OAKLAND – It has become custom at O.co Coliseum to temporarily turn off the scoreboard and video monitors above the stadium's upper levels when A's closer Grant Balfour enters a game. On Friday night, they were so darkened as Balfour came in from the bullpen to preserve the A's 2-1 win over the Royals for his seventh save.
Afterward, though, it was a different A's reliever about whom manager Bob Melvin used the related term – "lights-out" – to describe his performance over the last month and a half.
That was left-hander Sean Doolittle, who got the game to Balfour with a scoreless eighth inning. It was the ninth outing in a row for Doolittle in which he didn't allow a run – a streak he stretched to 10 with another scoreless eighth in the A's 2-1 win Saturday. He has been unscored upon in 18 of 20 appearances on the season.
After the game, Doolittle was asked somewhat lightheartedly if he feels untouchable when he takes the mound these days. "A little bit," he responded, before elaborating.
"I think for somebody in the late innings, you have to have that streak in you," Doolittle said. "You've got confidence, but you have to have an edge where you're a little bit invincible, and if you execute your pitches, the odds are so far in your favor that nobody's going to be able to put some hits together and get to you."
In that sense – opposing teams putting hits together – Doolittle has been nearly flawless. In his first 20 games, Doolittle had allowed multiple hits just once, and his opponents' on-base percentage entering Saturday ranked third among American League relievers. The two runs he had allowed both came on solo home runs.
Doolittle was one of the more unlikely stories on last year's unlikely A's team, a first baseman plagued by injuries who converted to the bullpen and debuted with the A's after making just 17 appearances as a pitcher in the minor leagues.
His arrival was so sudden that his subsequent success – a 2-1 record with a 3.04 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings – may have carried the air that he and his mid-90s fastball were taking an unsuspecting league by surprise. But so far in 2013, as a known commodity, Doolittle has arguably been more effective.
"He's getting better," Melvin said. "And he's incorporating off-speed stuff now, which the hitter has to take into consideration."
There are layers to the second part. According to the website FanGraphs, Doolittle before Saturday was throwing his fastball 91 percent of the time – up from 86.8 percent last season. Friday night, he set down the Royals throwing 12 fastballs and one curveball.
The difference this year, Melvin said, is in the quality of Doolittle's off-speed pitches. As in 2012, Doolittle has a changeup as well as a breaking ball that he worked this winter on tightening into more of a slider. Unlike last year, Melvin said, Doolittle can now use them to get outs, which means he doesn't have to throw them as often for them to be effective.
"Last year (the off-speed) was basically just for show," Melvin said. "He just threw all fastballs, and he does have late life to his fastball, and it's tough to catch up with. But now you have in the back of your mind he could potentially throw you something off-speed, whether it's a slider or a changeup. That makes his fastball even better."
Balfour said he, too, has noticed Doolittle throwing his off-speed pitches with more conviction this year.
"They're good pitches, too," Balfour said. "He's getting people out with those pitches."
Balfour said Doolittle arrived in Oakland last year already displaying a willingness to go right after hitters, particularly with his fastball.
Balfour said that "shows he believes that when he lets the ball go it's going to be a strike and a good, quality pitch."
Or that he feels a little bit invincible?
"If you don't, you're thinking the wrong thing," Balfour said.
Young back – The A's reinstated outfielder Chris Young from the disabled list and designated first baseman Daric Barton for assignment to clear a spot on the 25-man roster. Young started in right field in his first game since injuring his quadriceps April 29.
Barton will have to clear waivers to stay in the organization. Melvin said the A's would like to see Barton clear, "but I'm not sure that'll be the case."
Meanwhile, Josh Reddick (sprained wrist) began swinging a bat Friday. Reddick hasn't hit pitching yet but felt no pain taking dry swings and held that as an encouraging sign.