Rewind: Bullpen drama overshadows A's victory

Rewind: Bullpen drama overshadows A's victory
April 9, 2014, 5:45 pm
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It's frustrating because I feel like I’ve been doing everything I can. I only know one way to do it, and I’m gonna fight like hell.
Jim Johnson

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In the end it was a victory, and when you’re a major league team playing on the road, that’s the bottom line.

But what exactly is the right emotion for A’s fans to feel in light of Oakland’s hard-fought 7-4 victory at Minnesota on Wednesday?

Satisfaction? To a degree.

Relief? No doubt.

Concern? You bet.

[INSTANT REPLAY: Johnson blows save, but A's win in 11]

The A’s acquired closer Jim Johnson to make sure that two-run, ninth-inning leads like Wednesday’s get stashed away without incident. That obviously isn’t the case. And while there’s joy to be found in a three-game winning streak, the A’s have some hard thinking to do about the back end of their bullpen.

Johnson, owner of back-to-back 50-save seasons with Baltimore the past two years, is struggling badly out of the gate with his new team. Through five appearances, he has two blown saves, and he’s allowed seven earned runs, nine hits and six walks in just 3 1/3 innings.

On Wednesday, Johnson was charged with protecting a 4-2 lead at Target Field and retired just one of five batters he faced. Thanks to some clutch relief work from Dan Otero – who went the final 2 2/3 innings to get the win – and a three-run homer in the 11th from Derek Norris, the A’s avoided what would have been a deflating defeat.

But the larger issue remains: Will Johnson eventually round his way into form? And in the immediate future, should the A’s install someone else as closer until he does?

Manager Bob Melvin said after the game he hasn’t decided whether he’ll make any change for the ninth.

“It's frustrating because I feel like I’ve been doing everything I can,” Johnson told reporters. “I only know one way to do it, and I’m gonna fight like hell.”

If there’s a silver lining for the A’s in this development, their bullpen is equipped to handle such turbulence, perhaps better than any other unit in the American League. They have solid alternative options for the ninth inning, including Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, Luke Gregerson and Otero.

The A’s like to think of their bullpen pieces as interchangeable to a degree, and the manner in which they’ve handled the closer’s role the past two years would attest to that.

In 2012, Balfour won the closer’s job out of the spring. But when he struggled, the A’s turned to Brian Fuentes and then Cook, who emerged as an All-Star that season. Eventually, Balfour worked his way back as the closer. He maintained that role last season, but when he showed some vulnerability and needed a break, Doolittle stepped in briefly.

So rotating relievers through the closer’s role – if that’s what they decide to do – is nothing new for the A’s.

But here’s the thing: Johnson was acquired by the A’s in a December trade with Baltimore specifically to close out games. The best way for him to mesh with his new team is to succeed at the job he was brought in to do. Just as his scoreless outings Saturday and Sunday must have bolstered his confidence, Wednesday’s struggles surely eat away at it.

How he handles this early adversity is crucial for the A’s, because their bullpen – as strong and versatile as it is – will be at its best if Johnson is closing. He’s their most experienced guy in the ninth. It’s the role he was brought in to fill.

And while victories like Wednesday’s offer their share of thrills, the A’s are better served claiming their wins in more conventional fashion.

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