A's relievers pitching in for the community

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A's relievers pitching in for the community

OAKLAND -- What better place to meet Oakland Athletics mascot Stomper than at the Oakland Zoo with his fellow pachyderms? On Friday, 230 fourth and fifth graders from the Achieve Academy in Oakland had that opportunity. As part of the event, the kids were fed free pizza, got to meet Santa Claus and A's pitchers Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle. The event at the zoo was the most recent stop on the A's Holiday Caravan.

Though the A's Community Fund, the team and its employees make appearances and help raise money and awareness for community-based initiatives. For the two young relievers involved in this year's activity, it is an opportunity to use their new-found influence for good.

"It's really, really rewarding to be able to use what we do to help," Doolittle said while signing autograph cards for the kids at the zoo.

"We're in a position with what we do, being professional athletes, where we have the ability to draw attention to people in need, or deserving causes," Cook added.

Cook, 25, and Doolittle, 26, emerged as two of the top relievers in Major League Baseball in their rookie seasons with Oakland last year. Cook posted a 2.09 ERA in 71 games and was named an American League All-Star. Doolittle, who was drafted as a first baseman, worked his way up from the Instructional Leagues after converting back to a pitcher. He ripped through the Minor Leagues in just 16 appearances and posted a 3.04 ERA in 44 games with the Oakland, earning his first career win and save with the A's.

Suffice it to say, the two pitchers are a bit more recognizable amongst the kids in the East Bay. That makes it easier to pitch in.

"It's a great feeling," Cook said of interacting with the students at the zoo. "They start pointing and showing that they support us and know who we are. To be able to give back and acknowledge the hard work that they've done in the classroom, it speaks hugely to them as individuals that they are willing to put in that hard work to become something."

As part of their tour, Cook and Doolittle did appearances at the Comcast SportsNet studios and the home of 95.7 The Game. They also spent Thursday night in Walnut Creek collecting canned goods for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano as part of a hunger relief effort with Feeding America and Bank of America. After a couple of days serving the community, the two pitchers were particularly touched by the outpouring support they got during the food drive.

"These people waited outside, and it was cold outside, for quite a bit," Doolittle said. "To be able to draw attention to the less fortunate or maybe someone in need and to have helped in that process was really cool and an example of why the A's fans are some of the best in baseball."

At the A's Community Fund event at the Zoo I was able to spend some time with both Cook and Doolittle and I asked them about their offseason, the losses of key veterans, and how they feel about the American League West in 2013. The full transcript is below.

Last year you were rookies, what's it like entering the season as established Major Leaguers?

Cook: It's the same in terms of how we go about our business. Obviously the situation is a little different that we are thrown into. I don't think that really effects anything in terms of the way I go about my business. We got a little taste of success this last year and we all saw how the season ended. And that taste of success as a team drives you individually to be a little bit better, do a little bit more to go to that next step and hopefully further into the playoffs and beyond.

Doolittle: It's not that much different. You still have the same hunger and the same drive when you are getting ready and hitting the weights and stuff. Last offseason it was because I was trying to resurrect my career as a pitcher and that was my motivating force behind everything. This year it's because of the success that we had and the way the season ended. Now knowing we are into next year with maybe a little bit of a target on our backs as the American League West champs. We want to continue to improve on that and continue to move forward. In a sense that's not good enough. We want to continue to improve on that. That drive and that hunger, and everything we do in the offseason is for maybe a little different of a reason this time.

It's tough to lose guys like Brandon McCarthy and Jonny Gomes but it has to be nice to see they got good deals, right?

Cook: Absolutely, individually speaking and from a family's point of view, both guys got what they deserved. They've proven that over the years and we're happy as all hell for them, but we're going to miss them because those guys played an integral role in what we did as a team and to our overall success. Both being veteran presences and not having many veterans on the team last year they both really helped. They both played big roles in my life and I'm sure Sean can attest to that as well.

Doolittle: They both did what was best for themselves and their families. They both got every bit of what they deserve. Jonny is going to have a field day in Boston with the Green Monster and the way the field plays, that media market is going to be eating out of his hand by the end of Spring Training. McCarthy has gone to a really first class organization in the Diamondbacks. At the same time we're happy for them yes, but you're sad in a way because things in the clubhouse are going to be a bit different. Those were two of our leaders. McCarthy was, for lack of a better term, one of the captains of the pitching staff. He helped us young guys in a lot of ways just by treating us not necessarily as rookies but as teammates. To be able to watch him go about his business even just the three months that I was there I learned a lot that I will continue to use throughout my career.

As a lefty reliever what do you think about Josh Hamilton joining the Angels?

Doolittle: If you look at it… He's in a very similar situation as he will be in the middle of another high-powered offense. He's in the middle of a lineup with dangerous guys in front of him and behind him. In Texas you had (Ian) Kinsler and (Elvis) Andrus before him and after him you had (Adrian) Beltre, (Nelson) Cruz, and Michael Young. With the Angels you have (Mike) Trout in front of him and behind him he's got (Albert) Pujols and (Mark)Trumbo, so it's a very similar thing so we're just going to have to not get caught up in the names and just attack them like we did last year.

You guys are the reigning AL West champions and there's still room to improve the team, but again you guys are going to be looked at as underdogs. Can you thrive on that role again?

Doolittle: Regardless of what any body else says, just talking to other guys this offseason there's a feeling that we want to prove that it wasn't a fluke. That it wasn't a one-time deal where everything fell into place and we caught every possible break. We want to prove to every body that we earned it, and that we deserve it, and we are looking to be a force in this division for a long period of time and I think we have the tools to do that with the young guys and the way that this front office is going to assembled this year's team and moving forward. We are the defending champs but we are out to prove that it wasn't an accident.

