. Absurd. Disgraceful. Impossible to overcome.

Harbaugh stood in the post-game interview room like a deer in headlights, giving the briefest answers in the softest voice. Either he was bewildered by what took place or appalled. Probably both.

Earlier in the day, at San Diego, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, the team the Niners must overtake, lost to the Chargers. The score went up on those huge video boards. The fans cheered. The Niners would be ahead of the Seahawks.

Not on your life. They would be wallowing in their own despair. They would be flagellating themselves. They would be ruing what could have been, what should have been — but was not to be.

“When you’re up, and like you said, new stadium, with the fans, great fans,” agreed Frank Gore, the Niners running back and spiritual leader, “when you’re up like that, you’ve got to go for the kill. We let them back in the game. We didn’t finish, and they beat us.”

More accurately, the Niners beat themselves. They got called for defensive holding. They got called for illegal procedure. They got called for illegal use of hands. They got called for false starts. And most of all, at the end of the first half, still in front, 17-0, they got called for roughing the passer, with only a bit more than a minute to go in the half.

That moved the ball to the San Francisco 25, and in three plays quarterback Jay Cutler moved it into the end zone on the first of three touchdown passes to Brandon Marshall.

“He’s a tough guy,” Niners linebacker Patrick Willis said of Marshall. “He’s tough to cover by anyone on the field. It’s just him getting in the red zone. He’s a big body (6-foot-4, 230 pounds).

“The youngster (Jimmie Ward) was fighting his tail off and doing all we ask him to do. The plays just went their way on those.”

They didn’t go Kaepernick’s way. Three interceptions and a fumble. Arguably Kaepernick’s worst game since he became a starter two years ago in a game against, yes, the Bears.

“I think he was seeing things good,” Harbaugh said in support of his quarterback. “He threw some pretty darn good balls. The defense made some great plays.”

Kaepernick made plays that, to be kind, were very much less than great. He seemed flummoxed by a Bears defense that literally had him on the run.

“I saw the coverages,” said Kaepernick. “I didn’t make the plays.”

What we he made were mistakes, joining teammates in a universal effort.

The funny thing is the Levi’s Stadium field was for the third time in six weeks replanted. The grass had been coming apart. It didn’t on Sunday night. It was the Niners who disintegrated.

“Turnovers and penalties,” said  fullback Bruce Miller, in what was becoming litany, “especially at the point in the game when they were made, that’s losing football.”

It was for the Dallas Cowboys a week ago against the Niners.

It was for the Niners on Sunday night against the Bears.

“Wins are tough to come by,” said Anquan Boldin, the Niners wide receiver. “When you have a team down, you definitely have to put your foot on their throat because nobody’s going to quit in this league.”

The Bears lost three key defensive players through injuries, including cornerback Charles Tillman. Yet it was the Niners who lost the game.

“It stings to lose,” Harbaugh said once again. “And we all have fingerprints on it.”

Do they ever. Someone get the furniture polish.


Giants-Dodgers: Disdain, Paranoia, History

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — This is what baseball wanted. This is what the Giants hoped. The Dodgers are coming to the Bay, coming to play a three-game series, which could mean everything and then again, because there’s such craziness in the long season, might mean very little.

Dodgers-Giants, so much background, so much disdain. And up here, even after two World Series victories, so much jealousy. The chant isn’t “Go Giants,” it’s “Beat L.A.”  Short and pithy. Resonating with paranoia.

Watching the Dodgers lose gives San Francisco fans as big a thrill as watching the Giants win, and if both can be accomplished in one fell swoop — well, Brian Johnson’s 1997 home run against L.A., which sent the Giants to the postseason, is the stuff of legend.

It’s a sporting matchup, the one-two teams in the National League West. It’s a societal matchup, the glitz of Hollywood against the garlic fries of North Beach.

“It’s good for baseball the way the schedule worked out,” said Bruce Bochy, the Giants' manager. “This is where we were hoping to be.”

