Cotton impresses with poise, confidence in beating Royals

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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.”

Alonso strikes a chord with fascinating account of Cuba defection

Alonso strikes a chord with fascinating account of Cuba defection

ANAHEIM — As Yonder Alonso was preparing for the 2017 season last winter, he was tackling another challenge too.

Over the course of three months, the A’s first baseman gathered his thoughts and pieced together a fascinating first-person account for The Players’ Tribune about his childhood experience defecting from Cuba with his parents and younger sister.

Alonso framed the article as him penning a letter to his 8-year-old self, describing the grueling struggle he and his family would go through while reassuring his younger self that it would all be worth it when he finally made it as a major leaguer. Alonso describes in vivid detail the hardships he went through, caring for his sister, Yainee, at night as they dined on meals of microwaved hot dogs and microwaved eggs, while his parents were away from home working multiple jobs to support their family.

Alonso goes on to describe how he would return from college baseball road trips, while he was attending the University of Miami, and immediately head to a night job to help his father clean warehouses and scrub bathrooms.

The story struck a chord within the A’s clubhouse but also among so many people from the Miami area, where Alonso’s family settled after they defected. Alonso said he’s received text messages from many of them.

“I think everybody in this locker room, or any locker room, they definitely have a story to tell,” Alonso said. “And I think it’s awesome when you see a guy just kind of open up a little bit. I’m (usually) not one to open up.”

Athletes are used to reporters peppering them with questions and trying to draw stories out of them. Seldom do athletes take to penning their own story.

Representatives from The Players’ Tribune, an online publication started by Derek Jeter in 2014, reached out to Alonso in early December about writing something. Alonso had a trip planned to Cuba for later that month, before any request for an article came, and his return visit to his native country helped persuade him to go through with it.

“I saw a lot of people,” he said. “For me it was very touching. For my wife as well.”

Alonso met with an editor from The Players’ Tribune during spring training, and they began hashing out ideas. Alonso said he wrote the story himself with assistance from the editor.

“We had ideas, different ways of going about it,” he said. “I think from day one I knew the way I wanted to write it and how I wanted it to come out, which is a letter to my younger self.”

Even after finishing the project three weeks ago, Alonso said he wasn’t sure he wanted to share it publicly. He showed the article to some friends and teammates, including A’s reliever Sean Doolittle and outfielder Matt Joyce. After reading the piece, Joyce strongly persuaded Alonso to carry through with it.

“I told him it was awesome,” Joyce said. “From my perspective, you don’t really get a good sense of what those guys go through, coming over to the States. You just see them later. So to kind of read it in his own words, it was a really cool perspective and a good story to see what a kid across the water, from a different country, goes through to get to this point. I think it’s a very powerful story and message.”

Alonso said his motivation was simple.

“Just letting my family know, and people in this world know, that if you want to strive for something, it can be tough at times. But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Manaea felt 'little sharp pain', but status of shoulder not immediately known

Manaea felt 'little sharp pain', but status of shoulder not immediately known

ANAHEIM — Sean Manaea is hopeful his left shoulder injury isn’t serious, but the A’s likely won’t have a full read on the starter’s condition for a couple days.

As of Wednesday night, no MRI was scheduled after Manaea left after just two innings of an eventual 8-5 defeat to the Los Angeles Angels with tightness in his shoulder.

“I felt it a little bit in the bullpen,” Manaea said. “I thought it was just one of those days where it took me longer to warm up, and that just wasn’t the case. It’s just really unfortunate.”

Just as the A’s are about to welcome Kendall Graveman back to the active roster Thursday, when he starts the series finale at Angel Stadium, and just as it appears Sonny Gray might be ready to come off the disabled list following one more rehab start, the A’s are hoping they don’t see Manaea subtracted from their rotation for any period of time.

Manager Bob Melvin said it was the top of Manaea’s shoulder that was bothering him.

“The velo was down, and it didn’t make sense to have him keep pitching,” Melvin said. “But we won’t know anything probably for a day or two, how he feels.”

Once he started throwing in the game, Manaea said he felt “kind of a little sharp pain. I mean, it’s nothing serious. I’ve dealt with it before and it only took me a few days to get back on the mound. To me, I’m not really worried about it.”

The pitcher added that he experienced a similar situation with his shoulder while a minor leaguer in Kansas City’s organization, toward the end of spring training, and he missed minimal time.

Things didn’t get better for the A’s (10-11) after Manaea exited, as they struck out 13 times and played sloppy defensively in dropping their third in a row. Catcher Stephen Vogt couldn’t handle Ryan Dull’s glove flip to the plate on a seventh-inning squeeze play, ending a streak of six errorless games for Oakland, but Melvin can live with occasional physical misplays. More problematic were occasions when right fielder Matt Joyce and center fielder Jaff Decker both seemed caught by surprise to see Angels runners take off for an extra base. Whether it was a lack of communication from infielders or the outfielders themselves needing to be more aware, the A’s can’t afford those kinds of mistakes.

“As a group, we can’t let that happen,” Melvin said. “We talk about it in advance meetings the way these guys run the bases. It’s not something we can do and expect to beat this team.”

Added Vogt: “We were on our heels quite a bit. This was obviously not the prettiest baseball game we’ve played.”