Pitching is the key for River Cats in ’14

04/02/2014 5:45 PM

10/08/2014 11:47 AM

Joe Blanton is working on his body and his mechanics.

Philip Humber is aiming for location and a return to the success that got him to the major leagues.

Eric Berger is fine-tuning his throws, and his seasonal mustache is taking on a Rollie Fingers look.

Pitching will define the River Cats this season, which starts today in Salt Lake City. And if they lose a pitcher or two to the A’s, that’s a measure of success beyond wins and losses.

Since their arrival in Sacramento in 2000, the River Cats have been an assembly line of prospects for the A’s. No team in the major leagues has had as many transactions with their Triple-A team as the A’s in recent years; 26 players suited up for both the A’s and Cats last season alone. Sonny Gray opened the 2013 season with the River Cats and went on to start playoff games for the A’s – and he was the A’s Opening Day starter Monday.

River Cats players see the big picture clearly: Oakland, 87 miles away.

“That’s where we all want to be,” said Humber, who has 16 major-league victories. “We all obviously wanted to be on a big-league roster when the season started, but usually in this game, you get what you deserve, one way or another. We’re here for a reason, and we’ll have fun here playing, work hard and work to get to the next level.”

Added second-year manager Steve Scarsone: “It’s our job to help these guys get to where they want to go.”

But Scarsone said it’s also his job to keep the River Cats winning. They’ve won the Pacific Coast League South Division 11 times in 14 seasons, but last season they were 79-65 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“We’ve had a good spring and we’re optimistic,” Scarsone said. “We have some new faces, we’re getting to know each other on the fly, and we’re giving guys a nice place to play here and an opportunity. And we have some pitchers who have done some good things before.”

That’s especially true for Blanton and Humber, who both have major-league experience. And Berger, who played at Woodcreek High School, is waiting for his first call-up.

Blanton has come full circle, back with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2002. He won 11 games for the River Cats in 2004 before four seasons with the A’s, four with the Philadelphia Phillies, one with the Los Angeles Dodgers and last season with the Los Angeles Angels. Blanton, 33, has a career major-league record of 85-89, but he was 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA in 2013.

The Angels released the right-hander last week after he gave up 16 earned runs in 201/3 innings during spring training. Blanton said he’s glad to be back with the A’s organization; he was 47-46 for the A’s and averaged 208 innings from 2005 to 2007.

“After I was released, I took a day or two to weigh options and I decided to come back to Oakland,” Blanton said. “Familiarity is definitely a big thing. I don’t feel like I’m completely starting over. Rick Rodriguez was the pitching coach here 10 years ago and he’s here now, so that’s an easier transition.”

Blanton is down to 215 pounds, from his high of 255, and he said a change in his lifestyle – hello new exercises and goodbye fast food – has him in the best shape of his career.

“I feel great,” Blanton said. “Mentally, I feel better, and now it’s repeating mechanics and getting better. I just need to fix whatever went wrong and what’s not working and get sound again.”

Humber also has a mixed résumé. The right-hander was a first-round pick by the New York Mets in 2004 With the Chicago White Sox in 2012, he pitched the 21st perfect game in major-league history, beating the Seattle Mariners 4-0. He spent the 2013 season with Triple-A Oklahoma City and the Houston Astros, going 0-8 with the big-league club. The A’s signed him to a minor-league deal Nov. 2.

“We’ve got some guys here with quite a bit of experience in the big leagues and it seems like a great group,” Humber said. “It should be fun.”

And that perfect-game experience?

“I only think of the perfect game when someone asks me about it, but it was a great day,” Humber said. “It’s something you never forget. I’m a long way away from a perfect game in the big leagues as I’m trying to figure out what I need to do to get better. My stuff was not very good last year. I didn’t do a whole lot to help us win in Houston, and it wasn’t fun to lose every day. It’s hard to maintain a positive attitude when you’re losing 100-something games. I wanted to be on a winning organization and get better.”

Berger is back in familiar territory. The left-hander struck out an area-record-tying 20 batters as a junior at Woodcreek in 2003, then went to Arizona, where he had Tommy John surgery in 2006, recovered nicely and was an eighth-round pick by the Cleveland Indians in 2008. Berger, 27, split time last season between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Oklahoma City in the Astros’ organization. He was traded to the A’s on Saturday.

“It’s comfortable to be here, because it’s always nice to be home,” Berger said. “As for the trade to get here, if you break it down and peel it all off, to get traded at this time, at the end of spring training ... it’s tough. Teams are cutting guys they don’t want to cut but have to. You still feel wanted. I’ve always had a good attitude. I just try to do my best and be like a kid.”

He might be like a kid, but he has quite a bit of facial hair going.

“The mustache has been something I’ve done for three years when the season comes around,” Berger said. “The fans seem to dig it.”

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