Athletics

Rewind: Identifying a 2017 closer is crucial task for A's

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Rewind: Identifying a 2017 closer is crucial task for A's

Looking ahead to next season, the A’s will have a nice collection of parts from which to build their bullpen.

However, identifying a full-time closer is one major item for the spring training to-do list.

That’s not a knee-jerk reaction to Friday’s 7-6 walk-off loss to the Rangers, in which Ryan Madson blew his seventh save of the season as Texas erased a 6-5 deficit in the ninth.

Madson has done an admirable job as Oakland’s closer, particularly considering this wasn’t a role he was originally slated for. The A’s signed him to a three-year $22 million contract in the offseason to be a shutdown setup man for Sean Doolittle. But Doolittle was still finding his form during spring training after prolonged shoulder issues sidelined him for most of 2015.

[STIGLICH: Instant Replay: Madson blows save, Rangers walk off on A's]

Madson was manager Bob Melvin’s choice for the ninth from Opening Night onward, even though he maintained early on that he was picking his closer based on matchups. The 36-year-old Madson has responded with 30 saves, just two shy of the career-high 32 he notched with the Phillies in 2011. At this stage of his career, the A’s probably couldn’t have expected more in turning to Madson as the regular closer.

But given his age, and the fact he’s been prone to the occasional ninth-inning mishap, it’s fair to say that the A’s best bullpen scenario for 2017 would probably have Madson returning to a setup role. Yet for that to happen, someone else needs to emerge as closer.

Doolittle is the logical candidate to return to his former role. He once again was hindered by shoulder problems this season. But lately he’s been showing the life and velocity on his fastball that’s so crucial for him. He’s also mixed in the occasional slider with success, and should that become a consistently reliable second offering next season, Doolittle could find himself back handling the ninth, though his health can’t exactly be taken for granted.

John Axford, who like Madson has prior closer experience, has battled inconsistency. Liam Hendriks has emerged as an effective reliever since returning from a triceps strain, and Ryan Dull enjoyed his record-setting run of stranding runners on base in the first half. But none of them seems an ideal candidate to close based on their total body of work.

It’s also hard to see the A’s going out this winter and spending big to acquire a closer, given how aggressive they were last offseason, spending $32 million on multi-year deals for both Madson and Axford, plus trading for Hendriks and Marc Rzepczynski (who has since been dealt away).

The A’s may have multiple decent options to close, but no slam-dunk favorite. Their situation could be a lot worse, but it leaves a big question to answer as the offseason approaches.

**

Though his night was overshadowed by the walk-off loss, A’s center fielder Brett Eibner enjoyed his biggest game as a major leaguer, hitting a three-run homer with a career-high four RBI. Eibner lined an RBI single in the fourth and followed with a three-run laser over the wall in left in the sixth.

Now’s the time to shine for the 27-year-old Eibner, who hadn’t reached the majors until the Royals called him up in May. He was traded to Oakland for Billy Burns in July but had been mostly quiet since joining the A’s until this road trip. He’s seen time in all three outfield spots, and the A’s are busy evaluating lots of players because they’re looking at an unsettled outfield situation entering next spring. Left fielder Khris Davis is the only player guaranteed to start, and even he figures to see lots of time as the designated hitter.

Bregman's big night against A's catches attention of his counterpart

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USATSI

Bregman's big night against A's catches attention of his counterpart

HOUSTON — A subplot to Friday night’s game at Minute Maid Park is one that will likely repeat itself often over the next few years.

The A’s and Astros boast two of the better young third basemen in the American League in Matt Chapman and Alex Bregman. Both are under 25, excellent with the glove and sure to face each other plenty as AL West opponents. The difference right now is Bregman is a key piece to a team likely to contend for the World Series.

Dallas Keuchel dominated the A’s on the mound Friday, but he got a huge assist from his 23-year-old third baseman.

Bregman made several standout defensive plays and drilled an opposite-field homer off Sean Manaea in the Astros’ 3-1 victory. Paying close attention from the opposing dugout was Chapman, who’s part of the A’s young nucleus that’s taking its lumps as it tries to learn how to win consistently at the major league level.

“He definitely showed up ready to play today,” Chapman said of Bregman. “He was all over the place at third base. I like to watch opposing third basemen and see what they kind of do. He’s definitely good at his craft.”

The two know each other well. Chapman, 24, played at Cal State Fullerton while Bregman attended LSU. They never faced each other in college, but they played together on Team USA in the summer of 2013, and Chapman praised the way Bregman goes about the game.

