Athletics

A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

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A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

OAKLAND -- In front of a room stuffed with media, he placed an A's cap on his head and buttoned up a home white jersey with his name and number (three) on the back. He claimed modestly that donning the Oakland Athletics jersey for the first time made him "speechless," but he was anything but that.

As Hiroyuki Nakajima took to the podium flanked by his new general manager and an interpreter, the freshly signed Japanese shortstop quickly won over the media and fan base by delivering an opening statement in English.

"Hi Oakland," he said. "My name is Hiroyuki Nakajima, but you can call me 'Hiro.' I am honored to be here today and thankful for everyone coming today."

You don't often hear an applause at a media conference, but this elicited such a reaction. It was a moment that he was extremely nervous for.

"I actually thought of this opening remark last night and during my sleep I was mumbling it over, and over again," Nakajima said through interpreter Hiroo Nishi. "Just outside that door over there I was just practicing over, and over."

"In my dreams I was practicing it," he added.

He certainly didn't look nervous. Soon thereafter Nakajima stunned those in attendance by saying through his interpreter that he signed with the A's because general manager Billy Beane was "extremely sexy and cool." At the end of the press conference he said -- again in English -- that he wants to learn the "Bernie dance."

Yeah…he'll fit in just fine with the A's loose clubhouse.

Nakajima passed the eye test, the medical tests, and immediately ingratiated himself with the fans and media. But can he play ball? In the end that will be the ultimate factor in deciding if this signing is a successful one.

The thirty-year-old veteran of the Japan Pacific League is an eight-time all-star and has won three Gold Gloves. He has a .302 career average in Japan. He is being counted on to fill the last remaining void on the roster of the defending American League West champions. He will feel the pressure to perform on the game's biggest stage -- Major League Baseball.

The A's feel confident he will be able to succeed in Oakland. They have been watching him closely for years. The A's front office says Nakajima is anything but a backup plan they merely turned to after Stephen Drew was signed by the Red Sox. In fact, assistant general manager David Forst said on 95.7 The Game that Nakajima was in an MRI tube getting his physical done when the news that Drew and Boston agreed on a contract leaked out.

Oakland was interested in retaining Drew's services, but all along they had been meeting with Nakajima's representatives. They spoke at the Winter Meetings and remained in touch.

"We were on him early," Beane said. "The more things we uncovered, the longer we got into the winter, the more we realized this is the guy."

The A's are familiar with making splashy international signings. There were a lot of questions surrounding Yoenis Cespedes when he signed with the A's last offseason, and the Cuban-born slugger now looks like a superstar in the making. It is hard to project or expect Nakajima, who hit .311 with 13 home runs, 74 RBI, 52 walks, and a .382 on-base percentage in 136 games last season in Japan, to be a dominating force like Cespedes. They just need him to play solid defense and provide adequate offensive production from the shortstop position.

The track record for Japanese infielders isn't exactly sterling. The guy Nakajima replaced on the Seibu Lions, Kaz Matsui, had huge numbers in Japan before underwhelming in seven seasons in America. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a batting champion and star in Japan, but flopped with the Twins and was released just two years into his three-year contract. Akinori Iwamura had a few good years with the Rays, but has struggled since. He last appeared in the Major Leagues in 2010 for the A's and hit .129 in 10 games.

Writing a person off because of the shortcomings of others in the past is the type of broad stroke the A's front office doesn't believe in.

"I think that's really individual," Beane said. "To generalize and make that statement is a bit unfair to the individual player."

The experiences Japanese players had in American baseball were also a factor that Nakajima looked into while making his decision to sign with the A's. He reached out to Ichiro Suzuki, and the aforementioned Matsui and Iwamura before making his final decision.

There is reason to believe Nakajima is different. He does have a taste of the big league spotlight, after all. He played in the 2009 World Baseball Classic for the Japanese national team. He also played for Japan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has, however, elected to sit out the upcoming WBC games because he wants to do everything it takes to prepare for the upcoming season with his new teammates.

"I'm just very, very much excited to go to Oakland's camp as soon as possible," Nakajima said.

