Cotton impresses with poise, confidence in beating Royals


Cotton impresses with poise, confidence in beating Royals

KANSAS CITY — The ingredients were there for a young pitcher to get rattled Monday at Kauffman Stadium.

Jharel Cotton never let that happen. Instead he prevented the Royals’ sold-out crowd from becoming a factor in their home opener, spinning a beauty of a performance in the A’s 2-0 victory.

According to catcher Stephen Vogt, Cotton’s warm-up routine didn’t follow the usual pattern due to an extended pregame ceremony in memory of Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, who died in a January car accident. There were starts and stops for Cotton as he prepared during the ceremony, which had several A’s players, not to mention manager Bob Melvin, commenting on how powerful and moving it was.

“We’ve seen him pitch some really good games,” Melvin said of Cotton. “But the pressure of that game, a full house, a lot going on, and to be on it right away too. Sometimes nerves can get to you a little bit, then you kind of settle into your routine. But he was on it right away. I don’t know that he could have pitched better.”

Indeed, the rookie was dialed in from the get-go. That helped him build confidence after he struggled in his season debut against the Angels. Importantly, Cotton was retiring hitters early on without having to show his best pitch, the changeup.

“He didn’t have to use his changeup until the second time through (the lineup) a little bit, and the third time through he used it a lot,” Vogt said. “Anytime you can avoid somebody’s best secondary pitch until the third time through, he’s doing a pretty good job.”

Cotton has a mid-90’s fastball, a curve and a cutter he can also attack hitters with. Then later in the game, as the late-afternoon shadows fell between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, hitting conditions became tougher and Cotton’s changeup was especially effective.

“Vogt really called a good game,” Cotton said. “He knew when to call the changeup and just put the right numbers down every single time.”

The Royals invited Ventura’s mother, Marisol Hernandez, and other relatives from the Dominican Republic to attend the touching pregame ceremony, which included a video montage on the JumboTron while a saxophonist played “Amazing Grace.”

Then a large group of Royals players brought out a banner reading “Ace 30” and unraveled it behind the mound to the loud cheers of fans. Ventura wore No. 30, and the Royals are keeping a locker stall in his honor this season in their home clubhouse, complete with a jersey and photos of Ventura.

The A’s had some history with Ventura, most notably an early-season game in 2015 when Ventura was ejected after hitting Brett Lawrie with a pitch, a day after Lawrie slid extremely hard into Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar at second base.

But there was nothing but respect for Monday’s ceremony, and the memory of Ventura, in the A’s clubhouse.

“I can’t imagine what it was like for (the Royals), knowing him, having been so close to him,” A’s reliever Sean Doolittle said. “It was really powerful for us, and none of us really knew him. For them to watch that … for them to take the field right after that, I can’t imagine the emotions they were feeling.”

Given that environment, Doolittle was all the more impressed with Cotton’s performance, especially coming off a debut in which the right-hander lasted just 4 1/3 innings in a loss to the Angels.

“For a young guy to have a bounce-back outing like that, in this environment, Opening Day here, a lot of energy in this stadium, that’s huge for him to have that kind of poise and maturity,” Doolittle said. “It’s a really, really, really good sign.”

A's find two bright spots in tough shutout loss to Astros

A's find two bright spots in tough shutout loss to Astros

HOUSTON — Some losses go down tougher than others, and that’s true for Bob Melvin whether it’s April or whether it’s August and his team is playing out the string.

The body language and demeanor said it all for the A’s manager Saturday after a 3-0 loss to the Astros, in which Oakland didn’t advance a single runner past second base.

Houston right-hander Collin McHugh brought a 4.88 ERA into the game over five starts since returning from a shoulder injury. He wound up celebrating his first victory of 2017 after six stellar innings.

“He threw the ball good, (but) I expected us to score some runs tonight,” Melvin said.

The A’s were done in by five ground-ball double plays, including a game-ending 5-4-3 job from Ryon Healy, which was reversed on replay review after Healy initially was called safe.

“Those things are killers,” catcher Bruce Maxwell said. “It just didn’t roll our way today.”

So the A’s (53-70) were left to pick through the scraps of this one to find some silver linings, and there were a couple.

Kendall Graveman held Houston to two runs over six innings, and the damage off him came on a two-run single from Marwin Gonzalez that glanced off the glove of second baseman Jed Lowrie. It was the second strong outing in a row for Graveman, who’s now got four starts under his belt since returning from his second stint on the disabled list this season for shoulder issues.

