A's thrive in playoff atmosphere

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A's thrive in playoff atmosphere

BOX SCORE

OAKLAND Things were different at the Oakland Coliseum Friday night. After working their loyal fan base into a froth with a second consecutive 6-1 road trip, the A's returned home to a raucous sellout crowd and a matchup with serious playoff implications.And they thrived. "It was incredible," third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "I got chills out there."The 35,067 paid attendance got chills when Donaldson initiated 5-4-3 inning-ending double plays in the fourth and sixth -- two of the A's four double plays of the night. "For a guy who was catching last year, to be able to play the defense he has for us has been spectacular," Melvin said. "He was a key part of the game tonight."Donaldson's bare-handed play in the eighth inning looked to be the defensive play of the game, until Derek Norris gunned down pinch runner Xavier Avery to end the game. "You don't see that too often," Melvin said. "That's the best throw we've seen (Norris) make." Yes, the defense was there. But a playoff team has pitching too, and Tommy Milone showed, again, that the A's have the pitching. He set the tone with first-pitch strikes to 20 of the first 21 batters he faced, and he seemed to get tougher with runners on base."That's really impressive. That's the kind of start we've seen from him all year," Melvin said. "Bends at times, but doesn't break."Milone had been 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his last five starts, but recaptured his early season dominance, looking like the pitcher that went 5-1 with a 0.91 ERA in his first eight starts. The rookie's "vintage" effort earned him a place in the record books as the first Oakland A's freshman to win 13 games."I was congratulating him on tying it and the next thing he said is, 'It's time to break it,'" Melvin said. "Just a long, long list of great pitchers here, to be able to break that record is a nice feather in his cap."Milone departed with the tying runner on base, and Pat Neshek, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour preserved his record-breaking victory when they combined for two and two-thirds innings of relief, recording three strikeouts in facing the minimum number of Orioles."The bullpen came in and took over and did what we've seen them do for the better part of the season," Melvin said.The adage states that pitching and defense win championships, but it can't be done without a little offense. The A's, who have hit the second most home runs in the majors since the All Star break, got their boost in the fourth inning when Yoenis Cespedes went deep for the third time in the last four games. Cespedes arrived at the ballpark day-to-day with a sprained right wrist, but he played all nine innings and backed up his pregame claim that he'd rest when the team gets a championship. "It's tough to give him a full day's rest at this point in the season," Melvin said. "Obviously, that was a huge home run tonight."Every pitch means the world in playoff baseball, and Friday's game had that feel, with the sellout crowd hanging on every offering."Our fans were into it," Melvin acknowledged. "It was back and forth. It was an exciting game. It had a little bit different atmosphere."It all came back to the atmosphere. "It's awesome to have the people out there like that," Balfour said after recording his 18th save of the season. "The fans we have are awesome. They get into it. Just to see that many people. It really makes a huge difference for us, I can tell you that as a player."Balfour's call to action for Oakland fans shouldn't be necessary. The A's are playing exciting baseball, and Friday night they showcased their ability to thrive when the pressure is highest."Those close ballgames like that, to come out on top is big," Balfour said. "You know going into the playoffs you're not going to have a blowout game. You're going to have two good teams, good pitching. It's going to be close, going to be tight. It's good to come out on top tonight."And you better believe the atmospheric change registered in the A's clubhouse."Heck yeah," Donaldson said. "Everywhere you go, everybody's got their A's gear on wanting to talk A's baseball. It's a great atmosphere in the city of Oakland."It's a playoff atmosphere.

Mailbag: Will A's find Healy regular playing time?

Mailbag: Will A's find Healy regular playing time?

MESA, Ariz. — The start of Cactus League games will provide some tangible results and statistics, and that will eventually give us some clarity on how the A’s 25-man roster will shake out.

Until then, it’s all speculation. And there’s no shortage of questions to ponder. With that in mind, I’ll periodically open it up to whatever is on your mind regarding this team and try to shed as much insight as I can.

And we’re off …

From @Mr_Peach33: Is Yonder Alonso going to be taking at-bats away from Ryon Healy?

Maybe it’s more accurate to say the signing of third baseman Trevor Plouffe is what threatens to eat into Healy’s playing time. By inking Plouffe to a one-year deal off the free agency market, the A’s took away a position that was solely Healy’s over the second half of 2016. This is going to be interesting to watch play out, because GM David Forst says there can still be 500 at-bats for Healy between first base, DH and occasional starts at third.

It’s hard to fathom the A’s not making it a priority to find Healy regular playing time somewhere on the diamond. I don’t buy into any thoughts that taking Healy off third somehow stunts his growth. The guy’s biggest contribution to this team will be with his bat, not his defense. And he’s played more first base over the years than third anyway, going back to his college days at Oregon. But, he absolutely needs to be in the lineup somewhere on a regular basis, based on his impressive showing in his major league debut in 2016. Maybe it’s Healy that will be taking at-bats away from Alonso.

From @mikemendonca22: Is Andrew Triggs a lock for the rotation? Where do you see Mark Canha fitting in?

