Sacramento Notebook: River Cats Still Rolling

WEST SACRAMENTO - The 2012 season is off to a strong start for the Sacramento River Cats. Chris Biderman checks in on the Oakland A's Triple-A affiliate.

Team Overview

Winners of nine of the last 14, the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats have continued to swing their bats well en route to a 16-8 record, good for second in the Pacific South division, 1.5 games behind Fresno. The club is averaging nearly six runs a game with its pitching staff allowing under four and a .250 average against.

During an eight-game home stand starting April 13, Sacramento won five, holding opponents Reno and Tacoma to less than four runs all but once. The team then took to Reno for a four-game set filled with scoring, which is always expected at Aces Ballpark. The River Cats took 3-of-4 games with scores of 6-0, 12-4, 13-14 and 12-10.

Sacramento came back home to split a four-game series with Tucson, thanks to strong outings from former A's starter Graham Godfrey and right-hander Brad Peacock, who earned his second win of the season with Sunday's five-inning, eight-strikeout performance.

After Sunday's win, the team is hitting .294 with strong Aprils from Jermaine Mitchell (.333), Brandon Moss (.338), Derek Norris (.329), Adam Rosales (.296) and Michael Taylor (.366).

Comings and Goings

As usual, the A's haven't been shy about dipping into their minor league talent pool. With the team struggling to find production from the third base position, they sent down Josh Donaldson to get more consistent at-bats and regain comfort after struggling to find a groove in the major leagues. In 32 major league at-bats, Donaldson had just three hits, and he didn't walk while striking out 13 times.

The team claimed infielder Luke Hughes off waivers from Minnesota to replace Donaldson initially, then agreed to sign free agent veteran Brandon Inge Sunday after being released by the Tigers on Thursday.

"Probably the biggest thing I learned is I can play major league-quality third base over there," Donaldson said of his time with Oakland.

"Obviously they weren't my best at-bats. But I know I'm not that player and I know I can perform at the major league level. It's just a matter of doing it."

Donaldson returned to Sacramento, where he was a career .250/.341/.459 hitter before going 1-for-4 with a three-run homer in Sunday's win over Tucson. His long ball was his second in two days for the River Cats. Since coming back to the River Cats, he's 3-for-11 while getting starts at third base and back at catcher.

"All we've talked about is how to make progress," Sacramento manager Darren Bush said when asked to what he attributes Donaldson's struggles with the A's.

"We haven't talked about what he was doing. We've talked about what we're going to do now to make progress."

Godfrey was another player the A's optioned back to Sacramento last week after a the club determined Jarrod Parker was a better option at the back end of the starting rotation. Godfrey went 0-3 in three starts with the A's this season, compiling a 5.09 ERA. He yielded just 15 hits in 16 innings, but struggled with command and may have pitched worse than the measurables indicated, getting 27 fly ball outs to 12 on the ground. In his final start April 20, Godfrey walked five hitters and struggled to stay in the bottom portion of the strike zone.

"Now that I'm out of that situation, looking back on it, I was definitely putting a lot of pressure on myself," Godfrey said.

"Obviously with the offense not doing what I know that they're capable of doing, I was definitely putting a little bit of pressure on me, trying to do too much."

However, it's possible Godfrey would still be in the major leagues if not for the club wanting to get Parker up as soon as possible given his high talent level. Coming back to a club hitting nearly 100 points higher should help Godfrey throw with less stress and regain control of the strike zone like he has in the past.

"I know this team is going to score runs. Offensively, this is one of the best I've ever played on. So, that's something I don't have to worry about. It gives me a little bit of cushion. If something does happen – if there's a bad inning or I give up a couple runs – there's still an opportunity for me to win the game," Godfrey said.

To make room for Tyson Ross in the starting rotation, the A's sent down sixth outfielder Collin Cowgill, who raised his average with the River Cats to .250 with three hits on Sunday. The right-handed hitting, left-handed throwing speedster was a favorite in Oakland because of the vigor he brought to the club.

"I can't say enough about him. He plays with energy, intensity and great passion," Bush said after having Cowgill on the roster for just eight days.

Cowgill joins an already talented group of outfielders featuring Moss, Mitchell, Taylor and Grant Green, but figures to get a good portion of at-bats considering the A's will want him ready for a potential call back to the majors. His demotion was caused by the club's need for a roster spot after carrying only four starting pitchers during the season's first two weeks. He was used sparingly, making only seven plate appearances and being used as a pinch-runner late in games.

After failing to record in out in three-straight appearances for the A's, Fautino De Los Santos was demoted in favor of Jim Miller. In two appearances with the River Cats, De Los Santos has thrown three perfect innings with five strikeouts.

Last week, Oakland manager Bob Melvin sited the flamethrower's mechanics as becoming an issue and preventing him from throwing strikes. His front side was flying open while his arm was lagging behind, causing him to struggle with command. With the River Cats, he isn't over-throwing and has calmed down his mechanics, making his plus-stuff more effective.

Who's Hot

With a hit on Sunday, Taylor extended his hitting streak to six games and he has hit safely in 17 of his 19 games this year. He hasn't shown much power - with 18 of his 31 hits being singles – but he is on pace to hit 66 doubles over a full season at the Triple-A level.

"This year, I'm just kind of focused on who I am as a hitter. Really just concentrate on hitting line drives. That's really who I was before. I strayed away from that a little bit." Taylor said.

"But I've learned a lot from the process. Whether it's an 0-for-4 day or a 4-for-4 day, my next day I'm focused on what I do best which is hit line drives. It kind of makes playing more fun and relaxes the body, so it's nice."

Third basemen Stephen Parker has 10 hits in as many games, hitting .286/.359/.486 over that span. He hit his second homer of the year Saturday and has gotten on-base at a .416 rate on the year thanks to his 12 walks.

The hot corner is an obvious position of need for the A's and Parker could be positioning himself for a major league roster spot in 2013, but he'll need to improve drastically at third base in the meantime. He already has five errors in 18 games and could be getting fewer starts there with the return of Donaldson to Sacramento. But if he can continue his level of production with the bat and increase his power numbers, he'll could play himself into more starts at that position.

Norris has 12 hits in seven games, upping his slash line to .329/.337/.561 in 20 games in 2012. Since arriving from Washington's system as a piece in the Gio Gonzalez trade, Norris has solidified himself as the catcher in waiting should club move Kurt Suzuki, whose contract is up after 2013 with an option for 2014.

Norris' BABIP (.369) and ISO (.244) are better than his 2011 numbers with Double-A Harrisburg, but his walk rate is significantly lower thus far – 3.5 percent to 18.2. It's a small sample size, but the A's will take it given his OPS of 943 with Sacramento compared to 813 last year with the Senators.

Since being demoted from Oakland April 17, reliever Andrew Carignan has thrown well in his four outings to the tune of three hits in seven innings with just one earned run. The right-hander is looking to pitch his way back into an Oakland bullpen that has shown a propensity to turn over rather quickly. If he's able to keep his pitches down in the zone and away from the middle of the plate, look for him to get a call back to the A's at some point during the summer or when rosters expand.

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