Balfour and Cook make a dangerous 1-2 punch

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Balfour and Cook make a dangerous 1-2 punch

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."

Pinder's potential 'coming to fruition' in chance with A's

Pinder's potential 'coming to fruition' in chance with A's

OAKLAND — With so much attention focused on who might be the next wave of A’s infielders coming up from the minors, Chad Pinder is making quite a statement in the present.

Pinder enjoyed another big day at the plate Sunday with a two-run homer and a double in the A’s 12-3 loss to Boston. That came on the heels of Saturday’s 460-foot home run that made him just the fifth player to reach the second deck just above the Coliseum’s first level of luxury suites.

For fans around the country who might have seen that mammoth blast on highlight shows, it likely was their first introduction to the 25-year-old Virginia native. However, those within the organization witnessed Pinder’s steady rise through the farm system since he was drafted as a sandwich pick between the second and third rounds of the 2013 draft out of Virginia Tech.

“I don’t think it’s a shock what he’s doing,” said A’s designated hitter Ryon Healy, who was part of that same draft class. “I think he’s always been that caliber of player. He’s always had that potential and it’s coming to fruition right now and it’s really fun to watch.”

Pinder, who made his big league debut in September but began this season with Triple-A Nashville, is hitting .286 over 21 games with Oakland. He’s homered in four of his past eight, and he provided a boost over the weekend as the A’s took three of four from the Red Sox.

The right-handed hitting Pinder was in the lineup all four games — with the Red Sox starting lefties on the mound for the final three contests, the A’s stacked their lineup with righties, giving Pinder a stretch of consistent playing time.

He’s provided enough of a spark that he warrants consideration to remain in the lineup even though the A’s are scheduled to face right-handers during their two-game series with the Miami Marlins that begins Tuesday at the Coliseum.

Granted, it’s not the biggest sample size either way, but Pinder is actually hitting better against righties (.348, 8-for-23) than he is against lefties (.231, 6-for-26). Four of his five home runs also have come against right-handers.

Asked whether Pinder could draw more starts against right-handers, A’s manager Bob Melvin replied: “Potentially, yeah. You want to try to stay consistent with the lineups you have, but if you have a hot hand, you look for ways to get him in there.”

Working in Pinder’s advantage is the versatility he’s shown since being recalled from Nashville on April 16. The A’s always knew Pinder could handle second, shortstop or third as needed, but he’s also shown to be a capable option in right field with a strong arm for the outfield.

Pinder was the Texas League (Double-A) Player of the Year in 2015 and ranked No. 7 on Baseball America’s preseason list of A’s prospects. He’s making the most of his time in the majors.

On the minds of many Oakland fans is when a couple more infield prospects who are impressing at Triple-A — middle infielder Franklin Barreto and third baseman Matt Chapman — might get their first crack in the bigs.

Barreto, ranked as the No. 25 overall prospect in the majors in Baseball America’s most recent ratings, is hitting .311 with six homers and is tied with Matt Olson for Nashville’s RBI lead at 27. Chapman, ranked the 95th overall prospect, missed two weeks earlier this season with a wrist injury but has shown signs of heating up offensively. He’s hitting just .237 but has eight homers and 15 RBI.

Two other Nashville players, who have both seen time with the A’s, are putting up noteworthy numbers: Olson, a first baseman/outfielder, is hitting .276 with 10 homers and 27 RBI, and corner infielder/outfielder Renato Nunez is tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with 12 homers to go with a .245 average and 25 RBI.

The A’s are working with Barreto and Chapman to hone their approach at the plate and control the strike zone. General manager David Forst maintains the A’s will be patient with both, noting that Pinder benefited last year from a full season at Triple-A before his promotion.

“The calendar needs to turn over,” Forst said. “They need at-bats. Matt missed a couple weeks with the injury, but they just need more days and more at-bats. We don’t have an ‘X’ on the calendar anywhere where this is the day. We’ll know when it’s time.”

Axford makes his 2017 debut; Doolittle takes step forward to return

Axford makes his 2017 debut; Doolittle takes step forward to return

OAKLAND — The A’s officially welcomed John Axford back into their bullpen fold Sunday, and they got some encouraging news about another reliever.

Sean Doolittle was expected to only throw a flat-ground session before the series finale against Boston, but he wound up throwing 15 pitches off the mound as well. That’s the first time Doolittle has thrown from the mound since joining the disabled list May 3 with a strained left shoulder. Next up is a 25-pitch session off the mound Wednesday.

The early indications are that Doolittle’s current shoulder woes aren’t as severe as the ailments that sidelined him for major portions of the past two seasons.

Axford was reinstated from the 10-day DL Saturday for his own shoulder strain, but his season debut came Sunday, when he handled the eighth inning and allowed one run. He was sidelined during the season-opening series against the Angels when he hurt his shoulder while warming up in the bullpen.

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All indications are that first baseman Yonder Alonso will be available to return to the lineup Tuesday for the opener of a two-game interleague series against the Miami Marlins. A’s manager Bob Melvin said before Sunday’s game that he considered Alonso as potentially being available off the bench. Given the A’s are off Monday, it’s reasonable to assume Alonso will be ready Tuesday when the Marlins start right-hander Jose Urena on the mound.

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The A’s are plenty familiar with Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland from his days with division rival Texas. But Moreland continues to do damage against Oakland even though he’s out of the AL West. Moreland’s two-run homer in the sixth off Andrew Triggs marked his third homer of the four-game series, and his 19th homer in 80 career games against the A’s. That’s his most homers against any major league club.

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The run Axford allowed in the eighth snapped a streak of 27 scoreless innings at home by the A’s bullpen. Josh Smith allowed five runs in the ninth.