Slick effort from Mike to squeeze two questions into one. I’ll try to quickly address both …

Triggs is by no means a lock for the rotation. He’s got to pitch well in exhibitions to nail down the No. 5 starter spot. But Jesse Hahn has a say in this too. He’s also got a legitimate shot to win this job, beginning with Saturday’s start against the Cubs. Triggs’ advantage is that the front office is a big believer that he can get the job done in a starting role. Hahn’s advantage is that the A’s have seen a body of work from him as a successful big league starter, when he posted a 3.35 ERA over 16 starts in 2015. That included a shutout of the Detroit Tigers.

Right now, Canha fits in as a platoon partner in right field with the left-handed hitting Matt Joyce. He could also play some left field when Khris Davis is serving as DH. Canha is an option at first base too against left-handed pitchers.

From @KennyPaul68: What are they doing bringing old guys back? Let the kids play and learn. Second base and third base should be the kids!!

I generally agree with your stance, Kenny, about going young and letting the prospects get experience and learn from their mistakes. If it’s going to be another long year in the bottom half of the AL West, and the objective viewpoint says it will be, you might as well let these talented kids play and develop. But in the A’s defense, switching Healy off third and putting him at first is OK in my book because Healy would eventually be moving to first anyway when Matt Chapman is ready. Thing is, the A’s simply don’t think Chapman is ready to take over at third base yet. His 173 strikeouts at Double-A last year would suggest perhaps they are right. So that’s why they signed veteran Trevor Plouffe to play third as a place holder until Chapman is ready.

As for second base, let’s allow this scenario to play out. Jed Lowrie is in the final year of his contract, and if he’s healthy and turns in a productive first half, you have to think he’s a legitimate trade candidate at the Aug. 1 deadline. The A’s could go with a combo of Joey Wendle/Chad Pinder at second base if Lowrie is dealt. Or, if top prospect Franklin Barreto tears it up at Triple-A, he could force the A’s hand by making them clear a spot for him to get promoted and take over at second base.

A's spring training Day 11: Doolittle eager for Casilla to arrive

A's spring training Day 11: Doolittle eager for Casilla to arrive

MESA, Ariz. — It’s been a strange spring so far for the A’s bullpen, which holds big potential but has been shorthanded early in camp.

Consider Friday a step forward, as Sean Doolittle threw off a mound for the first time since workouts began Feb. 15. He’s being eased along slowly in an effort to keep his throwing shoulder fresh and healthy.

Any day now, Oakland also hopes to add Santiago Casilla to the mix. The right-hander, who signed to a two-year $11 million deal in January, has missed the first 10 days of spring training while awaiting his visa paperwork to be completed in the Dominican Republic.

Manager Bob Melvin had no updates for the media Friday. But Doolittle, for one, eagerly anticipates Casilla’s arrival.

“We hope he gets here soon,” Doolittle said. “I think he’s going to be ready for Opening Day regardless of when he gets here.”

Casilla, who rang up 123 saves for the Giants over the past seven seasons, is projected as a key piece for the relief corps. To this point Melvin hasn’t expressed public concern about Casilla’s absence, but he said the urgency will kick in a bit if the Cactus League schedule starts unfolding and Casilla still hasn’t reported. The A’s play their first exhibition Saturday against the Chicago Cubs.

A healthy Doolittle is just as important because he’s a hard-throwing left-hander in a bullpen otherwise dominated by righties. He threw off the mound before spring training began and has said he feels good. But he and the training staff are taking the conservative route after shoulder strains have limited him to 56 games over the past two years. His 20-pitch session Friday went well.

“All fastballs, but it was coming out clean,” Doolittle said. “I was really happy with how I was able to repeat things and put the ball where I wanted to.”

Doolittle got to know Casilla during spring camp in 2008 and ’09, when Doolittle was a prospect still playing first base and Casilla was in his first stint with Oakland.

“That’s a guy I think I can learn a lot from,” he said. “A lot of guys can learn from him.”

In other bullpen news, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported Friday that Liam Hendriks has withdrawn from the World Baseball Classic and won't pitch for Team Australia.

PROSPECT WATCH: Sort of cheating to place Jharel Cotton in this section, as he’s likely to land in the starting rotation. But the right-hander was sharp facing hitters Friday.

“The deception just stands out with him,” Melvin said. “… He’s got an assortment of breaking pitches.”

Lefty A.J. Puk, last year’s first-round pick, faced hitters for the second time and gave up little in the way of hard contact, with his changeup standing out in particular.

BEST SHAPE OF HIS LIFE ALERT: After missing the majority of last season following left hip surgery, outfielder/first baseman Mark Canha has earned strong praise from Melvin early on. Canha will draw the start in left field Saturday and hit cleanup against the Cubs in the Cactus League opener.

“He worked hard in the offseason. His swing looks good,” Melvin said. “He looks like he’s in great shape and I think he’s out to prove a serious point this year — that he can be a very productive guy at the big league level, as we’ve seen before.”

As the roster stands, Canha lines up as a platoon partner with Matt Joyce in right field and could also see time at first or DH.

NOTEWORTHY: With exhibition play starting, the A’s held their final workout at the Lew Wolff Training Complex and will shift operations over to Hohokam Stadium, where they will hold batting practice and pre-game workouts.

ICYMI Catch up with third base prospect Matt Chapman and what he learned during an up-and-down year at Double-A in 2016. 

A’s president Dave Kaval talked at length about the team’s ballpark search in the most recent A’s Insider Podcast.