OAKLAND -- Asked if he has taken note of some of the more remarkable numbers he’s put up in the first half of this season, A’s reliever Sean Doolittle gave a small grin.
"I try to ignore it," he said, "but it’s getting harder and harder."
That’s not cockiness talking. Doolittle, who closed the A’s 4-2 win over the Rangers on Wednesday for his ninth save, has not allowed a run in his last 22 1/3 innings, a career-high and the longest active streak in the American League.
Since surrendering four runs without recording an out April 26 in Houston, Doolittle has allowed six hits and struck out 35 batters. For the season, he has 48 strikeouts and one walk in 34 innings.
"It’s amazing," said third baseman Josh Donaldson.
"Pretty incredible," agreed manager Bob Melvin.
Melvin also said something more revealing after Wednesday’s game, though it’s become readily apparent in the past couple weeks. Discussing Doolittle, Melvin spoke the words, "Once he was put into the closer role" -- finally lending some definitiveness to what has been among the biggest question marks about this A’s team in the first half.
That closer role, of course, first belonged to Jim Johnson, then became a by-committee thing several weeks into the season due to Johnson’s struggles. Doolittle has long been the heir apparent to the job, but now it looks like the ninth inning is officially his domain.
And why not? Doolittle seems to have the right demeanor for the job -- he’s fiery but has shown the ability to stay relatively even-keel during rough stretches. He had one in April, allowing eight runs over the course of eight outings from April 9-26. He hasn’t allowed a run since.
More specifically, Doolittle is showing that when he does come into a close game in the late innings, he isn’t going to help opposing offenses by walking hitters. His lone walk this season came May 20 against the Rays, a four-pitch walk to Ryan Hanigan that now looks like a ridiculous aberration.
According to the website FanGraphs, entering Wednesday Doolittle was throwing first-pitch strikes a career-high 72.7 percent of the time. According to baseball-reference.com, when Doolittle gets ahead 0-1, opposing hitters began the day hitting .127 against him (9-for-71). When he’d gotten ahead 0-2, they were 3-for-44 with 25 strikeouts.
"He’s doing a great job of not only getting strike one, but putting guys away as well," said Donaldson.
According to Doolittle, his drive to do so actually comes from his background as a hitter.
"I don’t think it’s a secret -- I just hate walking people," Doolittle said. "Having been a hitter in the past, I feel like I have an idea of how hard hitting is. So I feel like if I can make quality pitches rather than giving a guy a free pass, make him earn it, make him earn his way on base, continue to challenge the zone, I give myself a better chance."
It helps when you’re throwing from the left side and ramping the fastball up to 95 mph. Catcher John Jaso, who didn’t catch Doolittle on Wednesday but has handled several of Doolittle’s recent outings, said he actually called for some variety in Doolittle’s last outing, including a changeup and a couple sliders.
"I made him pitch a little bit," Jaso said. "But for the most part you can get away with throwing down the old number one knowing you’re getting that high heater."
Doolittle’s two strikeouts Wednesday both came on fastballs. In fact, he retired the side on 12 pitches -- all fastballs between 93 and 95 mph.
Doolittle said there was no point at which the A’s sat him down and anointed him their closer. It just happened gradually, which might have helped by avoiding the pressure of an official proclamation. Besides, Doolittle said, he doesn’t feel the role he’s in now is all that different from the one he held a month ago.
"I’ve pitched in a lot of high-leverage situations in the seventh inning, close ballgames," he said. "There is a little bit more adrenaline and energy when you’re coming into the game and trying to get those last three outs. But I feel like the more opportunities I’ve had to get saves, the more I’ve been able to harness some of that energy and use it as a positive rather than a distraction.
"From there, once the inning starts, it’s business as usual."
One more potential benefit -- while Melvin and the coaching staff were making a point of letting their relievers know before series what their roles would be in given games, more clarity in the ninth inning could work backward to more clarity in the eighth, seventh and so forth. Dan Otero is now free to enter in important situations in the sixth and seventh. Luke Gregerson handled the eighth Wednesday, the set-up role he was acquired to fill.