He means in the chase, two games back of L.A. He also means at AT&T Park, where on a fine Thursday afternoon San Francisco beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-2, a ninth straight win at home.

“There’s a lot of history between these two teams,” said Bochy of the Dodgers-Giants battle.

There’s Bill Terry, back in 1934, when the Giants were in New York and the Dodgers in Brooklyn, chiding, “The Dodgers? Are they still in the league?” Oh yes they were, and they beat the Giants the final two games of the season to give the Cardinals the flag.

There’s the Dodgers building up a 13½ game lead over the Giants in 1951, ending up tied and losing the playoff on Bobby Thomson’s momentous home run in the bottom of the ninth at the Polo Grounds, the “shot heard ‘round the world.”

There’s Juan Marichal smashing John Roseboro over the head with a bat, and Reggie Smith — a Dodger who would become a Giant — climbing into the stands at Candlestick Park to attack a pesky fan. And, of course, there’s Joe Morgan’s home run in 1982, which KO'ed the Dodgers and left Tom Lasorda apoplectic.

Three games in San Francisco this series, then three games next week at Dodger Stadium. “We’re feeling good,” said Giants catcher Buster Posey. And why not? Four days ago the Giants were 3½ games out, a month ago 5½ games behind.

“We also know that’s a pretty good team coming to town.”

No, that’s a very good team. A team that overtook the Giants in July and hasn’t been out of the lead since.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Giants, finally out of their funk, also have looked like a pretty good team. Their pitching is back where it belongs — the Diamondbacks scored only three runs in losing all three games of the series. Now the Giants are hitting when needed, and they’ve won 12 of the last 15.

So much of it is attributable to Angel Pagan. He missed 34 games with back inflammation. The Giants had no leadoff hitter. The Giants had no spark.

On Wednesday, he began the game with a double, then had a single and walk, scoring twice. “He’s our catalyst,” said Bochy, emphasizing the obvious. “We’re a different team with him out there. He’s our get-on-base guy. It’s funny how one guy can mean so much.”

Pagan went 7-for-12 in the three games against Arizona and is hitting .488 (21-for-43) in 10 games against the D-backs. With Pagan on base, opposing pitchers think and throw differently when they face Joe Panik. And Buster Posey. And Pablo Sandoval. And Hunter Pence.

Dodgers-Giants, pitching against pitching. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Greinke and the remarkable Clayton Kershaw for L.A., Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson and Yusmeiro Petit for San Francisco.

“Pitching gives you a chance to win,” said Bochy.

It did Wednesday. Jake Peavy started for the Giants. In 5 2/3 innings he allowed only one run, striking out eight.

“Since we got him, he’s been solid,” said Bochy said of Peavy, whom San Francisco acquired from Boston in July. “It’s been fun watching him. He’s a guy who plays the game the way it should be played, as hard as anyone.”

Bochy is upbeat. He knows what’s ahead, and he’s confident.

“This club has been through quite a bit,” he said, meaning the great April and early May, the awful June and July.

In the three games against the Dodgers, it will go through a great deal more. Just as it hoped. Just as baseball wanted.


Bleacher Report: Cilic-Nishikori Final at 2014 US Open Shows Rough Road Ahead for Men's Tennis

By Art Spander
Featured Columnist

NEW YORK — They figured it out a long time ago in Hollywood and just across the river from here on Broadway: You need a star. It didn’t really matter if a famous actor could act, only if he was famous.

Whether that was because of what he did on or off the screen was insignificant.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2014 Bleacher Report, Inc.


Bleacher Report: Men's Tennis Begins New Era with Kei Nishikori-Marin Cilic Final at 2014 US Open

By Art Spander
Featured Columnist

NEW YORK — Up at the Stadium, they said farewell to Derek Jeter on Sunday, gave the Yankee shortstop of 20 years his special day, a couple of weeks before retirement. Twenty-four hours earlier and a few miles away, across the East River, we said goodbye to an era in tennis.

So long to a Grand Slam men’s final which had Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. So long to what we knew. So long to what we expected.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2014 Bleacher Report, Inc.