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THIS WEEK’S PLAYER MOVES PART OF COMPLETING BILLY’S PUZZLE

Well, I guess it’s finally time to exhale.  It was masterful how Billy Beane and the A’s brain trust were able to swing so many deals in essentially a 24-hour period earlier this week.   I think it speaks volumes about their advance preparation, decisiveness and vision for our club.  As we approach next week’s Winter Meetings, we will certainly arrive in Orlando in a position of strength.  The depth of our starting pitching and bullpen, and to a lesser extent, our middle infield and catching, makes us an attractive partner with other teams looking to improve their rosters for 2014.

Yet for Billy, it’s all about “pieces” to the puzzle.  And a puzzle is a good analogy.   When the MLB Executive of the Year begins hunting for new players, it’s not only talent he’s looking for.  He’s also looking for the right fit and compliment.  Whether it was John Jaso complimenting Derek Norris, or Eric Sogard serving the same purpose with Alberto Callaspo, collectively they fit into a baseball puzzle that has produced 96 wins and a division title last year.  Now, with the inevitability that last season’s All-Star pitchers Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour most likely will leave for greener ($$$) pastures, the A’s baseball honchos have addressed virtually all their needs to stock another winning club in 2014.  Consider the new pieces:

  • LHP Scott Kazmir—He helps balance our rotation as a lefthander and provides a veteran presence whose best years may still be ahead of him.  His post-All Star Break ERA with Cleveland last year:  3.38.
  • Closer Jim Johnson—As good as Balfour was the past two seasons, there’s a case to be made that Johnson was even better.  Also in the prime of his career, he’s led the majors in saves each of the past two seasons (51 in 2011 and 50 in 2012) with a sub-3.00 ERA.  And he did it in a hitter’s park, with a playoff-contending team and facing mostly the bats of the American League East.
  • RHP Luke Gregerson—He’s been a workhorse in San Diego who established himself as one of the National League’s better set-up men.  His 105 holds over the past four years are second most in the NL and tied for fourth-most in the majors over that period.
  • OF Craig Gentry—This may be the sleeper of this week’s flurry of additions.  If you look closely, Gentry could be the quintessential Athletic.  He can play multiple positions—left, right and center field—can steal a base when you need one and hits well at the Coliseum (.333 lifetime).  His rifle arm and range in the outfield is well documented, plus he gives Bob Melvin a great option for pinch-running late in a game.  And also consider this:  Gentry owned the third-best batting average (.280) on Rangers last year, and his .338 average after the All-Star Break ranked third best in the American League.  And it should be noted he started 50 games over the last two months of the season.
  • INF Nick Punto—Another veteran grinder who can play multiple infield positions and is a plus defender.   And while his overall batting numbers may not impress, his success against left-handed pitchers places him in an ideal platoon situation.   He hit .309 vs. southpaws last season and .302 in 2012.
  • LHP Fernando Abad—He may not have captured the attention of the players acquired this week, but picking up Abad from the Nationals might be another sleeper.  When you can find a left-handed reliever whose fastball is clocked in the 95-96 range and has a nasty sinker, you jump on it.  And Billy did.  This will be his fifth season in the big leagues.  He might have been under the radar in D.C., but when you look at his numbers (3.31 ERA in 39 games, 32 strikeouts and 10 walks in 37 innings) from last year, they suggest he might have to change his name to Fernando Agood before too long.

One common thread to most winning teams, I have found, is this:   excluding the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers and perhaps a couple more high-priced clubs, the key to a team’s roster is value.    If you were to look at the A’s as they’re currently constituted, breaking down the “value” of each player if they were on the common market, you would have to say they collective worth of our team is much more than its $70-some million.   While I won’t go into individual examples, suffice it to say that on the open market, this is a team with talent equivalent to a payroll almost double its current figure.  I’ve experienced this before on other teams I’ve worked for.   It tells you the baseball office is doing a fine job evaluating and spending its money.

THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS:  Great seeing A.J. Griffin and Sean Doolittle in our A’s offices yesterday.   The two popular pitchers flew in to town Wednesday afternoon, and our Player & Media Relations Manager Adam Loberstein ran them through the gauntlet, first with studio visits to Comcast SportsNet and 95.7 FM The Game, followed by a corporate sponsor dinner Wednesday night.  Yesterday, they greeted a couple hundred children at the Oakland Zoo and stayed busy handing out holiday gifts and feeding the animals.  Griffin said his favorite animals were the giraffes.  They also visited a children’s hospital before returning home to Arizona…Our skipper, Bob Melvin, has been spotted often at Warriors’ games at Oracle Arena.  His love of W’s dates back to his childhood when he would follow the team, thanks to his godfather, Warriors’ long-time trainer Dick D’Oliva…Former A’s pitcher Dave Stewart continues to be a great role model in his hometown of Oakland.  He and three-time Manager of the Year Dusty Baker, along with ABC7 news anchor Cheryl Jennings, are appearing at the 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence gala next Thursday, Dec. 12 at the Jack London Aquatic Center.   It’s a great cause, as recognized by Jerry Blevins, Doolittle and the rest of the A’s bullpen this past season, as they donated $3,500 of their own money to Lorrain Taylor, the founder and CEO of 1000 Mothers, which provides comfort and services to families who have suffered the loss of a loved one due to violence.  The Oakland Police Department has begun to refer such families to 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence as the best option in the City for care.  There are still limited seats left for the dinner (dress is not formal) at $75 each, but you better hurry.  The phone number for orders is 510-583-0100.  Registration is from 5-6 p.m. with the program starting at 6:30.

