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September 18, 2013
Balfour suffers rare blown save; Griffin not sweating home runs

OAKLAND -- Over the course of this season A's right-hander A.J. Griffin has gotten pretty tired of the question. Yes, Griffin has been very susceptible to the home run -- the 34 he'd allowed before Wednesday led all major-league pitchers. Often he'll point out that many (24, to be exact) have come with no runners on base. His 14 wins prior to Wednesday, meanwhile, were tied for sixth in the American League.

Griffin allowed his 35th homer of the year to the third batter he faced Wednesday, as the Angels' Mike Trout lined a full-count fastball over the wall in left field for an early 2-0 lead. No other Angel managed a hit against Griffin in six innings.

Griffin was denied his 15th win when the Angels tied the game in the ninth on Josh Hamilton's home run off Grant Balfour and won it in the 11th on Hamilton's sacrifice fly. But it was another strong outing for Griffin, who's having arguably his best month in September.

The right-hander is 3-0 with a 2.77 ERA in four September starts. He had a 2.60 ERA in June, but allowed four earned runs in two starts that month and went 1-2. After Trout's two-run homer in the first, Griffin retired 17 of the final 18 hitters he faced, including striking Trout out on a high fastball for the final out of the sixth.

"We've had some shaky early innings from the starters, but you have to put that behind you and go forward," manager Bob Melvin said. "He's been pretty good about that."

Melvin deflected a question about whether Griffin is gaining steam for a potential A's playoff run. But it would be difficult at this point to imagine an playoff rotation without Griffin, who trails only Bartolo Colon in wins among A's starters.

Melvin has already said there's no place in the rotation right now for Brett Anderson. There has been no discussion of whether the A's would use a four- or five-man rotation in the postseason, but even with Dan Straily and Sonny Gray pitching well, it's tough to see Melvin including both at the expense of Griffin.

"He's had a nice run and put us in a position to win games, as he did again today," said Melvin. "We just came up a couple outs short."

Griffin said his recent good outing have been a product of "my tempo and my delivery -- I'm able to repeat it better right now. I was going through a stretch earlier there where I was probably overthinking things a little bit and letting that get to me, thinking too much when I was throwing the ball. Now I'm just kind of getting the sign and letting it fly."

As for the home run numbers, Griffin was asked again Wednesday if he's bothered by seeing a "35" next to his name. It's already the fourth-most homers allowed in a season by an Oakland A's pitcher. Catfish Hunter holds the record with 39 allowed in 1973.

"It's only bothersome when people talk about it all the time," Griffin said. "I always hear that (Bert) Blyleven and Hunter gave up a lot of homers too, and they seemed to have pretty good careers. So when you can minimize the damage and give up one hit and it's a home run, I can live with that."

* It appeared Balfour simply left an 0-1 fastball up and over the plate to Hamilton on the game-tying homer in the ninth, but any comment from the closer himself will have to wait -- Balfour left the clubhouse before it was opened to media, an A's spokesman said.

For as often as Balfour has seemed to pitch in traffic this season, particularly recently, it was only his third blown save of the season in 41 chances. In all three, he has lost the lead on a home run. This was his first blown save at home since April 25 of last year, and came a day after he struck out the side in the ninth in the A's 2-1 win Tuesday night.

"If you look at it overall, three blown saves is going to work anywhere," Melvin said. "Actually he did have good stuff today. He just got one fastball probably not in the right spot to a pretty good fastball hitter. But it looked like he had pretty good stuff to me."

That's a different tone than the one Melvin was striking during Balfour's rough patch at the end of last month, when he said the closer looked fatigued and wasn't commanding his fastball. The A's will hope this was just an aberration. Right now, numbers suggest that it was.

* Josh Donaldson said his 11th-inning error charging Erick Aybar's sacrifice bunt was "one of those plays I expect to make every time." Aybar was bunting after J.B. Shuck's leadoff double against Jesse Chavez. The error gave the Angels runners on the corners with nobody out.

Shuck presumably still would have been on third with one out had Donaldson made the play, but it looked a little bigger after Mike Trout flew out to shallow right field. That brought up Hamilton, and his one-out fly ball to left was deep enough to score Shuck.

Not surprising, Melvin brought in Jerry Blevins to face Hamilton, whom Blevins had struck out in a bases-loaded situation Tuesday night. In 13 meetings before Wednesday, Blevins had struck Hamilton out seven times, leading Melvin to say Tuesday night: "That's kind of his guy." This time, Hamilton got the job done on an 0-2 pitch.

"He just didn't make his pitch at 0-2 where he wanted," Melvin said. "Location-wise, he didn't get it where he wanted to."

* All of the A's offense came in the third inning, on two two-run homers from their two hottest hitters. Coco Crisp drove a full-count changeup from Jason Vargas to left for his 20th homer of the season and 10th in his last 26 games -- as many as he hit in his first 97. Three batters later, Yoenis Cespedes homered and added an eighth-inning single for his 10th-multi hit game out of 17 in September.

It was Cespedes' 24th homer in 129 games this year -- one more than he hit in his rookie season, also in 129 games.

* After his first two homers of this series -- both of which reached the façade just below the second deck in dead center field -- Trout's line-drive shot to left-center Wednesday seemed downright pedestrian. It gave Trout totals of 26 homers, 92 RBIs and 108 runs on the season to go with a .330 average and 100 walks.

Said Griffin: "He's good at baseball."

* Donaldson was hit by an inside fastball from Vargas in his first at-bat, leading home plate umpire Jerry Meals to warn both benches, presumably because Ryan Cook had hit Howie Kendrick and Trout in back-to-back at-bats Tuesday night.

Melvin said he was still surprised by the warnings. Donaldson did not sound so surprised.

"I mean, I don't know," Donaldson said. "Trout took one pretty good yesterday, so I think that's kind of to be expected."

Donaldson, though, said he wasn't accusing Vargas of throwing at him. He said Vargas has shown on tape a propensity for pitching inside with his fastball in order to keep righties honest against his changeup.

* Melvin did come out to argue an infield fly ruling in the fourth. With runners on first and second, Coco Crisp hit a pop-up into shallow right-center that second baseman Grant Green dropped. Both runners advanced, but Crisp was ruled out and the A's didn't score in the inning.

"You never know where it goes from there," Melvin said of whether that could have changed the outcome. "Here in this ballpark, that's out a ways for me. But they called it, they called it early. Nothing you can do about it now."

* The A's will have to wait until nighttime to learn whether they gained any ground Wednesday on a potential playoff berth. After their loss, their magic number to clinch the West remained six and to clinch a playoff spot five.

"We've had some tough losses this year and we've had some dramatic wins," Melvin said. "You just put this one away and come back tomorrow and expect to win again. As a team we've been pretty good about that, really over the last two years."

The Twins, from whom the A's took two out of three in Minnesota on their last road trip, arrive for a four-game series beginning Thursday. The pitching probables:

Thursday: RHP Kevin Correia (9-12, 4.31) vs. RHP Dan Straily (10-7, 4.11)
Friday: LHP Andrew Albers (2-3, 3.81) vs. RHP Bartolo Colon (16-6, 2.73)
Saturday: LHP Pedro Hernandez (3-1, 5.26) vs. RHP Jarrod Parker (11-7, 3.81)
Sunday: RHP Cole De Vries (0-0, 7.88) vs. RHP Sonny Gray (3-3, 2.50)

Two 7:05 p.m. starts followed by two at 1:05 p.m. It could be a big weekend for the A's, but much has to go right.

-- 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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