Cook: I think Sean hit it right on the head. We've just got to stick to our business. We didn't get any media attention last year and that's really fine. That's actually good. Last year we were young and dumb and not a lot of us had actually been there before. This year it's kind of the same thing. As you alluded to with the Angels signing Hamilton and the national media not real considering us as front runners even though we are the champions. We'll come out and look to do the same thing we did last year and keep going about our business and try to win ballgames.

A's spring training Day 38: Alonso's offense comes to life

A's spring training Day 38: Alonso's offense comes to life

MESA, Ariz. — Yonder Alonso’s value usually gets discussed in terms of his defense, but the A’s first baseman is putting together a very impressive spring with the bat.

The A’s poured it on the Milwaukee Brewers in a 15-5 rout Thursday, and Alonso led the parade with two homers and three RBI. Both shots came off Junior Guerra, and the first would have cleared the right field wall had it been pushed back 30 feet farther.

Alonso is hitting .382 with four homers in Cactus League play. He says the extra work he’s putting in with hitting coach Darren Bush is paying off, and manager Bob Melvin likes what he sees from a player who hit .253 last year and knocked just seven home runs for the entire regular season.

“He’s had a great approach from the minute he got here,” Melvin said. “He and Bushy had a plan. He’s using the whole field a little bit more, which keeps him on breaking balls, which allows him to track fastballs a little bit more. He’s hit a couple balls good to left-center as well.”

The A’s love the defense they get from Alonso at first, but getting more thump from him offensively would be a boost for Oakland, which finished last in the American League in runs last season. His on-base percentage dropped to .316 last season, well below his career average of .334. That’s where a more patient approach could pay off, and that’s another focus with Alonso this season.

Right now, the plan is for the left-handed hitting Alonso to platoon at first with Ryon Healy, who will also see time at DH and third base.

“I think every day I’m coming in with a plan,” Alonso said. “Mentally and physically I feel fine. I’m ready to roll. I’m ready to continue to battle and continue to grind and have solid at-bats.”

CAMP BATTLE: A day after Andrew Triggs looked very sharp, another rotation candidate responded with his best start of the spring. Raul Alcantara gave up two runs over 5 1/3 innings against the Brewers, very much keeping his hopes alive for one of Oakland’s two open rotation spots. His outing was easy to overlook on a day the A’s hit four home runs and collected 18 hits total. But it was a timely effort for Alcantara, who is batting Triggs and Jesse Hahn for rotation jobs. Hahn’s next start is Saturday.

“His breaking ball, he struggled throwing it for strikes early and then found it, which is an attribute you want to see,” Melvin said of Alcantara. “It ended up being his best outing for us.”

Melvin said he thinks the battle for the Nos. 4 and 5 starter spots will go down to the wire.

NOTEWORTHY: Lefty Daniel Coulombe, trying to nail down a spot in the bullpen, threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings. After surrendering at least one run in each of his first five appearances, Coulombe has held opponents without a run in each of his last two outings (4 1/3 IP).

ODDS AND ENDS: Trevor Plouffe and Max Schrock hit the A’s other home runs along with Alonso’s two shots. Plouffe’s was an opposite-field blast to right. He’s hitting .361. Schrock was borrowed from minor league camp and went deep to right-center. … Ross Detwiler couldn’t shut the door in the ninth, retiring just two of the eight hitters he faced and allowing two walks and three runs. … Second baseman Joey Wendle, sidelined by a sore right shoulder, was scheduled to play catch for the first time in more than a week Thursday. He underwent an MRI a week ago that he said showed no significant damage. … Outfielder Jaff Decker (oblique) did all activity except take full batting practice. He seems to be progressing well and may still have a chance to battle for a roster spot.

Graveman takes to leadership role while Gray is sidelined

Graveman takes to leadership role while Gray is sidelined

MESA, Ariz. — Kendall Graveman feels comfortable with the leadership role that comes with being the A’s Opening Night starter, but he pointed out how all the starters will carry the load together.

“I told BoMel this morning when he told me, I said ‘I’m the No. 1 starter for Opening Night, but then whoever is the second guy is the No. 1 starter for us the next night,’ and that’s the way we have to go about it to be successful,” Graveman said Thursday afternoon.

That’s a message that Graveman says he’s already trying to spread to Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton, the starters who will follow him in the rotation. Oakland’s final two rotation spots are up for grabs.

With Sonny Gray sidelined by injury for what’s expected to be most of April, Graveman — with all of 52 major league starts under his belt — becomes the veteran leader of the A’s staff in the interim. Manager Bob Melvin gave Graveman the official word Thursday morning that he would take the ball April 3 against the Angels at the Coliseum. But shortly after Gray went down with a strained lat muscle March 7, Melvin approached Graveman about being his likely Opening Night guy.

It’s a natural fit. Graveman went 10-11 with a 4.11 ERA last season, and while those aren’t eye-catching numbers, they don’t tell the story of how valuable he was as the A’s lost starter after starter to injury.

Graveman has improved his mental preparation and his physical conditioning since coming over from Toronto in the Josh Donaldson trade. He’s become a meticulous studier to get ready for his starts. He’s picked the brain of veterans such as Gray and Barry Zito, who he played alongside with Triple-A Nashville for part of 2015.

And, not to be overlooked, his stuff and pitch arsenal have improved since he first arrived to the A’s. Though he’s a sinkerballer who relies more on location than velocity, the A’s clocked Graveman as high as 98 miles per hour on the radar gun in his last start.

“He’s kind of on a mission to be one of those guys that pitches at top of the rotation for many years to come,” Melvin said.