San Francisco Giants

Flux isn’t the reason for ninth-inning struggles, A’s relievers say

The A’s boarded a flight to Houston on Wednesday to start a 10-game trip after a 3-0 loss to the Texas Rangers and being swept at home in a series for the first time since September 2012 – though one could argue they should have taken at least one of the three games from their American League West rivals, and maybe more.

Two one-run losses came when the Rangers broke a 3-3 tie in the eighth inning against reliever Sean Doolittle on Monday, then Texas scored twice after being down to its last strike against closer-du-jour Luke Gregerson in the ninth inning Tuesday. It was the sixth blown save for the A’s, who are 5 for 11 in save opportunities this season.

There was no need for a closer Wednesday, with Texas’ Martin Perez holding the A’s to three hits in a complete game, running his streak of consecutive scoreless innings to 26. Before the game, A’s manager Bob Melvin said there are no plans to change the closer-by-committee system the A’s have been using since Jim Johnson lost the job earlier this month.

“The problem, to an extent, hasn’t been getting (to the ninth), it’s been finishing it off,” Melvin said. “And I think everybody’s had some struggles, whether it’s the ninth, and it’s something we’re going to have to try to figure out. I don’t know that there’s any set recipe at this point.”

The pitchers used to varying success have been Gregerson (who has converted 3 of 6 save chances), Doolittle (1 of 2), Johnson (1 of 2) and right-hander Dan Otero (0 of 1). Johnson has been in what Melvin terms a “wild-card” role since losing the closer job, and Gregerson and Doolittle have been the primary pitchers in save situations. Melvin said the A’s will continue to “do the best we can with the matchups we can” get in the ninth inning.

As the manager pointed out, the problems often haven’t started until the final inning. The A’s bullpen was sixth in the majors in ERA entering Wednesday’s games – and 2.48 after Johnson and Drew Pomeranz each pitched a scoreless inning Wednesday – while holding opposing hitters to a .198 batting average, the lowest in baseball.

But Johnson losing the closer role cost the bullpen a sense of stability. Melvin has acknowledged it’s often easier for relievers and managers when the bullpen has set roles, so each reliever knows when he’ll get into games and can prepare accordingly and the manager knows whom he’ll call for in certain situations.

The by-committee approach requires more flexibility on both ends. Melvin said he tries to communicate the relievers’ roles to them as often as possible but that “they know it’s a little different right now than when we started the season, and that when the (bullpen) phone rings, we’re going to do the best we can.”

Doolittle said the staff has “done a really good job communicating” roles to the relievers before each game. “So even though it’s by committee, it’s not a surprise to us,” he said. “We have a really good idea when the phone rings who it’s going to be (getting up).”

As for the issues closing out games, Doolittle said: “It has nothing to do with the way the bullpen’s being handled, or this committee stuff.

“It’s tough to put a finger on exactly what happened – it’s just, bottom line, we didn’t get the job done. It was just execution on our part.”

Gregerson agreed that the bullpen pitchers “for the most part all kind of know where we fit into that committee,” and that Tuesday night he was prepared to pitch the ninth inning if the A’s had a lead.

When asked if some uncertainty makes it difficult to prepare, Gregerson said: “We’ve got to go out there and get outs no matter what inning it is. So that’s it. You’ve got to go and get outs no matter what.”

Melvin said he did not feel the need to discuss Tuesday’s game at length with Gregerson, who has blown saves in two of his past three appearances. “He’s a pretty tough guy,” Melvin said. “Certain guys need some coddling. He is not one of them.”

Multiple A’s players said there’s been no faith lost in the bullpen, which coming into the season was thought to be one of the primary strengths of the team.

“We’ve got some great arms down there,” shortstop Jed Lowrie said. “And they’re going to be a big part of this team. They’ll get it all squared away. And I think everybody in this clubhouse has complete faith in their abilities.”

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