Boo birds descend on new A’s closer Jim Johnson


Have you ever had a couple of bad days at a new job despite trying to make a good impression? Ever have thousands of people scream at you for making a couple of mistakes? Have you ever had an angry mob tell your bosses to send you home for the day or banish you to your former employer? Welcome to Jim Johnson‘s world.

The new Oakland A’s closer hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the home crowd during the season’s opening series. Going 0-2 while coughing up five runs in just one inning of work against the Cleveland Indians has brought the boo birds out in force and left Johnson and manager Bob Melvin facing some hard questions during post-game interviews.

The A’s haven’t even completed their first homestand and Melvin’s already fielding inquiries about whether he’s worried about his closer and if the next save opporunity might go to someone else in the bullpen. And Johnson’s been stuck in front of his locker most nights with reporters crowded around him as he faces the music after another tough loss.

It’s a brutal start to Johnson’s career with the A’s, which promised to be brief even before his implosions on Monday and Wednesday. Seeing the small-budget A’s make an offseason trade with the Baltimore Orioles for a $10 million closer to replace All-Star Grant Balfour was a surprising move but it’s probably a given that Oakland will let Johnson walk as soon as he hits free agency after this season.

Despite the rough outings this week, Johnson hasn’t tried to duck any questions thrown his way after each defeat. As he told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle last night, “We should be 3-0. I’ll take the blame for that. But if I sulk and pout, it doesn’t do anyone any good.”

In his two games against the Indians, Johnson has shown good velocity with his fastball regularly hitting 94 to 95 miles per hour on the radar gun. But location has been more of an issue as the closer’s signature power sinker hasn’t been catching the bottom of the strike zone with the consistency or movement that’s helped him lead the American League in saves the past two seasons. Last night it seemed like every ball Johnson left up in the zone was tagged for a hit by Cleveland’s batters.

The obvious question on everyone’s mind is what’s wrong with Johnson. For his part, the new A’s closer sounded just as baffled by his recent performances as anyone else. “I’ve got to be me. I’ve got to trust in what I’m doing, that it’s going to get better,” Johnson told Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group after Wednesday’s game. “Something’s going to click. That’s how this game works out. You go through slumps, and just one thing can get you going, and you’re off to the races.”

For the moment, it looks like the A’s coaching staff and Johnson have a puzzle to solve. Is Johnson wilting under the pressure of impressing a new team in front of hostile fans? Is he putting too much pressure on himself to have a near-perfect season as he enters free agency? Is Johnson overthrowing the ball, gaining impressive velocity at the expense of the natural sinking action on his fastball? Is he uncomfortable working with new catcher Derek Norris? Does Johnson lack faith in the ability of Oakland’s middle infielders to turn his groundballs into rally-killing double plays. Is he disgusted by playing in a ballpark where sewage leaks into the dugout and clubhouse? Does he feel uncomfortable pitching in the team’s distinctive white shoes?

Who knows? Feel free to join the overreaction party and venture a guess.

The more you think about what might be throwing off Johnson’s performance, the more complicated things can get. But the answer to what’s behind his early struggles may be as simple as a guy having a couple of bad days at work despite his best efforts. Baseball is hard and bad days can happen to the best players.

With three games down and 159 to go, the A’s and Johnson have to hope that his rough start is just a minor bump in the road, because in a vastly improved AL West, the margin of error for winning the division promises to be dangerously slim this year.

Daric Barton gives the doubters a little fuel for the fire

Last night the Oakland A’s lost to the Cleveland Indians, 2-0, extending their streak of season-opening defeats to 10 consecutive years. Oakland failed to come up with key hits with men on base and new closer Jim Johnson coughed up 2 runs in his debut with the A’s which pretty much sealed the team’s fate on Monday.

But the frustrating baserunning of Daric Barton on Josh Donaldson‘s near-homer/world’s-longest single was obviously a key point of frustration for the A’s after the game. Barton’s suprising failure to score kept the A’s off the board when they desperately needed a run to take a late lead in the season opener.

No one seemed particularly shy about how they felt in post-game interviews:

The palpable tension all around makes for fun reading and Barton’s gaffe just adds fuel to the fire for the segment of fans who never wanted to see him make the club out of spring training. In Barton’s defense, he made some slick plays at first base and he reached base twice while driving up pitch counts with his signature patient approach.