MAKE NO MISTAKE, THERE ARE STARS ON THE 2013 A’S

In some of my past blogs this season, I’ve touched on many of the reasons this A’s team would eventually win 96 games and capture its second straight American League West crown.  Those reasons ranged from veteran players like Brandon Moss, Seth Smith, John Jaso and Chris Young buying into the platoon/matchup system with productive, selfless play that was one of the earmarks of this year’s club, to the depth and versatility of the roster making the 2013 A’s a sum much greater than its parts.

Yet, as I said recently to a network TV producer, it’s also become tiresome hearing so many national broadcasters and writers spew out the rhetorical comment:  “We haven’t yet figured out how this scrappy Oakland team does it with all their rather anonymous players, virtually none that are household names, but they’ve managed to win the division again.”

Well, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’m here to tell you two things.  One, Bob Melvin’s players do hustle and are extremely competitive but 185 home runs—third most in the American League—doesn’t sound like scrappy to me.  And two, those that haven’t taken the time to learn more about our club are really doing a disservice to many of our players, many of whom are indeed stars.

Josh Donaldson was one of the most consistent, productive and clutch third baseman in baseball this year.  He batted .301 with 37 doubles, 24 home runs and 93 RBI, and arguably played Gold Glove defense in the field.  Some baseball writers have projected him a Top 5 finisher in the league’s MVP balloting.

Coco Crisp might possess the most unique skill set of any leadoff hitter in the majors.  He ranked sixth in the AL in runs scored (93)—maybe the best indicator of a great leadoff man—but also paced all leadoff men in home runs with 22, which tied him with the great Campy Campaneris for second all-time among leadoff hitters in Oakland history behind Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson (28).  Then add to that the fact that Coco stole 21 bases and ended the season on a 138-game errorless streak in center field, where he regularly stole extra base hits from opposing batters, and you can see why he’s one of baseball’s most coveted players.

Then there’s Jed Lowrie, who many believe might win his first Silver Slugger Award this year.  He hit .297 at shortstop, which ranks second in the American League at that position, with leader Jhonny Peralta (.306) missing 50 games due to his PED suspension.  Beyond that, Lowrie nearly chased down Manny Machado (51) in hitting the second most doubles (45) in the league.  He tied for second in the AL in three-hit games (17).

And Brandon Moss emerged as one of the best pure power hitters in the game this year.  Sure, he’s a platoon player at first base and in the outfield.  But when you finished tied for eighth in the American League in homers with 30, and drove in 87 runs in only 446 at-bats, you can pretty much take the asterisk off his accomplishments.  Despite his limited play, he hit more homers than Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Mike Trout and Adrian Beltre, and drove in more runs than Evan Longoria, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez.  Moss, who owned the best power numbers in the American League during the final six weeks of the season (12 HR, 32 RBI), was also Mr. Clutch.  He tied for third in the league in hitting home runs with two outs (14).

And, beyond featuring five 10-game winners in their starting rotation, the A’s boasted some individual pitchers that compare favorably with any in baseball.

The ageless Bartolo Colón was Oakland’s anchor all season long, ending the regular season with the second-best victory total (18) and ERA (2.65) in the American League.  A former Cy Young Award winner and multiple All-Star—including this season—Colón has to be a serious candidate for his second Cy Young Award.  When you look at his stats, and then consider what he meant to a team that won 96 games and a divisional flag, there’s a strong argument to be made.

While his stats aren’t as flamboyant as Bartolo’s, Jarrod Parker was virtually unbeatable for much of the season.  Yes, his final stats were 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA.  But from May 22 to Sept. 16, Parker went unbeaten in 19 consecutive starts.  You have to go all the way back to 1931 to find an Athletics’ pitcher who duplicated that feat, and his name was Lefty Grove.

Admittedly his final month on the mound was probably more exciting than he—or you—would have preferred, but any way you slice it, Grant Balfour was one of the best closers in the league.  His No. 4 ranking in save percentage (92.7%)   and No. 6 ranking in total saves (38) would certainly suggest it.

And besides being an All-Star on Twitter, Sean Doolittle was the best relief pitcher in the majors when it came to stranding inherited runners.  In fact, his numbers in that category were astounding.  Of the 32 runners he inherited, only two scored all season.  That’s essentially 6% scoring.  Talk about clutch.

