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8:54PM

Tough teams ahead, but A’s Melvin wants to savor a sweep

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — So there was Bob Melvin, a few moments after Oakland beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 Sunday at the Coliseum, sweeping the three-game series, getting an earful.

Yes, the pitching had been excellent, the defense effective. But, Bob, that was the O’s, who are “O-ful,” or worse than that. Now you’ve got some real major-league teams to play, starting Monday night with Houston, the World Series champion.

And after three games against the Astros, you go on the road, Bob, to play the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, the three best teams in the American League.  

That ought to bring you back to reality, if not back to the lower reaches of the standings.

“I was going to try to enjoy the win today,” said the A’s manager, “before I get to that.”

The Orioles are a bad team — only eight wins in the last 34 games, 17 games behind the Red Sox and we’re barely into the merry month of May.

Still, as the axiom advises, wins over the patsies count as much as wins over the contenders. And a year ago, the A’s were the patsy.

Now, they’re two games above .500, capable, respectable.

In the last two games against the O’s, Oakland pitching allowed one run total, which was necessary since the A’s only scored four. Yet good teams find a way, especially if they have pitching. 

“We didn’t swing the bats all that well,” agreed Melvin after the last two victories, 2-0 on Saturday, on Khris Davis’ two-run homer in the 12th, then 2-1 on Sunday. “That happens during the course of the season. But the pitching was there. It’s all a matter of timing.”

Someone asked about the sweep, unusual in baseball, where two out of three gets you to the postseason. “You go into the series looking at each game individually,” said Melvin, “but once you win the first two, you obviously want to sweep the series.”

A matter of timing. And control. In his last start, Andrew Triggs went 4 2/3 innings and gave up three walks and four runs. On Sunday, Triggs pitched seven innings and didn’t allow a walk and just the one run, a homer by Pedro Alvarez in the second.

“He went deeper in the game than I’ve seen him go,” said Melvin. Well, since he hadn’t gone past the sixth this season, deeper in the game than anyone’s seen him go.

“He kept his pitch count low,” said Melvin of Triggs, who threw 96 pitches. “And he kept batters off balance both sides of the plate.”

Lou Trivino, up from Triple-A Nashville only a few days ago, pitched the eighth and was no less efficient than Triggs, retiring three batters in order.

Then things got interesting in the ninth when, with Blake Treinen having replaced Trivino, pinch hitter Trey Mancini hit a ball that went too far but not far enough and, before A’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy could field it, became an infield hit.

“It took a high hop and came back,” said Melvin, “like a sand wedge shot.”

Help! Send in Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. Nah, Treinen could handle it. After a fashion.

A Treinen wild pitch got Mancini to second. He then was sacrificed to third. After Jace Peterson grounded out, Mancini holding, up came Manny Machado, who at .354 (with 9 homers) literally was one of only two Baltimore starters bating above .209.

Melvin, no dummy, ordered Machado walked. 

Then — exhale — Chris Davis (not to be confused with Oakland’s Khris Davis) flied out. 

“You don’t want to be in that situation,” Melvin said of the ninth-inning troubles, “but if there’s anybody with the weapons to get the ball down on the ground, it’s Treinen.”

Triggs said his previous game, against the Mariners, “stuck in his craw.” It’s now unstuck, and the A’s are creeping forward.

Which certainly is better than the reverse.

8:45PM

The week that was for the suddenly relevant A’s

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — The problem was irrelevancy. The Oakland Athletics seemed less in danger of dropping in the standings than dropping out of sight. Or out of mind.

Virtually the only stories about the A’s were negative, dealing with the search for a ballpark location and attendance woes. What, only 9,157 against the World Series champion Astros? Even fewer against the Rangers and White Sox?

Then came the Week That Was, the week the A’s made noise and made news, from a let-’em-watch-for-free capacity crowd of 46,000-plus at the Coliseum to that 14-inning, nearly six-hour win, to a no-hitter by Sean Manaea, to a series victory over the supposedly unbeatable Boston Red Sox.

Yes, after Sunday’s 4-1 win over Boston, the A’s had won six of seven, one at Seattle (that was Manaea’s also) and then five of the six at Oakland; had evened their record at 11-11; had a clubhouse full of media asking how all this happened and had manager Bob Melvin agreeing as the team prepared to fly to Texas, “This was a nice home stand.”

Absolutely. This was a home stand when the pitching caught up with the hitting. In the last two games, the Red Sox scored just two runs. It’s well understood in whatever sport you choose, if the opponent doesn’t score you can’t lose.

Fans? After the Tuesday freebie — if nothing else, that proved there are people out there who will come to A’s games, night or day, warm or cold, short or long — the gate slipped to 13,321 in that marathon on Wednesday, then 23,473 on Friday night against Boston, 25,746 for the no-hit night against Boston and 29,804 on Sunday against Boston.

True, a decent percentage were those semi-obnoxious New England expatriates who fled the weather and congestion back east and show up in California as if they’re the only people who know the difference between Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (both California natives, of course). But as Oakland management understands, a ticket sold is a ticket sold, no matter the buyer’s personal preferences.

This is what the A’s got on a Sunday when the first-pitch temperature was in the 70s and the post-game music as the kids (and not a few parents) ran the bases was from the Beatles:

  • A beautiful job of pitching by starter Daniel Mengden (he of waxed mustache and fine curve) and, after he came out after 6 1/3 innings, by relievers Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter and Blake Treinen (the winner).
  • Great leadoff batting by shortstop Marcus Semien, who began the first with a single and scored, then with one out in the eighth singled and scored. “He hits anywhere in the lineup,” said Melvin. “Leadoff against lefties, and he has power.”
  • A big blast by Khris Davis, whose home run over the left field fence scored Semien and Stephen Piscotty, who had followed Semien’s single with one of his own. ”Khris hammered the ball,” said Melvin, sounding like a TV producer. “He’s a three-run homer waiting to happen.”

Have to use that line. Hello sweetheart. Get me rewrite.

What Davis got was his sixth home run of the season. “That was one of his biggest,” said Semien of Davis. “I’ve seen him hit walkoffs, grand slams. He has real power.”

What the A’s now have is a feeling of confidence. The Red Sox arrived with a 17-2 record. Accolades were being flung like tea into Boston Harbor back in colonial days. Then poor little stepped-on Oakland takes two out of three, including Sunday's defeat of lefthander David Price, who entered the game with a 1-0 record and a 2.25 earned run average.

Mengden started the day at 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA. It’s now 3.86. ”He’s able to go deep in the game,” said Melvin of Mengden. “He’s learned over the last year not to drown the strike zone.”

Pitching, pitching, pitching.

“It started with us holding them down,” said Melvin. “We know we can score. When we get pitching, our chances are good.”

They got pitching. They got hitting. No less important, they got attention. What a week.

 

9:22AM

One of 162, but for A’s — in 14 innings — one of a kind

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — It was just one of 162 games, but one of a kind. One that lasted seemingly forever. One the Oakland Athletics could have lost — and should have lost. But one to be remembered.

The long season. That’s baseball, but what also is baseball is one game that shows a team’s courage, a team’s ability, a team’s determination. For the A’s, that game very well may have been Wednesday afternoon, in front of a Coliseum crowd that was too small but with a result that was oh so big.

The numbers are remarkable, more than 500 pitches, more than five hours — in fact, at 5:48 very close to six — 49 players used, 14 innings played.

But the number that mattered most was one, the differential that the A’s — once behind 6-1, if early — and trailing most of the game, had in beating the Chicago White Sox, 12-11.

The ultimate run, with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 14th, with darkness approaching, with a position player, Jake Smolinski, warming up in the bullpen because Oakland was out of pitchers, was driven in on a single by Matt Olson, scoring Marcus Semien from third.

A crowd that, including some 3,000 Science of Baseball Education students, was announced at 13,321 but had dwindled to maybe 500. After all, it was 6:25 p.m., long after the first pitch at 12:37.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” had been sung twice, in the seventh inning and again in the 14th.

“You come back, you use your entire bullpen, you’re one inning away from using a position player (to pitch),” said A’s manager Bob Melvin, “after fighting that hard, one game seems to mean a little more than the others. This is one of them.”

The night before, the A’s celebrated their 50th anniversary in Oakland, moving from Kansas City to start the 1968 season. The gates at the Coliseum figuratively were flung open. Tickets were free. Attendance was enormous, 48,592.

In a season of getting off the mat, of possible progress for a needed stadium, of re-grabbing the interest and success of the 1980s, even of the mid 2000s, that game was momentous. Unlike so much of the Athletics' struggle, it could not be ignored.

And yet it could be argued that from a standpoint of pure baseball, playing the game, no less significantly winning the game, the victory on Wednesday, in the afterglow of Tuesday's excitement, was more newsworthy.

In a virtual vacuum, with the talk about the Sharks and the Warriors, the A’s, apparently headed for a loss, instead swept the White Sox. Not a broom in sight.

“These games,” said Melvin. “I remember I was with the Diamondbacks, we went 18 innings in a 1-0 game at San Francisco. Guys get antsy as the game goes along. They really want to end it and have a tendency to want to be that guy. That’s why the games go on a little bit longer. You don’t have the typical approach. But we did in the last inning.”

With two out and no one on in the 14th, Semien, a Cal guy as is Melvin, singled to left. Jed Lowrie, who had hit a two-run homer in the eighth for a brief 11-10 Oakland lead, came to bat and Semien stole second. Then Lowrie walked and so did Khris Davis, loading the bases.

“In that situation,” Melvin reminded, “it doesn’t take a home run, just finding a patch of grass somewhere.”

That patch was in left field, and Olson, with his fourth hit, found it. Oakland had won its fourth straight.

“It was like a heavyweight fight,” said Olson. “We just kept trading blows the whole game until we found a way to put one across. I’d never been in a game that long. That was a good win for us.

“I had been feeling a little off at the plate and did some extra work in the morning. As the game went on, I started feeling better.”

He went with the pitch by James Shields, the starter forced to pitch relief, and instantly seemed to be swarmed by more teammates than there were people in the stands.

Among the elated was the man who hours before had been the A’s starter, Andrew Triggs, who lasted a mere one and a third innings, getting pummeled for six runs including a grand slam in the second by Yoan Moncada.

“I didn’t have any feel on my pitches and didn’t have command,” said Triggs. “That’s a bad combination. I put us in a hole for sure. I didn’t do my job. But there was a silver lining. We won the game, which hands down is the most important thing.”

Even if it takes a long 14 innings.

7:26PM

A’s Melvin: ‘We feel like it’s trending back up’

By Art Spander

MESA, Ariz. — The wall where players enter the clubhouse is lined with history, at least with posters of those who made history for the Oakland Athletics — Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Catfish, Reggie, Rollie, and with those players who really who needs last names?

Oh, the glory days when the A’s were on top, not just on top of the Giants but all of baseball.

These, however, are the frustrating days, the days when every good player on the A’s — and they’ve had a ton — leaves, when Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Sonny Gray go to another team because Oakland cannot afford to keep them.

Bob Melvin has been through this from top to bottom as the A’s manager since June 2011, six and two-thirds seasons heading into 2018. Time flies, until the roster flies apart.

“The first three (seasons) went a lot quicker than the last three; we were, much more successful then,” said Melvin, confirming the obvious. “For us it’s difficult to trend up all the time when we have to get rid of some players.

“So the trend line went down. We feel like it’s trending back up. We like the younger group we have here right now. We’re excited about it. So after three difficult years, I’m looking forward to being with this group for a while — and hopefully it’s longer than one more year.”

Melvin, “Bo Mel” as we came to know him, the Menlo-Atherton High kid, the Cal guy, was sitting Sunday in the dugout at Hohokam Stadium, the Athletics’ spring home, a few minutes after Oakland and Kansas City played to one of those exhibition anomalies, a tie, 4-4 in this case. Hey, the Royals had to motor 45 miles west to Surprise, and the game already was only four minutes short of three hours. So, adios.

Which too often is what the A’s have said, figuratively, of course, to their stars. Now they have another group with potential to make it big, to make the A’s very good. One of those players, 6-foot-7 lefthander, A.J. Puk, pitched the first two innings. Didn’t allow anyone to reach base. Did allow Melvin to dream.

“What we saw last year,” said Melvin of Puk in spring 2017, the pitcher’s second season of pro ball, “today was even a better mix of pitches.”

Puk has added a two-seam fastball. Of the six batters he faced, four grounded out and one struck out. He threw only 20 pitches.

"Great command, great poise, throwing strikes, easy innings,” said Melvin, a former catcher. "I told (pitching coach Scott Emerson), 'Why are you taking him out?' He was only going to pitch two regardless, so off to a really good start.”

Puk is 22, from Iowa (yes, so was Bob Feller, but please, no comparisons) and went to the University of Florida. He’s learning. He’s improving. The A’s very well also might be improving. But then a key player is dispatched. Whoosh, gone.