Ultimately, if the A’s came up with one or two key hits and Johnson shut down the Indians in the ninth inning last night, Barton’s misadventures on the basepaths probably wouldn’t be a topic of discussion after the game. But expectations are high in Oakland this year as the team pursues a third division title in a row and little mistakes like the one Barton made last night can add up by the end of the year, costing the A’s a few valuable wins when there’s little margin for error in the American League playoff chase.

If Barton really wants to prove the doubters wrong he didn’t do himself any favors with his baserunning last night.

Sizing up the Oakland A’s and AL West on Opening Night


The A’s finally get back to playing games that count when they open their 2014 season against the Cleveland Indians tonight in Oakland and first pitch can’t come a moment to soon for this die-hard fan. I took a look at the team’s Opening Day roster decisions and what the A’s learned in spring training over at Hot Stove Baseball but there’s always more for me to ramble about when it comes to the green and gold:

  • BREAK THE STREAK: If it feels like the A’s haven’t won on Opening Day for a long time, it’s because they haven’t. Oakland hasn’t come out on top in its first game of the season since 2004 when the team beat Texas, 5-4. Want a blast from the past? Chad Bradford got the win and Arthur Rhodes got the save that day and the lineup featured Eric Karros as the starting first baseman. Drawing the Cleveland Indians tonight should help the A’s chances of finally winning on Opening Night after hitting a brick wall in Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners for the past four years. I know Opening Night is just one game out of 162, but it’s still nice to kick the season off with a win.
  • A.J. GRIFFIN: I’m cautiously optimistic that Griffin can come back from elbow tendinitis and be an effective, reliable member of the A’s rotation all season. But that gut feeling is heavy on the caution and light on the optimism considering the fact that an entire offseason of rest didn’t cure what ails Griffin. I’m not sold on a month or so of rest along with a shot of platelet-rich plasma and some rehab getting Griffin back to full speed but I have my fingers crossed.
  • MICHAEL CHOICE: Admit it, you’re going to be keeping a close eye on what the former A’s prospect does in Texas while crossing your fingers that Craig Gentry plays a big role in Oakland winning the AL West again. Nervously viewing the Gentry-Choice trade in the same light as the Milton Bradley-Andre Ethier trade may be a little lazy but it’s impossible to avoid. At least Ethier did his damage in the National League. If Choice develops into a power hitting beast in Texas he’ll torture the A’s for years in the AL West.
  • STEPHEN VOGT: Reading about Vogt getting choked up and holding back tears after learning that we was being sent to Triple A Sacramento despite hitting the cover off the ball actually pulled at the hearstrings of this cold-hearted A’s fan. Vogt’s rise to the big leagues is a fantastic story, his game-winning hit in the 2013 playoffs will never be forgotten and on top of all that, he sounds like a genuinely good guy. You pull for players like that and it was brutal seeing him squeezed out of the Opening Day roster. But with John Jaso‘s susceptability to concussions, Vogt is just a couple of foul tips away from being in Oakland for most of the season. He’ll be back and he’ll be a part of any success the A’s enjoy in 2014.
  • Daric Barton refuses to go away.

    Daric Barton refuses to go away.

    DARIC BARTON: I’m sure there’s segment of the A’s fanbase that’s starting to view Barton as the baseball equivalent of crud stubbornly stuck to the bottom of a shoe. No matter how hard you try to scrape it off, the crud just won’t go away. Breaking camp with Barton penciled in for regular playing time may not be popular, but everyone’s favorite whipping boy is going to be standing on the foul line during Opening Night introductions so there’s no point in hoping for anything but the best out of Barton. I have to tip my hat to the kid for the perseverance he’s shown over the years. He knows he doesn’t exactly have a big fan club but he seems to be using the doubters as motivation. If it leads to some key hits and slick defensive plays I’ll take it.