Most encouraging from his standpoint was he didn’t really have his best stuff, yet still managed to limit an opponent that leads the majors in every significant offensive category, including runs, batting average and homers.

“I think it’s the first one where I’ve been back when I had to kind of pitch and grind through,” said Graveman (3-4). “I didn’t have my best stuff. It’s just one of those where you’ve got to get out there and compete.”

The highlight of the game for the A’s came when center fielder Boog Powell unleashed a strike to home plate that nailed Alex Bregman trying to score from second on Jose Altuve’s single in the fifth.

Maxwell barely had to move his mitt to apply the tag, and count the A’s catcher as the most surprised person in the ballpark that Powell even gave him a chance on the play.

“It caught me off guard,” Maxwell admitted. “I haven’t played with Powell in a long time. I didn’t expect there to be that big of a play at home. He was fairly deep in the outfield as well.”

Powell, a 24-year-old rookie who was acquired from Seattle for Yonder Alonso, said he’s worked on his throwing in the minors in recent seasons.

“I didn’t (have a good arm) back in the day,” Powell said. “I’m definitely improving my arm strength. I pride myself on getting the ball out as quick as I can.”

It’s the kind of play that sticks in the memory bank as Powell tries to make his mark in the wide open battle to be the A’s center fielder in 2018. His throw to ring up Bregman was at least one moment from Saturday night that gave Melvin reason to smile.

“He can play the outfield, no doubt about it,” Melvin said. “It was a big play at the time, and it should give you a little momentum to go back out there and do a little better offensively.”

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from A's 3-0 loss in Houston


Instant Analysis: Five takeaways from A's 3-0 loss in Houston


HOUSTON — The A’s pitching staff endured a rough series against Kansas City to finish out the last homestand.

Go figure that Oakland arrived in Houston to start a six-game road trip, and it’s the offense that has been non-existant. The Astros blanked the A’s 3-0 on Saturday at Minute Maid Park, negating a strong effort from right-hander Kendall Graveman.

Through 18 innings of this series, the A’s have advanced exactly one runner as far as third base. That came Friday night on Matt Joyce’s eighth-inning homer, accounting for the only run scored by Oakland so far in Houston.

Getting runners on base wasn’t really the tough part Saturday. Grounding into five double plays was what did them in offensively. It was fitting that the game ended on a replay overturn that gave the Astros’ a 5-4-3 double play on Ryon Healy’s grounder to end it. Healy originally was ruled safe.

GRAVEMAN ROUNDING INTO FORM: In his fourth start back from a shoulder injury, Graveman built on his previous outing when he beat the Baltimore Orioles. He went six innings Saturday and gave up two runs. The only damage off him came with the bases loaded in the fourth. Marwin Gonzalez hit a sharp grounder to the left of second baseman Jed Lowrie. The ball glanced off his glove, allowing two runners to score. It was ruled a two-run single, but it appeared a makable play that should have resulted in at least one out for Graveman.

BREGMAN STRIKES AGAIN: Astros third baseman homered for the second time in two nights. His solo shot off Ryan Dull in the eighth added some breathing room for Houston.

FAMILIAR FACE: Former Athletic Tyler Clippard, who the Astros just recently acquired, finished out the ninth to close it out.

SHOWING OFF THE ARM: Houston had a chance to build on its two-run lead in the fifth, but A’s center fielder Boog Powell made an on-the-money throw to the plate to nail Bregman, who tried to score from second on Jose Altuve’s single. Powell got the ball to the plate on the fly, with catcher Bruce Maxwell simply having to apply the tag. The Astros challenged the call but it stood upon replay review.

SHOWING OFF THE ARM, PART II: Khris Davis’ name doesn’t often appear under this subhead, but the A’s left fielder nearly threw out Astros speedster George Springer as he legged out a double in the third. Actually, Davis should have gotten the assist as the throw beat him to the bag. But Springer was safe on a nifty slide to avoid Jed Lowrie’s tag. Davis fielded the liner off a ricochet from the left field wall, then made one of his strongest throws in an A’s uniform. It’s worth noting that since Davis wrote a story in The Players Tribune, detailing the mental battles he endures with his outfield throwing, his throws have actually appeared to be stronger.