“That’s one of the chief complaints,” Melvin conceded of the turnover of personnel. “Hopefully that all changes with the new ballpark. I know we’re still counting on that but just haven’t found a site yet.”

This is 50 years for the A’s in Oakland, and for almost the entire half-century, since they moved here from Kansas City before the 1968 season, since they won three World Series in a row in 1972-74, since they had their decent stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, horribly transformed for a football team now preparing to desert, there hung the question whether the team would belong to Oakland.

They were going to move to Portland. To Sacramento. To Las Vegas. To San Jose. They were as restless as a willow in a windstorm, to steal from Oscar Hammerstein.

Tarps covered seats, and in some years, such as 2016 when almost nobody in the infield could play defense properly, fans covered their eyes.

Spring training is for optimists. Every team is undefeated. Bob Melvin and the A’s have gone through good times and bad times. Maybe this time won’t be better, but the suspicion is it won’t be worse.

9:50PM

Dramatic A’s win, and now Coliseum belongs to Raiders

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — That’s it for baseball at Oakland. This year, at least. A dramatic conclusion, a successful end. Now the Coliseum will be in sole possession of the Raiders.

The pitching rubber was dug out almost before the before the ball Mark Canha smacked in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday cleared the left field fence.

The next day or two, the infield will disappear. No more dirt. No more ground balls. No more home runs. Until next spring.

Until baseball returns to the East Bay.

Before that, the merchants and politicians can debate the proposed A’s stadium near Lake Merritt that, knowing how things work in Nor Cal — or maybe that should be don’t work — might never be constructed.

Whatever, the ball club has been built — and disassembled and rebuilt — and with only four road games remaining this season of ’17, all against the Rangers, the A's seem destined to be considerably better in the years ahead. Depending on the whims and needs of the front office.

It’s a long season. We know that, 162 games, from the end of March until the end of September. Yet, it’s not the grind we remember, it’s the moments.

The little things. Franklin Barreto, sprinting around the bases in the third — “out of the box, running hard,”  said A’s manager Bob Melvin — a double and getting to third on an error. He would score on Jed Lowrie’s sacrifice fly.

The big things. Canha, a Cal guy as is Melvin, hitting his second walk-off of the year, on a 1-0 pitch in the last of the ninth that gave Oakland a 6-5 win over Seattle, which Melvin in so many words indicated was huge.

This had been a good month, September, 14-10 for an A’s team with a bad overall record, 72-85. But add a victory in each category.

”We had a lot of good things going, and then to get swept the last series at home ... ” sighed Melvin. Which, after dropping the first two games to Seattle and then losing a two-run, eighth-inning lead Wednesday, appeared a strong possibility.

Then Canha came to bat with one out, nobody on and the score tied, 5-5. He was 0-for-8 in the series. Wham. He was 1-for-9 and being swarmed at home plate by jubilant teammates.

“It was a fun way to end it,” he said.

An appropriate way to end it, according to Melvin. This was the A’s 11th walkoff win of the season (out of the 73 so far) and the eighth by a homer.

Yet Melvin didn’t approach it as enjoyment as much as relief.

“We’ve been consistent at home all year,” said Melvin, “and to get swept the last series would have been pretty disheartening. And of course we wanted to win for our home fans on this last day."

Few as there might have been, the announced attendance of 13,132 perhaps a bit misleading. But the gate was not the issue, the game result was.

Finale or not, it still was an autumn, midweek afternoon game against a team with talent but not much charisma. Maybe not even the Yankees or Red Sox would draw, given the particulars.

The A’s players found contentment in the score and their contribution.

“I had a tough series until (the home run),” said Canha. He’s from San Jose and Bellarmine Prep. After Cal, he was taken by the Miami Marlins, then chosen in the Rule 5 draft by Colorado, which traded him to Oakland for Austin House. Canha led the A’s in home runs in spring training 2015 and that year led all American League rookies in RBIs.

But 2016 brought hip surgery, and then this year he was optioned to Nashville April 15. He came back. In a big way, a walkoff home run in May, and now another.

“It happened so fast,” he said of the pitch from Shane Simmons and the swing that produced only his fifth homer of the year. “It’s been an up-and-down season for us as a team and for me personally. Nice to cap it off with that.”

Very, very nice.