Doolittle will eventually allow a run again, and it may well come in a save situation. But for now, it seems, there’ll be some certainty that the next time the A’s need to lock down a lead in the ninth, he’ll be out there again.
"Once he was put into the closer role and we kind of solidified the roles down there, he’s been off and running," Melvin said. "You really don’t have to say too much. Just look at the numbers."
* Sonny Gray snapped a two-game losing streak -- the first consecutive losses of his big-league career -- with seven strong innings against the Rangers, allowing two runs on six hits and striking out seven. His lone bad inning was the fifth, when he issued two walks and both of them scored on a single by Shin-Soo Choo.
Gray said that when he put the runners on in the fifth, "my mindset was kind like, let’s try to strike everyone out, and started missing my location a little bit more." After Choo hit a single to tie the game, 2-2, "It was kind of just, take a deep breath, get back and just focus on making pitches."
Other than that five-batter stretch, Gray was very good, retiring 10 of the first 11 hitters and avoiding the rough first couple innings that have been a problem in some of his starts this season. He said he carried some adjustments made with pitching coach Curt Young into his start Wednesday -- he didn’t get into specifics -- but otherwise wasn’t dwelling too much on his previous two outings.
"When I first came up, talking to some of the older guys that were here, even this year talking to (Scott Kazmir), I think people sometimes forget that baseball’s a pretty hard agme and there’s going to be some rough patches," he said.
"Being able to know how good you are and know what you’re able to do and stay from game to game -- if you have a really good game, don’t sit on it and pat yourself on the back, and if you have a tough one, don’t dwell on that, just continue to move on."
Melvin wouldn’t have been surprised by the quote. "He’s a pretty driven kid," Melvin said. "I don’t think he worries too much about thinking, ‘I need to bounce back.’"
* Josh Donaldson has some work to do to get his batting average back to where it was before his 0-for-33 skid. But he has hits in each of his past four games, and went 2-for-4 on Wednesday with an RBI, his first multi-hit game since June 4.
"Yeah, a couple hard-hit balls, too," Melvin said. "His swing’s better, he’s staying back, he looks more balanced."
Donaldson said his offense is "coming around. It’s one day at a time." Melvin also cited the fact Donaldson’s defense hasn’t been affected by his struggles at the plate. Donaldson has made a handful of errors in the last week, and leads A.L. third basemen there, but he made several agile plays Wednesday to take away potential hits.
"Some of those balls he cuts off in the hole look pretty easy," Melvin said. "But he’s covering a lot of ground."
* It wasn’t quite the catchers’ offensive explosion from Tuesday night, but Jaso sparked one A’s rally with an RBI double in the third inning, later scoring on a Brandon Moss single, and Derek Norris went 1-for-3 with a walk. Norris is now batting .406 in June.
* With the win Wednesday, and the Giants losing in Chicago, the A’s are now official owners of the majors’ best record at 44-28. They’re a season-high 16 games over .500 and have a five-game lead in the A.L. West.
Melvin is a big proponent of the "count ‘em up at the end of the year" philosophy, but even he acknowledged the best winning percentage in baseball is nothing to sniff at.
"Any point in the season you can say you have the best record in baseball it’s satisfying," he said. "But there’s a lot of baseball left to be played. You try to take that confidence in where you are right now and apply it to games tomorrow and the next day.
"But at least for the time being, it feels good."
The A’s are back at it Thursday, as the Boston Red Sox arrive for a four-game series that will take the teams through the weekend at the Coliseum. The pitching probables:
Thursday: LHP Scott Kazmir (8-2, 2.05) vs. RHP Jake Peavy (1-4, 4.53)
Friday: RHP Jesse Chavez (6-4, 2.93) vs. RHP Brandon Workman (1-0, 2.88)
Saturday: TBA vs. RHP Rubby De La Rosa (2-2, 2.84)
Sunday: LHP Tommy Milone (5-3, 3.56) vs. LHP Jon Lester (8-7, 3.20)
That TBA could be left-hander Brad Mills -- or not. Mills arrives in Oakland tomorrow, so the A’s can take a look at him and decide if he’ll work as a fill-in for Drew Pomeranz while Pomeranz is on the DL. Stay tuned.