Nakajima has 141 stolen bases in 11 seasons. The most bags he has swiped in a single season is 25. Yet, he gave a nod to the A's past and present by mentioning that he can't wait to work with A's great Rickey Henderson, and learn from Coco Crisp during Spring Training.

Much like most of the A's fans have only seen Nakajima in action in Youtube videos, the Japanese shortstop has also admired the work of many of the current MLB infielders from afar. According to Nakajima, there is a highlight reel put together and broadcast in Japan every year containing the best plays from the Major Leagues. He feels a little pressure to perform like the current stars of the game but won't let it change the way he handles himself on the field.

"As much as I want to impersonate and copy those amazing plays, fundamentals are very important," Nakajima said. "I really want to stick to the basics."

Every second of available tape is being scrutinized by scouts, and analysts trying to determine whether or not this 5'11" and 198 pound ballplayer's skills can translate in the big leagues. There are different park factors, different pitchers, and even different baseballs in America. Nakajima doesn't seem concerned that his game will translate. The biggest difference he is worried about?

"The fact that there's not many bathtubs around in America," Nakajima said. "That's one of the possible challenges that I'll have to face."

He has the confidence, the tools, and a sense of humor to back it up. He also has one more thing working in his favor.

"We also think he is sexy and cool," Beane said. "That's what we are about here in Oakland, being sexy and cool."

A's blow it again in ninth, swept on walk-off grand slam in 10th

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USATI

A's blow it again in ninth, swept on walk-off grand slam in 10th

BOX SCORE

TORONTO  — Steve Pearce became the latest Blue Jay to hit a game-ending home run.

Pearce hit a tiebreaking grand slam in the 10th inning and Toronto beat the Oakland Athletics 8-4 on Thursday to complete a four-game sweep.

"Hopefully we just keep the ball rolling," Pearce said. "We're getting down to the end of the season so we've got to step it up and this was a great series to get it started."

Oakland reliever Liam Hendriks (3-2) walked the bases loaded with two outs before Pearce hooked a 3-2 pitch down the left field line and into the second deck. The grand slam was the second of his career and first since May 2015.

The Blue Jays won consecutive games on home runs for the first time in team history.

Kendrys Morales, who hit a game-winning homer in the ninth inning Wednesday, had two more home runs Thursday. Morales connected off Sean Manaea in the fifth and added a tying blast off Blake Treinen in the ninth, the 19th multihomer game of his career.

Treinen got the ninth in place of Santiago Casilla, who blew Wednesday's game. The Athletics have blown five of their past six save opportunities.

"We're just having trouble finishing off games," manager Bob Melvin said.

Toronto has hit four game-ending home runs this season, the third-highest total in team history. They hit six in 2011.

Josh Donaldson also homered for Toronto, a solo blast in the first.

Roberto Osuna (3-0) worked one inning for the win.

Marcus Semien had three hits and a walk for the Athletics, who have lost 12 of 13 in Toronto.

In the fifth, one batter after Blue Jays manager John Gibbons was ejected for arguing ball and strikes with home plate umpire Will Little, Stroman and catcher Russell Martin were both tossed. An irate Stroman charged toward home plate to confront Little, and had to be restrained by Martin and bench coach DeMarlo Hale.

Right-hander Chris Smith replaced Stroman and Miguel Montero took over for Martin.

Stroman allowed three runs and six hits in 4 2/3 innings, walking a season-high six. Asked about the ejection afterward, he had little to say.

"When it comes to umpires or any of that, I'm not going to be making any comments about that," Stroman said. "I want to make my next start."

Oakland struck quickly against Stroman, scoring three runs in the first against a pitcher who had allowed just four earned runs combined in his previous four July starts. Ryon Healy drove in a run with a groundout and Bruce Maxwell followed with a two-run single.

Donaldson replied with a one-out blast in the bottom half, his 10th, and Morales connected to begin the fifth, his 19th.

Toronto tied it in the sixth when Jose Bautista hit a leadoff double and scored on Justin Smoak's two-out single.

Troy Tulowitzki tried to score from second on Darwin Barney's two-out single in the seventh, but was thrown out at home plate by a strong throw from right fielder Matt Joyce.

Manaea allowed three runs and seven hits in seven innings.

"It kind of stings a little bit," Manaea said. "We had an opportunity to win and just didn't put it together."

