OAKLAND -- The A's did get one bit of positive news Sunday. An MRI on All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson showed no structural issues in his right knee after he tweaked it Saturday night. Donaldson could be available, depending how the knee feels, when the A's open a three-game series in Houston on Monday.
Otherwise, Sunday was not a good day for the A's. Early in the afternoon, they put closer Sean Doolittle on the 15-day DL with an intercostal muscle strain, with John Jaso likely to follow due to concussion symptoms. Then, in front of a national audience on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, the A's saw Scott Kazmir have one of his roughest outings of the season in a 9-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels that dropped them back into second place by a game and negated the possibility of a pivotal sweep.
The game itself mostly took a backseat to the A's other losses. They won't have Doolittle for at least two weeks, potentially more depending on the severity of the strain, and Jaso is the latest in a line of position players missing time due to injury that currently includes middle infielders Jed Lowrie and Nick Punto.
Melvin said he did not think the injury news had an effect on team morale, though he did acknowledge the injury bug seems to be hitting the A's at a bad time, right at the start of their stretch run.
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"It's several guys, and key guys in a row certainly," Melvin said. "But it's just something you have to deal with. Regardless, we feel like every time we take the field, no matter who we run out there, we feel like we're going to win."
Melvin said before the game that if Doolittle were to miss extended time, he'd prefer to designate one reliever as a fill-in closer. He indicated afterward he had made a decision there, but wanted to meet with the bullpen Monday before making it public.
Leading candidates would be set-up men Luke Gregerson and Ryan Cook, who did close for the A's earlier in his career, or left-hander Eric O'Flaherty. Doolittle said he believes the A's have the resources to mitigate his absence.
"There's a number of guys that have experience pitching in late-game situations, whether it's a set-up role or coming in to close if somebody's been unavailable," Doolittle said. "You look at the versatility, the way we can match up and the experience, I think they're more than capable of figuring out a way to continue to get the job done."
Doolittle expressed the same optimism for the A's in general after Sunday's losses, citing the team's ability to plug in new pieces the past two seasons. As for his own situation, he said it's too early to put a timetable on his recovery. The A's obviously hope he will miss no more than the 15 days, though Melvin admitted "those things usually take some time."
"It's something you kind of treat based on how you feel as opposed to how many days you need off," Doolittle said. "So it'll probably be something we have a better handle on once we start moving around and doing some stuff later in the week."
It's bad timing not only for the A's, but for Doolittle, who has mostly thrived since being installed as full-time closer. Doolittle has 20 saves in 23 opportunities and leads all A.L. relievers this season in opponents' on-base percentage. He has proved to have the right temperament for pitching the ninth inning as well, harnessing the adrenaline for the most part but also making a point of going right after hitters, as his MLB-leading strikeout-to-walk ratio attests.
"I mean, I'm (frustrated), mainly because I can't be out there helping the team and going on the road with these guys," Doolittle said. "But on the other hand, when we're coming down the home stretch, there's really no time to be (frustrated) or disappointed.
"We have to figure out a game plan of how we're going to treat this thing and how we're going to overcome this and get back on the field. So that's kind of where I'm focusing all my energy at this point."
The injury news was mostly met in the clubhouse with the same tone struck by Melvin: It was a rough day, overall, but one the A's must show they can weather.
"I think we'll respond well," said Kazmir. "I think we just have to step up. Those are key guys that are out right now, we've got a couple other guys that are banged up, too. We know we need to step our game up a little bit more, and I think we'll do that."
Kazmir has been so consistent for the A's that his outing Sunday was more strange than anything. He allowed a season-high tying seven runs and 10 hits and left with two on and nobody out in the third inning, already trailing 5-0. Both inherited runners scored against Jesse Chavez, capping a short, frustrating start for the 14-game winner.
"He just made some mistakes, some balls were up, missed his location a few times," said Melvin. Kazmir, meanwhile, was more incisive with his self-assessment: "I feel like I hit maybe one spot the entire game."
His first batter of the game was a good example. Kazmir got to an 0-2 count against Cole Calhoun, but threw a slider that caught too much of the plate and Calhoun hit it back up the middle for a single. Kazmir actually got out of the first on just six pitches, but it was mostly downhill from there.
"I felt like I just wasn't aggressive enough," Kazmir said. "(Starting in the second inning) I felt like I was kind of trying to trick people out there, throwing curveballs, sliders and changeups instead of just really focusing on my fastball and establishing that.
"By the time I'd get to that pitch, the fastball I needed, it wasn't there. It would be up and away, it would sail on me. Looking back, I feel like if I'd established my fastball maybe I would've had a different outcome. But it just didn't happen."
That's somewhat unexpected, as catcher Derek Norris is a big believer in the fastball as a pitcher's best weapon. But it was an odd day for Kazmir all-around, resulting in his ERA rising above 3.00 -- to 3.08 -- for the first time all season.
"Got to give him a little bit of a break the way he's pitched for us," Melvin said. "Just a rough one for him."
It was rough for the A's offensively as well until the seventh inning, when they finally broke through against Jered Weaver on Alberto Callaspo's two-run homer and a solo shot from Andy Parrino. Callaspo has hit well lately -- he's 12-for-30 in his last nine games and is now 6-for-16 with three extra-base hits lifetime against Weaver.
On the other end of the spectrum, Brandon Moss continues to struggle. He went hitless in four at-bats Sunday, is 0 for his last 18 and is batting .158 with no home runs and 26 strikeouts in 18 games in August. Moss hasn't homered since July 24, a span of 24 games that's his longest since joining the A's in 2012.
You wouldn't know it from Moss' demeanor, as he seems as outgoing in the clubhouse as ever. But you have to figure this stretch is weighing on him, and wonder whether he of all the A's hitters perhaps has felt the most pressure to perform since the trading of Yoenis Cespedes, given his identity as a middle-of-the-order presence and power hitter.
Melvin acknowledged that after taking the first two games of this series, it was natural for the A's to get greedy and want a sweep. It didn't happen, but the fact is they won the series and closed their gap in the division, which was two games when the series began.
"We feel good coming out of this series," Kazmir said. "We definitely would've liked to get this one, to go into Houston and then play (the Angels) again. But overall I feel like two out of three is good. Feel like we're where we need to be -- in striking distance."
These teams meet again in a matter of days, for a four-game series in Los Angeles that begins on Thursday. But Melvin stressed the A's can't overlook their upcoming three games against the Astros, who "played us really tough last time."
"Obviously it would've been nice to sweep and take that lead," said Sam Fuld. "(But) I think if we win two of three (in series) the rest of the way, I think we'll be pretty good."
Briefly, Fuld had an ice pack on his left knee after the game, and said he hyperextended it a little leaping into the wall in pursuit of Erick Aybar's two-run double in the second.
"It's bugging me a little bit," Fuld said. "I'm not too worried about it, but we'll see how it feels tomorrow."
Another injury is the last thing the A's need. But it's something to keep an eye on when Monday's lineup is announced with the A's facing a right-hander in Scott Feldman. The pitching probables for the three games in Houston:
Monday: RHP Jeff Samardzija (3-3, 4.07) vs. RHP Scott Feldman (7-9, 4.37)
Tuesday: LHP Dallas Keuchel (10-9, 3.12) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (1-5, 6.75)
Wednesday: TBA vs. RHP Brad Peacock (3-8, 5.30)