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April 26, 2013
A's offense goes cold again in 3-0 loss; Doolittle honing slider

OAKLAND -- The A's offense has been a case of feast or famine this month, and Friday night they were starving. Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen gave up a Coco Crisp single and Nate Freiman double over eight innings, and Jed Lowrie hit a blooper off closer Jim Johnson that fell in for a double in the ninth inning of Oakland's 3-0 loss.

It was the sixth time already this season the A's have been held to one or zero runs -- a quarter of their games. And yet they ended the night still the highest-scoring team in all of baseball this season with 126 runs, three ahead of the Colorado Rockies. Take away a 13-0 win in Boston and the A's have scored a total of 17 runs in losing seven of their last eight games.

"We were very good early on and we've hit a dry spell at this point," said manager Bob Melvin. "There have been some games where we've been shut down. We have to find the consistency. We have the ability to do it. We're just in a little bit of a rut right now and we've got to fight our way out of it."

That didn't happen against Chen, who set a career high with the eight scoreless innings and allowed four baserunners (two walks) while striking out five. No A's runner got to third base. Frieman's double, which hit off the wall in right-center, was the hardest-hit of the night, though Lowrie was robbed of extra bases in the fourth inning by Adam Jones, who made a leaping catch at the wall on a dead run.

Chen has made three starts against the A's since the beginning of last season and is 3-0 with a 0.44 ERA. The one earned run allowed in 20 2/3 innings was a solo home run by Jonny Gomes. Otherwise, nothing.

"He does a little something different each and every time, but at the end of the day he's got a fastball that gets on you a little quicker than you think," Melvin said. "He pitches up with it in the zone, up and down, and gets a lot of pop-ups and fly balls. Probably a few more sliders today, early-count breaking balls, but it's the fastball we have trouble with."

Indeed, the A's made a total of three ground-ball outs against Chen, who recorded 16 outs in the air. The A's didn't exactly make Chen work for those outs, either. When he came out to start the sixth inning, he had thrown just 59 pitches.

"We know we're better than this," Lowrie said. "We're not playing with a whole lot of energy. We've faced some guys that have pitched well, but I don't think we've put up enough of a fight against those guys that have pitched well."

* A's left-hander Tommy Milone matched Chen's zeroes until the seventh inning despite pitching through a lot more traffic. Milone stranded runners in every inning but the fourth and sixth, and the lone run he allowed was unearned. J.J. Hardy singled leading off the seventh inning and Gold Glove right fielder Josh Reddick bobbled the ball, then slipped trying to pick it up while Hardy advanced to second. Two batters later, Hardy scored on a single up the middle by Steve Pearce.

"When you're in close games, you have to play flawless defense," Melvin said.

Milone now has a 1.77 ERA in three starts at home this season, while allowing four earned runs in each of his two road starts. In a very small sample size, that's continuing a trend from last season, when Milone's ERA was a full two runs higher away from the Coliseum (4.83 to 2.74) and he gave up three times as many home runs (18 to 6).

Assuming the A's stay in rotation, Milone's next start will be at home against the Angels, followed by a road start at Cleveland.

* Lowrie, making his first start at second base, had a conspicuous day in the field. In the second inning, it was ruled Lowrie didn't keep a foot on second base as he reached for a high throw from third baseman Josh Donaldson on a potential double play. The error was charged to Donaldson.

Lowrie said he thought he kept his foot on the bag. It left the Orioles with two on and one out, but was nullified a play later when Alexi Casilla hit into a 6-4-3 double play, with Lowrie hanging in to make the turn with Steve Pearce bearing down on him.

In the ninth, pinch hitter Nate McLouth hit a bases-loaded ground ball to Lowrie that kicked off Lowrie's glove, leaving everyone safe and allowing a run to score.

Lowrie played shortstop for the first 23 games of this season and all of last season in Houston. He played three innings of one game at second base in 2011 with Boston and had made 26 starts there before Friday. Before the game, he said the news he'd be at second Friday with Adam Rosales sliding in at shortstop was "a little out of the blue."

"I felt all right," Lowrie said afterward. "Obviously need some more reps if they're going to have me playing there more."

Melvin indicated that's a distinct possibility on days when Rosales is in the lineup. Lowrie will likely play shortstop when the A's face right-handed pitchers and Eric Sogard is in the lineup at second.

* Sean Doolittle pitched a scoreless 1 1/3 innings that included three strikeouts, two of left-handed hitters on the slider he tinkered with in the offseason and spring training. In spring, Doolittle was still trying to get a feel for the pitch, which is basically a tighter version of the curveball he threw sparingly last year.

Doolittle said he's now "really comfortable" with the pitch, having continued to work on it in bullpen sessions and side work. "It's only gotten better since spring training."

He struck out Nick Markakis looking on the pitch to end the seventh, later saying he might have gotten away with a high strike but Markakis was likely fooled by the break following two high fastballs. The next inning, cleanup hitter Chris Davis struck out swinging at the slider in a 2-2 count.

According to the analytics website FanGraphs, Doolittle has thrown the breaking ball slightly more frequently this season than last while nearly abandoning his changeup altogether. He said that isn't entirely accurate -- he'll still throw the changeup, especially to right-handers. But his main weapon is still the fastball.

That was on display on his third strikeout Friday. Doolittle threw seven fastballs in a row to right-hander Adam Jones, four of which Jones fouled off before finally going down swinging on a pitch clocked at 96 mph.

* Yoenis Céspedes made his second rehab start at Triple-A Sacramento and went 2-for-3 with a three-run home run. Céspedes also singled, walked and scored three times before leaving the game after his scheduled four plate appearances. Melvin said if everything went well Friday night, Céspedes would start at designated hitter for the River Cats on Saturday and likely rejoin the A's when he's eligible to come off the disabled list Sunday.

-- Matt Kawahara

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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