Oakland broke a 3-all tie against Ryan Tepera in the eighth when Semien's two-out single scored Jaycob Brugman, but Morales answered in the ninth.

GETTING THE AX

Oakland RHP John Axford, the NL saves leader in 2011, was designated for assignment. Melvin said it was tough to cut Axford, citing his veteran presence in the clubhouse. Axford went 0-1 with no saves and a 6.43 ERA in 22 appearances.

WORST IN THE FIRST

Blue Jays pitchers have an AL-worst 6.35 ERA in the first inning.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Athletics: C Josh Phegley (left oblique) was placed on the 10-day DL and C Ryan Lavarnway was recalled from Triple-A Nashville. ... RHP Ryan Dull (right knee) was activated off the DL, taking Axford's spot on the roster.

Blue Jays: Quality control coach Derek Shelton replaced first base coach Tim Leiper (illness) midway through the game.

UP NEXT

Athletics: RHP Daniel Gossett (2-5, 5.40) starts the opener of a three-game home series against Minnesota. Gossett has allowed at least one homer in seven of his first eight starts. Newly acquired LHP Jaime Garcia (4-7. 4.30) goes for the Twins.

Blue Jays: LHP J.A. Happ (3-7, 4.13) starts the opener of a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels. Happ allowed a season-high seven earned runs in his previous outing, a July 23 loss at Cleveland. RHP Parker Bridwell (4-1, 3.09) starts for the Angels.

There was so much more to Bill King’s life beyond the broadcast booth

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There was so much more to Bill King’s life beyond the broadcast booth

When the Hall of Fame presents Bill King with the Ford C. Frick award Saturday, it will be big not only for the multitude of fans that listened to him but the colleagues who worked alongside the legendary A's broadcaster.

“I think he was the very best radio sports broadcaster we’ve ever had in this country,” NBC Sports Bay Area’s Greg Papa said. “He’s just a radio genius. To me, he epitomized the Bay Area as a sportscaster because he was the Bay Area. His word choice, his vocabulary, the way he was able to describe things. In so many ways he was the perfect Bay Area radio broadcaster.”

King was the rare breed of broadcaster, someone versatile enough and knowledgable enough to excel at announcing three major sports — football with the Raiders from 1966-92, basketball with the Warriors from 1962-83 and baseball with the A’s from 1981 until his death in 2005.

It was baseball that was nearest to his heart. And while his expertise at describing a ballgame was unparalleled, there was so much more to King’s life beyond the broadcast booth. That’s something current A’s radio play-by-play man Ken Korach discovered in the decade he worked alongside King after joining the A’s in 1995.

Korach, who chronicled King’s career in the 2013 book “Holy Toledo: Lessons from Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic”, found himself visiting art museums with King during A’s road trips.

“He was a patron of the arts and the ballet, the opera,” Korach said. “One thing that people may not know is that he was a wonderful impressionist painter. He painted landscapes that were absolutely beautiful, breaththaking.”

Korach has one of King’s paintings hanging in his den.

Like King, Papa also announced three different sports at the same time for a period — football with the Raiders, basketball with the San Antonio Spurs and baseball with the A’s. When he joined the A’s television booth in 1990, King was a crucial resource for him.

“When I began doing A’s TV in 1990, I would listen to Bill and have a legal pad out and take notes,” said Papa, who still calls Raider games. “It was better than any research I could do. He was so meticulously prepared.”

Korach chuckled when recalling King’s idiosyncrasies in the booth, such as insisting the window always remain open regardless of the elements.

“Even if it was December in Cleveland, and it was a Raider game and snowing and 5 degrees, the window would stay open,” Korach said. “He was real meticulous with the way he would set up the table when broadcasting the game, all of the notes in a certain place. And the wind would just wreak havoc. There was one game when literally I was on the air and he just took all of his stuff and slammed it on the ground, he was so upset and frustrated.”

For many years King was bypassed for Cooperstown, his excellence in three sports probably robbing him of being appreciated in one specific sport. On Saturday, he gets the ultimate tribute in being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Korach and his wife, Denise, will be on hand for the ceremony.

“The most important thing,” Korach said, “is what it means to A’s fans, and fans in the Bay Area in general.”