  • TEXAS RANGERS: With Jarrod Parker, Griffin, Ryan Cook and Gentry on the shelf for the A’s, I’m relieved that the Rangers are also dealing with their fair share of bumps and bruises right now. On paper, it doesn’t look like they’re in position to pull away from the pack early in the season. But we’ll soon discover whether Texas’ patchwork starting rotation is ready for prime time.
  • THE ANGELS AND MARINERS: I’ve gotten so used to the A’s and Rangers being the top dogs in the AL West that I keep catching myself dismissing Anaheim and Seattle these days. If Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have rebound seasons the Angels won’t need great pitching to make some noise in the division. And the Mariners just need their young players to provide Robinson Cano with a supporting cast for them to move into contention if their pitching comes together.
  • HOUSTON ASTROS: Smart money says they’re still going to be cellar dwellers in the AL West but Houston should be halfway decent which is a vast improvement over last season’s 100-loss club. The rebuild is going to pay off soon for the Astros and winning the AL West is going to be harder than ever for the A’s now that everyone in the division is rising to the challenge of keeping up with Oakland and Texas.
  • JOE BLANTON: The big guy is back and he’s scheduled to report to Sacramento to try and get back on track and provide the A’s with some insurance if the starting rotation needs reiforcements. You knew general manager Billy Beane would start dumpster diving for some affordable arms as soon as Parker and Griffin went down. Blanton’s about as interesting as any of the other veteran options out there who are willing to eat up some innings at Triple A with no guaranteed call to the big leagues. Now that Blanton’s back, it’s time to sign fellow 2006 A’s starters Barry Zito and Rich Harden.

In a few hours (weather permitting), the A’s will start the 162-game grind to pursue a third-consecutive AL West title. There’s obviously no guarantee that the regular season will end with champagne flowing in the locker room again but if the past few seasons are any prove anything, there definitely won’t be many dull moments for manager Bob Melvin’s talented and colorful ballclub.

Thinking way too much about every MLB team on Opening Day

9953__mlb_opening_day-event-2014

A quick run through some totally random gut feelings and stuff I’m looking forward to, or dreading, now that another season of baseball is finally upon us:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

EAST

  • Grady Sizemore hasn't been healthy since his glory days in Cleveland but he's on the comeback trail with Boston.

    Grady Sizemore hasn’t been healthy since his glory days in Cleveland but he’s on the comeback trail with Boston.

    Boston Red Sox – Sure, it’ll be interesting to find out whether Boston can win back-to-back championships but I’m more interested in seeing how Grady Sizemore‘s comeback pans out. Just making it to Opening Day as Boston’s starting center fielder is fantastic story, I just hope it has a happy ending by the time the season wraps up. Sizemore’s a spectacular talent who deserves a break after too many years lost to injury.

  • Tampa Bay Rays – They’re the A’s small-market counterpart in the AL East and it’s impossible to root against’em as they go toe-to-toe with the AL East’s well-heeled powerhouses. Manager Joe Maddon‘s crew is once again in position to take the division race right down to the wire and they’re a good bet to be one of the league’s best teams in 2014 despite their modest payroll. Gotta love that.
  • Baltimore Orioles – With two free agents in and two relatively high draft picks out during the offseason, it’ll be interesting to see whether Baltimore’s win-now moves to acquire Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz pays off with glory in the regular season. Manny Machado‘s health, Tommy Hunter‘s ability to fill Jim Johnson‘s shoes as closer and the emergence of a reliable second baseman may have as much to do with Baltimore’s success as anything Jimenez and Cruz do.
  • New York Yankees – The Bronx Bombers spent a zillion dollars over the winter and they’re definitely vastly improved with Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran donning pinstripes. But their infield looks like a wasteland of over-the-hill stars and other teams’ discards. Maybe it’s just the small-market fan in me, but there’s always something satisfying about seeing the Yankees miss the playoffs. Hopefully all their spending won’t pay off with an appearance in October this year.
  • Toronto Blue Jays – Last season the Jays failed to live up to the hype, bombing in the AL East in 2013 despite an aggressive offseason. Now that all the pressure is off and no one is expecting much out of Toronto it’ll be interesting to see if they can sneak up on the AL East and make some noise in the playoff race. A healthy, productive Brett Lawrie and solid work out of questionable rotation will go a long way toward digging the Blue Jays out of the cellar.

Continue reading

Burgers, karaoke, biased umps and the world’s oldest former big leaguer

Just looking at this thing makes my arteries hurt. If you're a Rays fan and you can put this baby away there are some free tickets to a ballgame with your name all over it.

Just looking at this thing makes my arteries hurt. If you’re a Rays fan and you can put this baby away there are some free tickets to a ballgame waiting for you.

If you’re a baseball nut like me, your Twitter timeline has been chock full of roster moves, inane spring training game updates and fantasy baseball blather lately.

But there’s always a handful of tweets that catch my eye and lead my down the rabbit hole of the Internet as I follow shared links to a mix of odd, interesting and entertaining stories. This week we have a whopper of an eating challenge, partying in Korea, biased umpires (I knew it) and the world’s oldest former big leaguer: