ANAHEIM -- It's a cloudy, overcast and surprisingly humid day in Anaheim. A's manager Bob Melvin is sitting in the dugout shaking his head in disgust. He throws his hands up and stops me mid question. I have done the unthinkable in the superstitious manager's mind. I asked him about Grant Balfour being 10 for 10 in save opportunities since re-taking over the closer's role on August 11. Fortunately the dugout bench is made of some form of synthetic wood to knock on. Melvin's concerns aside, Balfour's pitching may be too good to jinx. He has a 1.85 ERA in his last 43 games. The Australian-born pitcher's second tour of duty as closer is just another example of solid decision making by the A's organization. Balfour started the year as the team's closer. He converted his first five saves before hitting a rough patch at the end of April. He allowed seven earned runs over six outings and blew two saves losing the ninth inning job he coveted. "I set a goal at the start of the year to get that job and I was disappointed when they took it away from me so quick," Balfour said. "I felt like it was a quick trigger really, I had a rough week and it was gone." "That happens in baseball," Balfour added. "You ask anyone in this room it's tough to be nails all year long. It's how you bounce back." And bounce back he did. Instead of sulking Balfour got locked in. He didn't allow a run in 32 of his next 35 appearances, eight of which were more than one inning. "All these guys are about winning and they are not letting pride get in the way of what we are trying to do as a team," Melvin said. "There hasn't been a guy that hasn't been fine with whatever we consider is the best thing to do as a team at that particular time." Being the closer has suited the fiery pitcher well. Since August 11 he has a 67.1 strike percentage and his average fastball velocity is 91.5 MPH. Prior to that date he had a 61.6 strike percentage and average fastball clocked in at 89.9 MPH, though the "Mad Aussie" insists he hasn't changed a thing."Ninth inning, you got the lead, you want to win the ballgame," Balfour said. "It's not like I am getting any crazier. I'm the same guy with the same stuff." Balfour regained the job at the expense of rookie reliever Ryan Cook, who earned 13 saves as the A's closer but blew seven of them. Balfour is third among American League relievers with a .164 opponents batting average. Cook ranks fourth in the league with a .170 opponents batting average. They have both been very good this season. Cook was even the A's lone All-Star representative. He struck out Bryce Harper and David Wright in a scoreless seventh inning during the Mid-Summer Classic. He is just one of many rookie success stories in the A's pitching staff. "It's been awesome," Cook said. "I don't know that we really grasped how good we could be. Once we started steamrolling a little bit we realized we can compete with any body." Cook has once again found his nasty form. He hasn't allowed a run 11 of his last 12 appearances. He attributes an ever-so-subtle mechanical tweak to his resurgence. "It's not a big deal I just fixed myself," Cook said. "It was pointed out by Sean Doolittle and I talked to Curt Young about it. I just made a tiny little adjustment it was nothing big just went back to being effective." Cook ranks second among AL rookies with 60 games pitched and 13 saves. He and Balfour have become a dangerous 1-2 punch in the back end of the A's bullpen. They even took the time to show off their combos during batting practice by pretending to spar with each other. There are no hard feeling about who is closing and who isn't. "He is a professional and he knows what he is doing," Cook said of Balfour. "He is a hell of a pitcher and I love it for him and I love it for us." Balfour has 17 saves this season, and 27 in his career. He is the all-time leader in saves by a pitcher born in Australia, something he says he takes in stride. "It's not a whole lot of saves to be honest," Balfour said with a laugh. "It's kind of one of those things that is cool and hopefully I can extend it out a lot longer so when the next kid comes along he's got something to work for."
OAKLAND — Matt Olson is aware of the company he’s keeping in the A’s record books.
His reaction is a mix of reverence and a shrug-of-the-shoulders type humbleness.
That’s the personality of the A’s rookie first baseman. Even as the conversation about him and his awe-inspiring home run pace grows louder, he remains the same steady, grounded presence.
“I’m happy for him,” A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said. “The guy’s worked his butt off. He’s the same today as was when he first got called up.”
Olson cleared the fences once again Friday night, his two-run homer off Nick Martinez in the second inning helping the A’s to a 4-1 victory over the Texas Rangers. At this point, it’s much more newsworthy when Olson doesn’t homer than when he does.
He’s crammed 24 homers into just 57 games this season. Taking into account his first call-up last September, and Olson’s 24 homers over the first 68 games of his career are the second-most in the history of major league baseball over that span to open a career. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger also hit 24 and only the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, with 25, hit more over his first 68.
Olson’s 13 homers in September are the most by any rookie in major league history for the month, and there’s still eight games left in it. But Olson’s hot streak dates back to Aug. 27. He’s hit a major league-best 16 homers in 23 games since then.
Among rookies in A’s history, only Mark McGwire (49) in 1987 and Jose Canseco (33) in 1986 have hit more than Olson’s 24. But neither Bash Brother, nor any other player in Oakland history, ever hit 15 homers in a 21-game span as Olson recently did.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Olson said before Friday’s game. “I grew up with a Mark McGwire poster on my wall. It’s a little surreal.”
Who saw this coming?
Olson went 2-for-21 without a single RBI in his first taste of the bigs last September. Then he shuttled five times between Triple-A and the majors this season before getting called up once again Aug. 8 and being told he’d get a shot as the A’s regular first baseman with Yonder Alonso having been traded. The constant shuttling took its toll, though Olson never let on about that publicly to reporters.
“You could see (the frustration),” said Ryan Christenson, his manager at Triple-A. “When he walks in and you tell him ‘You’re getting sent up,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, how many days is it for this time?’ He wouldn’t voice it necessarily, but you could sense it.”
Olson, with help from Bush and others, made an adjustment coming into this season. He began holding his hands out farther away from his body to begin his swing. With his 6-foot-5 frame, Olson had found himself getting jammed inside. Then in trying to adjust to that, he couldn’t square up pitches on the outer half.
“Now, his hands are firing from where he wants them to,” Bush said. “He doesn’t have to fight. You want your hands to have a clean path. Now he can stay in there, stay behind the ball, let his hands work for him.”
Olson, a 23-year-old from Lilburn, Ga., takes this sudden burst of success — and attention — in stride.
“I’ve been hit with so many stats here in the past week, I can’t even keep track of who’s done what, and honestly what I’ve done,” he said. “I kind of try to ignore all that.”
That’s OK. Others are taking plenty of notice.
OAKLAND — A’s president Dave Kaval took part in a fan Q&A session Friday at the Coliseum as part of the team’s Fan Appreciation Weekend.
Here’s some bits and pieces from the session, which was moderated by A’s radio broadcaster Ken Korach:
—Would the A’s re-consider the Coliseum site for a new ballpark if the Peralta location ultimately doesn’t work out?
Kaval: “We’re 100 percent focused on Peralta. We think it can be a dynamic location, and we’re excited about engaging the community. .. But we’re not abandoning East Oakland.”
To that end, Kaval emphasized once again the A’s ambition for the Coliseum site — if all of the current professional teams do in fact bolt the location — to eventually house a youth sports academy with baseball fields and other facilities.
“Wouldn’t it be something to have more home-grown players playing at our (new) ballpark?”
—What other ballparks might be inspirations for design of the venue?
“I think the two guiding principles we have, are, 1) that it’s an intimate ballpark. Not a bad seat in the house. No nosebleeds. Think Fenway or Wrigley (plans are for a roughly 35,000 seat stadium). And 2) build something uniquely Oakland. Something that feels like Oakland, whether it’s an Oaklandish store (built in to the stadium), or the foodie culture …”
—Addressing how city and county funds might be utilized, Kaval emphasized that the ballpark itself will be privately financed, as has been stated before. He mentioned public funds being used for infrastructure (also a long-established idea), including possible enhancements to the Lake Merritt BART station, which is a short walk from the proposed stadium location.
“We’ll work together with the county, with the city, with (the) Peralta (Community College District). This is as big a project as the city has ever seen, a massive coordinating effort.”
—As Kaval told NBC Sports California in this story last week, the A’s plan to retain a good chunk of their current young core of talent to be the cornerstone players once the new stadium opens. Their target move-in date is Opening Day, 2023. That likely means sinking money into long-term extensions for players who will be arriving at, or nearing, their free agency years. Kaval mentioned the Cleveland Indians of the early 90’s as an example of a team opening a new stadium with a home-grown group of stars. Billy Beane, the head of the A’s baseball operations, has made the same comparison in the past.
— The A’s plan to build substantial parking, but the idea is for the new ballpark to be “(public) transit-first, like AT&T Park and Fenway,” Kaval said. … “It’s gonna take cars off the road.”
Having said that, Kaval added that the A’s will aim to preserve the tailgating culture with the parking that they do provide.