“(Bregman) literally is a shortstop playing third,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “So the ones on the run, especially to his backhand, he’s used to making those plays. He was significant in where the game went.”

Bregman has filled in at shortstop lately for Houston with Carlos Correa on the disabled list, though Marwin Gonzalez played short Friday.

Manaea, his fastball still lacking its typical zip of late, went six solid innings and showed improvement after three consecutive poor outings. The difference Friday was his ability to pitch inside better. He had a good changeup to offset a slider that he’s still trying to rediscover the feel for.

“I was just trying to let loose and not worry too much about the little things —mechanics , pitch grips, finishing through the ball,” Manaea said. “Today I just threw everything out the window and let my arm take care of everything.”

But his margin for error was minuscule with Keuchel dealing over seven innings of three-hit ball. Manaea fell behind Bregman 2-0 in the third and watched Bregman deposit a ball into the right field seats. Manaea then got ahead 0-2 on the next hitter, MVP candidate Jose Altuve. He tried to go high and tight with a fastball but caught too much plate, and Altuve made it back-to-back homers.

Former Athletic Josh Reddick singled home another run off Manaea in the sixth for a 3-0 Houston lead.

That was sufficient for Keuchel, whose repertoire was an eye-opener for Chapman and some of the A’s other young hitters. Chapman -- who came in leading AL rookies in runs, homers, RBI and extra base hits since the All-Star break -- doubled off the lefty in the fifth. But the A's only run came on Matt Joyce's eighth-inning homer against reliever Chris Devenski.

“(Keuchel) was getting ahead,” Chapman said. “If he happened to fall behind, he was still making quality pitches. You can prepare as much as you want, but until you get out there and see for yourself, that’s how you make adjustments.”

Instant Analysis: Five takeaways as A's can't find answers vs Keuchel

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Instant Analysis: Five takeaways as A's can't find answers vs Keuchel

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON — Sean Manaea was much improved Friday night over his previous three starts for the A’s.

Unfortunately for the left-hander, he had no control over the work of his counterpart on the mound.

Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel was at his ground ball-inducing best, frustrating the A’s over seven scoreless innings as Houston continued its recent dominance over Oakland with a 3-1 victory in the opener of a three-game series at Minute Maid Park.

Keuchel recorded 17 of his 21 outs via ground ball, an astonishing rate but typical of the way the 2015 AL Cy Young winner likes to do business. He entered the night leading the major leagues in groundball percentage (64.7) among those with at least 90 innings pitched. Keuchel (11-2) got a big assist from his infield defense, particularly third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Marwin Gonzalez.

Manaea went six innings and gave up three runs, including back-to-back solo homers from Bregman and Jose Altuve in the third. But it was a definite step forward after his previous three outings, in which he surrendered 13 earned runs and 21 hits over just 6 2/3 innings.

The A’s mustered just five hits. Aside from Matt Joyce’s homer in the eighth, they didn’t advance a single runner past second base.

Oakland has dropped 11 of 13 games to Houston so far this season.

IMPROVED SHOWING: After showing signs of fatigue in his recent starts, Manaea showed improved form simply based on the batters he retired. His fastball generally sat between 89-91, still a bit below normal, but he overall pitched more effectively and turned in his longest outing since going seven innings July 27. He gave up six hits over his six innings, struck out two and walked one. A wild pitch in the sixth hurt, as it set up Josh Reddick’s RBI single.

HEY, IT’S PROGRESS: Seeing Manaea get through a scoreless first inning was noteworthy, as the A’s had gone five consecutive games with allowing at least one run in the first.

PINDER DEBUTS IN CENTER: Matt Olson entered the game as a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth, then went to right field in the bottom half. That pushed Chad Pinder over to center field, his first time playing the position in the major leagues. Manager Bob Melvin has mentioned Pinder is likely to draw some starts in center before the end of the season.

STRIKEOUTS MOUNTING FOR KD: After striking out four times Wednesday, the A’s cleanup man struck out three more times Friday. His 158 strikeouts entering the night were tied for eighth most in franchise history.

CATCHING UPDATE: Josh Phegley, coming back from a strained oblique, has played two games for Triple-A Nashville on a rehab assignment. Melvin said the A’s are not going to rush Phegley. Part of that is they think highly of the work Dustin Garneau has done in his place as the right-handed portion of the catching platoon with Bruce Maxwell.