So I’ve named eight players, and haven’t even mentioned the potential biggest star of all, the Cuban Crusher, Yoenis Cespedes.  Even though he missed 27 games, mostly to injury, he still clobbered 26 homers and drove in 80 runs, while ranking among the AL leaders in outfield assists.  While his throwing shoulder has acted up of late, there’s hope that he can return to the lineup for Game 1 Friday and pick up where he left off during a torrid September (.314, 6 HR, 19 RBI in 22 games).  Of course, the nation is already familiar with his monstrous swings, thanks to him winning this year’s Home Run Derby during the All-Star exhibition.

While hopefully you agree with me about these A’s earning star status, there’s no doubt that real stardom is achieved on the biggest stage.  What is that I hear?  Is that opportunity knocking on the Coliseum front door?  I believe it is.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON MILONE, DONALDSON, COCO AND MORE

Random thoughts and observations as we head into the home stretch…

Is there a better example of A’s depth and versatility than Sunday’s 5-1 victory over the Rangers that slammed the lid on a pivotal three-game series sweep in Texas?  Jarrod Parker, the club’s hottest pitcher, is scratched from his start an hour before game time due to an intestinal virus.   Yoenis Cespedes, the human power plant and hottest hitter on the team, bows out minutes before first pitch due to a barking shoulder.  So how does our team respond?   They collectively say in unison, “Not a problem.  We’re the Oakland A’s.”   Tommy Milone, maybe the only pitcher in baseball lodged in a Major League bullpen with double-digit victories, doesn’t even blink.  He merely goes out and limits the rival Rangers to one run and six hits in striking out five hitters in five masterful innings in the Lone Star heat.  Meanwhile, Josh Reddick and his ZZ Top beard replaces Yoenis in lineup and unloads on a Joakim Soria fastball for a two-run insurance home run in the ninth inning that was reminiscent of his 32-homer season last year…

Veteran baseball writer Jorge Ortiz was right on the money with yesterday’s article in USA Today.   He made a convincing case for A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson being a deserving candidate for American League Most Valuable Player.  For some, the case was closed months ago when the reigning league MVP Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers and Baltimore’s Chris Davis waged a two-man power display rarely seen in the game’s history.  However, with the new-fangled statistics available these days, the ones that measure everything from defensive range to percentage of batted balls that are line drives, Donaldson scores higher than just about everyone.  USA Today has this MVP Tracker formula, which includes a “Wins Above Replacement” index and how that compares with the team’s total WAR rating and its place in the standings, and J.D. is far away the AL leader with 18.7 points.   Cabrera is next with 13.9, followed by Max Scherzer of the Tigers at 12.1.  For those of us who not only watch Josh play every day, but also see his work ethic in the weight room and batting cage, we have known his value since the season started in April.   His hard-nosed and fearless approach to the game has inspired all of us, most importantly his teammates who marvel at his consistency and 110% effort on every play and every at-bat.  You have to go back 11 years to 2002 and Miguel Tejada to find a more complete season—both offensively and defensively—than the one Josh Donaldson has enjoyed this year.  Not bad for a guy who hadn’t ever played third base in a big league game until last season…

And speaking of hard-nosed, inspirational players, it should be noted that it was announced this morning that teammates voted Coco Crisp as this year’s winner of the Catfish Hunter Award, the team’s most coveted award named after the late Hall of Fame pitcher.  As any A’s fan knows, Coco is the igniter to our offense and has been for the past several years.  His skill set is somewhat unique, in that he is a leadoff hitter with power.  While the award goes to a courageous and competitive player, what resonates most about Covelli Crisp is he can beat an opponent in so many ways—with his bat, his glove, his legs, his superior baseball intellect, his ability to shine on the big stage.  It also nice to see someone who has played for five different MLB franchises during his 12 seasons of professional baseball and has truly found a home in Oakland.   He and our fans have a genuine love affair going on, something that may have taken full bloom last summer when they joined Coco in a group “Bernie Lean” every chance they got at the Coliseum.  Like Donaldson, what I love most about Coco is he plays hard on every single play.  The two of them really set the tone for everybody on our team, and theirfull-speed, never-give-up style absolutely fits the profile of a Bob Melvin player.  The value of that should not go overlooked or underrated.  Many of you saw on TV last weekend where Coco took up for Donaldson, his teammate, when a Ranger pitcher was somewhat taunting him by yelling out pitch types—fastball!—before letting the ball go.   That little I’ve-got-your-back outburst did not go unnoticed by other A’s players or the manager.   It’s that fighting spirit that epitomizes the 2013 Oakland Athletics.   So, congrats to Coco on an award well deserved…

Finally, as our regular season home schedule comes to a close this weekend, I want to personally thank all of you for reading my occasional blog, and also for your tremendous support of the team.   You have truly given us a home-field advantage, something we hope will serve us well in this final series against the Twins, as well as any playoff games in October.   Hope you can join in the fun this weekend.  You know our boys are trying their best to clinch a second straight AL West crown in front of the home fans.  Think good thoughts and feel free to yell at the top of your lungs!  Let’s all represent!

SOGARD, OTERO & FREIMAN HAVE BEEN 2013 REVELATIONS

Whether the 2013 Oakland Athletics make this season a memorable one, as they did during last year’s magical run, still remains to be seen.  However, for three A’s players, the 2013 campaign is one they will always remember.   Why?  Because for Eric Sogard, Dan Otero and Nate Freiman, it was 2013 when they truly established themselves as Major League players.

Beyond the “Nerd Power” persona and marketing slogan, Sogie has gained attention in the best possible way.  He has played his way into a semi-regular role with the team, starting at second base against right-handed pitchers in a highly-productive platoon arrangement with Alberto Callaspo.  After three seasons of shuttling between Sacramento and Oakland on I-80, the diminutive infielder seems to have finally found a home here.   Doing many of the “small things” that help win ball games, whether it be turning double plays, laying down a perfect bunt, or delivering a clutch two-out hit, Sogard has become a vital cog in Operation Oakland.  He’s currently batting .263 with two homers and 31RBI, but maybe most significantly, ranks third on the club in doubles (24) behind Jed Lowrie (40) and Josh Donaldson (29).  And in the process, he’s become one of the team’s most popular fan favorites.  When the Rangers’ Matt Garza recently barked at Sogard, whose boyish face looks more like an IT repairman than a big league player, for laying down a bunt, it only added to the Sogie legend.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland AthleticsAs for Otero, the 28-year-old right-hander has been a revelation in the bullpen this summer.  After toiling in the minors for several years, he saw brief action with the Giants last season.  He had hoped to make San Francisco’s roster again this spring, but ironically it was one nightmarish afternoon against the A’s at Scottsdale Stadium that may have led to his ultimate departure from the Giants.  On March 23, Otero entered the game in relief and hit the veritable buzz saw.   When the smoke and rubble cleared, he limped from the spring training game having been torched for five runs and five hits, including a home run by Adam Rosales—you remember him, the human ping pong ball–and retiring no one.  With that scenario, who could have guessed that five months later, Otero would become a fixture in Oakland’s stellar bullpen?  In fact, Otero—like Sogard—forced his way into a vital role with the team.  With his ERA gradually shrinking to a current team-low 1.19 (22 G, 30.1 ip, 29 h, 5 r, 4 er), the former River Cat closer is now being used in the back three innings of critical games. Maybe no one in the Oakland organization has come as far as Dan Otero has this year.

Chicago Cubs v Oakland AthleticsUnless, of course, if you consider the case of the Gentle Giant, Nate Freiman.  By now, you probably know the story.  Drafted by San Diego in 2009 out of Duke University, the 6-8, 250-pound first baseman was a RBI machine in the minors with a four-year total of 368.  However, the Padres never promoted him above Double-A.  And the Astros, another cellar-dwelling team who picked him in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason, also saw no need for a major league promotion when they acquired Chris Carter in the Lowrie deal.  So, one week before the season, the defending AL West champion A’s claimed the undervalued slugger off the waiver wire.  Considered a curious move at the time, Freiman wasted little time in rewarding his new employers.  He went 2-for-3 against Seattle in his big league debut April 3, and proceeded to bat .351 with nine RBI in 14 games in May to win American League Rookie of the Month.  Since that auspicious debut, he has hit consistently against left-handed pitching (.313) in a left-right platoon at first base with Brandon Moss and now Daric Barton.  Overall, he ranks fourth on the team with a .279 batting average, eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBI.  Not bad for a guy who skipped Triple-A.

So, no matter how this season ends, or how long their careers last, it’s safe to say that a collective smile will emerge when someone makes mention of the 2013 season to Eric Sogard, Dan Otero and Nate Freiman.  And for good reason.

PITCHERS’ RESURGENCE IN TORONTO BODES WELL

Well, since last I checked in with you, there is a pool of liquid that has formed at the white shoe tops of our Oakland A’s.  It’s the last remains of a six-game lead that has melted away in the AL West.  During a period when the Texas Rangers flexed their financial muscle with two significant acquisitions—a front of the rotation starter in Matt Garza and middle-of-the-order hitter in Alex Rios—that coincided with an Athletics’ 4-7 tailspin, there were those in the national media who suggested the A’s magic of a year ago may not materialize in 2013.  One respected scribe on ESPN.com’s Grantland site, in fact, pointed to a downturn in Oakland’s young starting rotation as a red flag.  He implied that Texas was the superior team, and that the majority of Curt Young’s rotation is struggling, with no reason to believe they will right the ship.

My first reaction to the article was, “this is a tad premature.”  The sample size is way too small.  This is not to imply that Texas is not a formidable foe.   As we experienced last year, they certainly are.  However, as soon it was suggested that our starting pitching was in demise, we rattled off three victories in our four-game wrap-around series in Toronto over the weekend.   Not only did we rebound from two losses that opened the road trip in Cincinnati, but our starting pitchers performed splendidly against perhaps the most powerful lineup in the American League.  The Blue Jays, led by José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, Jose Reyes, Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus, are a bunch of mashers (as we saw recently when they launched a seemingly endless stream of home runs at the Coliseum).

Chicago White Sox v Oakland AthleticsOn Friday night, Jarrod Parker allowed six hits and three runs in 6.0 innings.  Saturday, rookie Sonny Gray made the first Major League start of his career and yielded only four hits and two earned runs in 6.0 innings.  Sunday, A.J. Griffin—who was scorched for four Jay home runs in Oakland only two weeks earlier—limited Toronto’s behemoths to five hits and two earned runs in 5.2 innings.  And in yesterday’s series finale, Dan Straily mowed down the Blue Jays to the tune of six hits and one run over a career-high 7.1 innings.  Collectively, the foursome posted a 2.88 ERA and averaged 6.25 innings per start at the Rogers Centre.

To me, that is a very encouraging sign for this young team as we enter the final six-and-half weeks of the regular season.  With Tommy Milone fine-tuning his pitches in Sacramento and Brett Anderson to begin a rehab assignment maybe within a matter of days, the A’s also have the luxury of two seasoned left-handers in their stable that will be ready when summoned.  And of course, the A’s bullpen might be arguably the best in the American League.  I’m not sure any other staff features a closer (Grant Balfour) with the top save percentage in the league, a right-handed set-up man (Ryan Cook) who just had a 75.2-inning homerless streak snapped over the weekend, and a left-handed set-up specialist (Sean Doolittle) who hasn’t allowed a run in his last 12 appearances.

With 26 of their final 45 games to be played in the pitching friendly confines of the Coliseum and sitting one game behind Texas at 67-50, I like our position.  We’re certainly battle-tested from last year’s race, so there will be no surprises for this team down the stretch.  Let’s all enjoy the ride.  It promises to be another frenetic finish. Although I do think we might want to consider an office pool, with the winner correctly guessing which uniform—the Rangers or A’s—Adam Rosales will be wearing on the season’s final day.

THERE’S ONE GIRL WHO CAN NAME MORE THAN THREE A’S PLAYERS

During Saturday’s FOX telecast of the A’s-Angels game, one announcer reportedly said that the national audience cannot name three Oakland players. This is a very popular view by many people who do not follow Bob Melvin’s first-place club on a regular basis.

If they did, they might know that Grant Balfour saved 44 consecutive games, a 113-year franchise record and the sixth longest such streak in Major League history. They might also know that Josh Donaldson plays a Gold Glove caliber third base perhaps comparable to Baltimore’s Manny Machado, and that he owns an almost identical batting average (.296 to Machado’s .297), has hit seven more home runs and driven in 11 more RBI than the Orioles’ young phenom. They would also know that Jed Lowrie has the second-highest batting average (.299) among shortstops in the American League. They might even know that Bartolo Colón, who ranks among the AL’s top three in wins, ERA and complete games, has a legitimate chance at winning his second Cy Young Award to join a select group of pitchers. And they would be aware that setup man extraordinaire Ryan Cook has a 2.15 ERA in 45 relief appearances and owns the longest current streak of homerless innings (46) of any pitcher in baseball.

1I do know this: there is a little girl from Modesto who can probably name every player on the A’s roster. Her name is Mykayla Herrera. She is eight years old and was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is a brittle bones condition that is genetic. Several months ago, I was contacted by a gentleman named Eric Wallace, the president and co-founder of an organization called the Sons of Baseball Foundation. Similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they try to grant a wish to a deserving baseball fan. Mykayla is a die-hard A’s fan who watches or listens to every game during the season. She’s a very tiny girl due to her condition, but when she arrived with her parents, grandparents and other family and friends, her smiling face lit up the Coliseum. (Photo credit Luis Torres)

We hosted her on the field before Sunday’s game. The Sons of Baseball provided authentic A’s jerseys with “Herrera” on the backs to Mykayla and her family. Although there was not batting practice yesterday, her favorite player—Coco Crisp—agreed to come onto the field to meet her. He brought a baseball with him and signed it “To Mykayla, Coco Crisp.” The look on her face when he walked on the field was priceless. Her dream really was coming true. Little did she know her pre-game experience was just beginning.

2Soon after Coco left, she watched Bob Melvin do “The BoMel Show” with broadcaster Ken Korach in the dugout. When the show was taped, both men walked onto the field to say hello to Mykayla. She and her family could not believe their good fortune. Once Melvin returned to the dugout to address the media, the A’s pitchers took the field to do their daily pre-game stretch. One of the stragglers was Balfour, who stopped by to say hello to the Herrera family as well. I’m not sure if Mykayla was more fascinated by meeting the A’s closer or listening to his Australian accent. Either way, he was a big hit. When the pitchers were finished, a large bear-of-a-man stopped by the dugout, where Mykayla’s mother had placed her next to the bat rack. The sweet girl’s grandfather yelled, “It’s Bartolo Colón!” Her eyes widened almost as much as her smile. He touched her face, said a few words in Spanish, and then in English told her to wait and that he had something else for her. Colón jogged back to the clubhouse and reemerged with one of the official All-Star Game baseballs he was given in New York. He signed it and handed it to her. Pretty cool scene.

Before long, Tommy Milone also joined in as I introduced him to Mykayla. “This is the guy who was the winning pitcher in yesterday’s game.” She quickly responded: “I knew that!” At this point, it was past noon and our little fan probably thought the meetings were over, and she could get rest before she threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch—another part of her MVP Experience provided by the Sons of Baseball. However, just when she was about to leave the dugout, one final player made his way to see her. To crown her day, the 2013 Home Run Derby champion, Yoenis Céspedes, walked straight towards Mykayla with bat in hand. But before he could personally sign the bat, he bent over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The Cuban outfielder literally took her breath away. But not for long. She was truly in heaven, as the bigger-than-life star sat next to her on the bench, as family members took photos that soon will be part of her bedroom in Modesto. Fellow Cuban Ariel Prieto, A’s coach and Yoenis’ interpreter, joined in the party, also giving Mykayla a peck on the cheek and sharing some warm thoughts in their native tongue.

Once the player and coach had returned to the clubhouse to get their game faces on, it was almost time for the first pitch. Her grandfather told me that Mykayla had been practicing for days. Held by her mother and barely standing on the patch of grass near home plate, the shortest person at the ballpark let the ball fly, and in an ironic stroke, it was the A’s tallest player, Nate Freiman, who caught the pitch. Then, it was time for the family to join a group of about 30 family and friends from Modesto in the stands to watch the game. Even when the Angels bolted out to a 5-0 lead by the second inning, the irrepressible Mykayla Herrera just knew her boys would come back and win the game. And that they did, rallying to post a 10-6 victory that widened their lead in the AL West to a season-high six games. I know for me personally, as well as our players, it was a day bigger than baseball and one we won’t soon forget. Something tells me Mykayla might just feel the same way.

ONE ALL-STAR SELECTION DOESN’T DAMPEN A’S FIRST HALF

If you’re the Oakland A’s, maybe one is, indeed, the loneliest number.  Despite having the best record in all of baseball since June 1 of last year, we will send a grand total of one player to the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York July 16.   That one player will be 40-year-old starting pitcher Bartolo Colon.  And oh how he deserves it.  An eight-game winning streak, 11-3 record and AL Pitcher of the Month in June, Colon seems to have recaptured the form that won him a Cy Young Award in 2005.

Grant Balfour, who just tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s franchise record for consecutive saves, didn’t make the cut.  That might be a first in All-Star annals, a closer with 40 straight saves who doesn’t make the team.  Neither did third baseman Josh Donaldson, who leads the American League in game-winning hits and ranks among the Top 10 in batting average, doubles, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and multiple-hit games—not to mention Gold Glove caliber defense.  This, despite being one of the league’s bona fide MVP candidates at the halfway point of the campaign.

It makes me think of those true-blue A’s fans who unfurl that banner out in the left field bleachers every game:  “Respect Oakland Baseball.”   But this is not a blog about sour grapes.  All of the players who were named on the American League All-Star Team are certainly worthy.  And in some ways, us landing only one All-Star is so Oakland.  Maybe being located in a small city on the West Coast is a disadvantage for national attention.   Or maybe the fact that we play so well as a team isn’t very sexy.  In a lot of ways, we really aren’t about individuals.  Instead, we’re about Donaldson and Jed Lowrie, who might just be the best offensive left side of an infield in the American League.  And we’re about Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith and Chris Young, who might comprise the best overall outfield in the majors.  Or we’re about Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolitttle, et. al., who arguably could be the AL’s premier bullpen.   Same could be said for our starting rotation, which top to bottom, might be as deep as any team in baseball (BTW, does any other team boast a Brett Anderson or Sonny Gray in reserve?).   Ditto for our bench, which for any given game might be Smith, Brandon Moss and John Jaso.  Does any other team in the league feature such potent bats?

So, while I understand the teeth-gnashing and “we-wuz-robbed” cries coming from the Uptown District and other East Bay locales, don’t dwell on our scarcity of All-Stars.   As A’s fans who have watched this team win a division title and take World Series entry Detroit to a final Game 5 last year, and then follow that up with their best start in 23 years in 2013, you know the deal.  Under the vision and leadership of Billy Beane and Bob Melvin, this Oakland A’s team is about only one thing:  winning.  So when our boys return home next weekend to host the Boston Red Sox in a final three-game series before the All-Star Break, come out to the Coliseum and let them know how much we appreciate what they play—and stand—for.  It’s a noble cause, one which may lead to memories much greater than an All-Star Game.

DESPITE ROAD TRIP, A’S REMAIN IN GOOD POSITION

Let’s take a deep breath and exhale.  Yes, it’s true the A’s went a rather uninspiring 2-5 on their just-completed road trip. In the process, their three-game lead in the AL West melted away about as fast as you could say Nelson Cruz and Raul Ibanez.  But let’s try to have some perspective.  Despite the disappointing trip, Bob Melvin’s troops are still perched 10 games above .500 at 44-34 and trail the Texas Rangers by only one game in standings.

A year ago on this date?  Oakland stood at 35-38, lodged in third place in the AL West and trying to extricate itself from a 10-game deficit to Texas.  On this date last season, the Athletics were averaging 3.8 runs per game and hitting an almost anemic .227.  This year, the A’s are batting 22 points higher with a team average of .249 and are also averaging nearly one run more per game (4.6).  And consider this:  the 2013 A’s are playing at a .564 clip even though their two best hitters from last year have yet to warm up as we close the door on June.  Yoenis Cespedes is batting .224, while Josh Reddick owns a .216 figure.  It’s safe to say both should hit much better in the season’s second half.   Meanwhile, three key young arms in our starting rotation—Jarrod Parker (4.27), A.J. Griffin (3.90) and Tommy Milone (3.98)—are bound to improve their ERAs in the final three months.  Last season, Parker, Griffin and Milone finished the regular season with ERAs of 3.60, 3.06 and 3.74, respectively.

While there’s good reason to conclude the Athletics are in a good position as we head into midseason, there is no question they will have to prove their mettle over the next few weeks if they want to be considered a legitimate playoff contender.  Beginning with the defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night, Oakland will face a six-team stretch before the All-Star Break where its cumulative opponents’ winning percentage is .548 (249-205).  What’s more, four of the six teams on their schedule—Cincinnati (45-32), St. Louis (47-29), Boston (45-33) and Pittsburgh (46-30)—have won more games than the Green & Gold at this point of the campaign.

So, if you want to see some intense, competitive baseball, I suggest you head out to the O.co Coliseum in the next couple weeks.  Even though we haven’t yet hit the midway point of the season, these games might give any early indication what teams might be playing come October.  The proof will be on the field.  Hope to see you early and often.

THE ARRIVAL OF JOSH DONALDSON, A STAR IN THE MAKING

How can one of the leading American League MVP candidates not be considered a favorite to land a spot on the All-Star team this year? By all means, chew on that for a minute.

We talk of Josh Donaldson, arguably the heart and soul of an Oakland A’s team that has chiseled out the best record in the majors since June 1 of last season. Batting .324 with 18 doubles, nine home runs and 42 RBI thus far, he ranks among the league’s Top 10 in virtually every important offensive category. And if you want to talk about being clutch, consider that 10 of his 42 RBI have been game-winning RBIs. That’s the most in the American League and second most in the majors.

What has always baffled me about All-Star voting is it seems to be only based on a player’s offensive statistics, as though that’s the only aspect of the game that matters. In the context of winning, defense might be even more valuable. Only a couple of days ago, Bob Melvin said that he considered Josh Reddick gunning down a White Sox runner at home plate the equivalent of Josh hitting a home run. Third base has always been a challenging position to fill in baseball, as defensively it requires someone with extremely quick reflexes, soft hands and a strong arm. Not since Gold Glove winner Eric Chavez patrolled the hot corner back in the early 2000’s have the A’s featured someone who brings the whole package until JD arrived as a converted catcher last season. And the strides he has taken in such a short time span is truly remarkable. His athleticism, range and decisiveness, along with a howitzer of an arm that rarely misfires, makes Donaldson one of the best fielding third baseman in either league. For two reasons, I know that may sound insane to many of you.

First, how can someone who never played the position professionally until a little over a year ago possibly master it and be compared with the game’s best? Well, watch the nightly highlights on MLB Network or ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and the proof is unquestionably there. Secondly, the American League’s cup runneth over when it comes to elite all-around third basemen this season. It almost reminds me of those days a decade ago, when the stable of shortstops included such megastars as Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Omar Vizquel. Start with last year’s AL MVP Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, who may not only repeat as the Triple Crown Winner, but may challenge Hack Wilson’s long-held single season RBI record of 190. Then there’s Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria, already regarded as one of the majors finest and a consummate team leader, and Texas’ slugger and Gold Glove winner Adrian Beltre. Then add Donaldson and Baltimore’s phenom Manny Machado, and you can see why a very deserving third sacker may not make the team.

