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May 19, 2013
Even in slump, Cespedes maintains flair for dramatic in A's win

OAKLAND -- It's safe to say the level of concern over Yoenis Cespedes' recent slump -- he came into Sunday's game with four hits in his last 38 at-bats -- was not high. Not from manager Bob Melvin, who kept pointing out Cespedes was having better at-bats recently and making hard contact. Not from catcher Derek Norris, who flat-out said: "I don't think anybody's too concerned with him."

And certainly not from Cespedes himself, who said of his track record in Cuba: "The way that I work, I believe everything's going to be fine." So after his tie-breaking home run in the eighth inning of Sunday's 4-3 A's win over the Royals, Cespedes said there were no sighs of relief as he rounded the bases -- just thoughts of securing the sweep in the ninth.

"He's a very confident guy," Melvin said. "It's never really a lack of confidence with him."

Cespedes, who also singled in the fourth Sunday to make it his first multi-hit game since May 4, said he has gotten off to slow starts before when playing in Cuba and always hit his way out of them over the course of the season. "I don't know if it's going to start right now or later, but the way I've been working ... I know it's going to be good," he said.

Cespedes said he went up in the eighth against Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera knowing Herrera relies heavily on a mid-90s fastball, and that "the only thing I was looking for was try to find a good pitch, make hard contact." Herrera threw him two fastballs -- both at 96 mph -- one that he watched for ball one, and one that he crushed over the wall in left-center field for his eighth homer of the season.

It was also the seventh of Cespedes' 31 career home runs with the A's that has either tied the game or put the A's ahead in the seventh inning or later. "He has a flair for that," said Melvin. "There's no question."

Norris said the A's dugout was tuned into Cespedes' at-bat, conscious of the fact that "he may be struggling as far as batting average, but the power is still there."

"Personally I think the harder the guy throws, the better chance (Cespedes) has," Norris said. "The guys that throw harder usually rely on their fastball more because it is so explosive, and I think that's one of his strengths is being able to hit power pitching.

"So I think that's just going right into his hands."

* There'll be more on Cespedes in tomorrow's print story, including a piece of advice he received in Cuba that led him to tweak his approach Sunday after popping out behind the plate in his first at-bat. As for the bigger picture, the A's managed to sweep this series from the Royals despite falling behind in all three games and scoring a total of eight runs.

That, of course, means they pitched. A.J. Griffin on Sunday was not as sharp as Jarrod Parker on Friday night or as elusive as Tommy Milone on Saturday. Griffin walked three Royals -- as many as in his previous three starts combined -- and allowed two of them to score. But in a theme of the series, he went six innings and kept the A's close while they chipped away at the early deficit.

"It's really frustrating, man," Griffin said of the walks. "When you don't even make a guy earn his way on base it's tough, and then to let them capitalize on it and score, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

"But guys kept battling at the plate and they found a way to get it done. And it's a huge testament to the mental toughness we have on this team."

* The A's also got an encouraging performance from an undermanned bullpen. Both Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour were unavailable except in emergency after pitching the past two nights. So Melvin said the eighth and ninth were going to go to Jerry Blevins and Ryan Cook, respectively, with the rest of the bullpen left to fill in the remainder.

As it turned out, the A's needed only Hideki Okajima in his Oakland debut -- and first appearance in a major-league game since 2011 with the Red Sox. Okajima allowed two runners in the seventh -- one on a check-swing double by Alex Gordon and the second when he intentionally walked Billy Butler -- but got Mike Moustakas to pop out and Jeff Francoeur to ground out to end the inning.

"To come in and have a strong performance with some baserunners out there, make some big pitches against a big part of their lineup, makes you feel more comfortable as a teammate," Melvin said of Okajima. "And on top of it, it was paramount in the game."

Okajima, who returned to Japan to pitch in 2012 and said he used the time to regroup, appeared for the first time in something other than a Boston uniform. He mixed pitches and arm angles and said of returning to a major-league mound: "There was a lot going through my mind, but it felt really good to be on the mound again."

* Cook also allowed two runners in the ninth, on a pair of two-out singles, before getting Moustakas to ground out to end the game. It was the first save of the year for Cook, who had 14 as a rookie last year.

Cook also scored a mini-victory by striking out Royals left fielder Alex Gordon for the second out. Gordon had hits in his first four at-bats Sunday, but struck out against Cook on three pitches, swinging over a changeup on the third.

"I think the key for Cook the past couple nights has been the changeup, a pitch he doesn't use very often," Melvin said. "When a guy's 4-for-4 and seeing the ball like a beach ball, to take a swing like that means it's a very effective pitch that he's not looking for."

Melvin said that while Cook doesn't often employ the changeup, Norris "makes him use it." Norris said his tendency to call for more changeups from Cook "depends on the day."

"Some days it's just like a traditional changeup where it's just got velocity change, and some days it really dives down like a split finger," Norris said. "Today was one of those."

Cook said he has never felt uncomfortable throwing the changeup, but last season catcher Kurt Suzuki saw Cook getting hitters out primarily with a fastball-slider combination and opted "to roll as far into the season as he could without using the changeup unless we had to in big situations or to key guys."

* After not seeing the division-leading Rangers until the 40th game of the season, the A's now travel to Texas to play them for the second time in three series. The pitching match-ups project like this:

Monday: Bartolo Colon (3-2, 4.56) vs. Josh Lindblom (2013 debut)
Tuesday: Dan Straily (1-2, 7.27) vs. Yu Darvish (7-1, 2.97)
Wednesday: Jarrod Parker (2-5, 6.04) vs. Nick Tepesch (3-4, 3.98)

With the three right-handed starters for Texas, matchups would suggest John Jaso getting some starts at catcher. But Jaso is still nursing a sore right shin from getting hit by a pitch there Wednesday, and Norris was behind the plate for all three well-pitched games in this series, so it will be interesting to watch how Melvin handles that situation.

As for going into the series on the heels of a sweep, Melvin said he thinks "it does create some momentum," if only because the A's finally had a stretch -- albeit short -- of putting together a few complete games. If this series showed one thing -- even with Crisp getting back into the lineup and Cespedes potentially shaking off his slump -- it was that success for the A's starts with their starting pitching keeping them in games.

-- 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.
Email: mkawahara@sacbee.com.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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