As we know, large market teams tend to get the most media exposure, which can also impact the vote, as can those teams who play in newer venues that attract capacity crowds. That said, I would hope that a club’s position in the standings carries extra weight and could serve as the wild card when determining who makes the All-Star team, or for that matter, who receives the most votes at the end of the year for the league MVP award. Certainly there is still plenty of baseball left to play, so the subject might still be a bit premature. However, if you’re a baseball fan in the Bay Area—or really anywhere in the world—I would hope you would take a closer look at what Josh Donaldson has become, and what he means to the team that has won more games than any other Major League club over the past seven months of baseball, dating back to last season. He deserves your All-Star vote. Come out to the Coliseum for the Yankees series this week and cast your ballot. And welcome home your A’s, who come off a 4-3 road trip that saw them gain 2 ½ games on the first place Rangers last week.

SO THIS IS 40: COLÓN LEADS BY EXAMPLE AND WITH A GOOD DOSE OF HUMOR

Has there ever been anyone quite like Bartolo Colón?   He’s a burly, bear of a man who refuses to give into hitters and refuses to grow up.   Don’t look now, but at the tender age of 40, the Round Mound of Renown is 6-2 with a 3.33 ERA, ranked among the American League’s Top 10 in several pitching categories and forcing his way into the conversation for 2013 All-Star consideration.

And the way he goes about it is almost comical.   Nothing seems to faze him.   Earlier this season, a steady rain pelted the diamond at Fenway Park in Boston.  While the Red Sox pitchers asked for help in reshaping the wet mound almost on an inning by inning basis, Colón waved off the home plate umpire every time he came out to ask him if he needed any assistance from the grounds crew.  Rain or shine, the Human Strike Machine never misses a beat.  With only Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez with more career wins among Dominican pitching legends, Colón has seen it all during his 16 years in the big leagues.  He might be one of the most unique team leaders I have ever encountered.

His English is quite limited, but that does not limit Bartolo’s ability to connect with his A’s teammates.   Every day he enters the clubhouse, it’s like a kid in the proverbial candy store.  As far as Bartolo Colón concerned, every day in a baseball uniform is a day in heaven.   He arrives with a big smile and leaves with an even bigger one.  In between, he has a profound influence on our entire roster.  Here’s what you learn when you observe him on a daily basis:

  • He’s a real pro with a great work ethic.  With shades of a 40-something Nolan Ryan, Colón religiously rides the stationary bike to maintain the most important aspect of his pitching—his legs.  Then he’s one of the first pitchers to hit the field for stretching, long toss and running.  Despite his advanced age and nearly 2,500 innings inside that right arm, it’s rare to see him in the training room.  And whether he wins or loses a start, he only has one expression:  a wide smile that suggests life is going to be okay and the sun will, indeed, rise tomorrow.  A good lesson for the Ryan Cooks and Nate Freimans to learn.

 

  • He’s one of baseball’s true characters.  Almost goofy at times, the big right-hander makes it perfectly clear to everyone that baseball should be fun.   Like a grade-school kid, he’s been known to sneak up from behind teammates—heck, even the PR director—and tap them on the opposite shoulder while he walks away as an innocent man.  And of course, there’s the oversized and heavy red ball he constantly throws into his glove in the clubhouse and at his locker.  What it does for him, I don’t know, but he slams it with a particular gusto that tends to catch your attention.  Before he made mincemeat of the White Sox Saturday, I asked Sean Doolittle before the game where Bartolo was.  “The usual—he’s bouncing that ball off the wall at his locker,” Doolittle said with a grin.  And of course, as some of you might have read, Bob Melvin went to the mound in Texas in the late innings recently, wondering how much Bartolo still had in the tank.   He asked him, “How are you feeling?”  Colón’s response:  “How are you doing?”

 

  • He’s a kind, humble person.  There’s humility about Bartolo that’s truly engaging.  You learn real quick that it’s never about him.  He deflects any praise, whether from the media or his teammates.  Even though he’s won a Cy Young Award and 177 games in his career, he’s the furthest thing from a prima donna.  Maybe it’s because he grew up in a very modest home in Altamira, D.R., where there was reportedly no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.  Now, without any fanfare, he donated $50,000 to the American Red Cross to help hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi, and has provided funding for an amateur baseball stadium in his hometown of Altamira.

And through it all, Bartolo remains a big kid, tossing his glove up in the air after retiring the side, then snatching before it falls to the ground.  So this is 40.  Or at least 40 for Bartolo Colón, the man that Derek Jeter once called “one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”  The scene that will be indelibly etched in my mind forever happened just Saturday.   Here was Colon, the ancient Athletic, walking up the ramp from the field after pitching a six-hit shutout in what amounted to a clinic that lasted only two hours and 14 minutes.   If there was any doubt how much his teammates love and respect him, all you had to do is watch the reception he received when he entered the clubhouse.   Every player, from Josh Donaldson to Josh Reddick to Grant Balfour, stood at their lockers and gave the Round Mound of Renown a standing ovation that lasted for at least 60 seconds.   There is no higher praise.

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