Sacramento Notebook: Nakajima Gaining Comfort

WEST SACRAMENTO - The Sacramento River Cats have played at a high level this May, with strong contributions from several different players. Chris Biderman catches-up with the Oakland A's Triple-A affiliate.

Team Overview

Triple-A Sacramento has returned to its usual dominant form. The River Cats have spent the entirety of May in first place in the PCL's Pacific Southern Division and have won seven of their last 11 games under new manager Steve Scarsone.

In his first lengthy road trip in Triple-A, Scarsone took his club to Tennessee and went 5-3 against Nashville and Memphis. And much like players ascending through the minor leagues, Scarsone is still learning about himself as the season progresses.

"I find myself enjoying watching the games more at this level even as a coach and managing the game," the first-year manager said. "I enjoy watching the quality of the game, the quality of the pitching, defensively how much cleaner the game is.

"I feel very comfortable, very happy to be here and we've had some success on the field that's helped the transition become more smooth, as well."

The former seven-year major league infielder has garnered endorsements from a number of his players - some that have played with him before in the lower levels of the organization and others he's working with for the first time.

"Now it's much more enjoyable to watch them have their success because of how close they are," he said. "I know how important everything is now. It's not just fun and games anymore. It's real life. It's life-changing."

Managing Double-A Midland for the last two seasons, Scarsone has helped prominent prospects move up to Sacramento such as Grant Green, Michael Choice, Sonny Gray and Shane Peterson. Many have said they envision "Scar" as a major league manager in the making.

Offensively, Sacramento is tops in the PCL in on-base percentage (.369) and third in slugging (.444), while leading the league with 49 home runs. Michael Choice has been the team's early-season MVP, leading the team in homers with eight and RBI with 34. In the last week, Choice has gotten starts in right and left field, continuing the speculation he might be best suited to a corner position in the majors.

The River Cats' pitching staff hasn't been particularly impressive - outside of a few contributors - with a team ERA of 4.69, good for ninth in the 16-team PCL.

Shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima has spent the last 16 days on a major-league rehab assignment with the River Cats and sill looks like he's getting his legs underneath him after suffering a left hamstring injury in spring training. The rules stipulate a major league player can rehab for no longer than 20 days, meaning there's a good chance that he's optioned to Sacramento in the coming week.

Nakajima is hitting just .237/.295/.316 with Sacramento. Three of his nine hits were doubles. Because of his unique circumstances, the A's will be patient as he continues to adjust to the American version of the game.

"I think he took a lot of time and effort to try and become an American player," Scarsone said. "He tried to fit in and tried to learn that way of doing things. But I think it just got him off of playing his game."

The Japanese shortstop was playing every other day from May 7th through the 12th before playing every day. It was after that point that Scarsone noticed some positive strides from Oakland's $6.5 million investment.

"He's gone back to a little bit more of his style," Scarsone said. "He's gone back to be less inhibited ... his at-bats are more aggressive, he has a little bit more zing going there."

Nakajima has hit in five of his last six games and reached base in each appearance. Although the middle infield situation in Oakland is cloudy at the moment, it's unlikely the A's would hesitate to promote Nakajima once they feel he's showing enough at the plate. But it would be a surprise if he were in the majors before the second week of June.

Comings and Goings

On May 8, the A's surprised many and promoted first baseman Daric Barton to the major leagues, moving Brandon Moss back to the outfield while Josh Reddick dealt with his continued wrist problems. To take Barton's place, the A's promoted outfielder Jeremy Barfield to Sacramento to join the talented group of Choice and Peterson. Barton was designated for assignment by the A's over the weekend and he will need to pass through waivers to return to Sacramento.

Left-handed reliever Jordan Norberto was released by Oakland on May 8. Norberto hadn't pitched much this season, suffering an elbow injury just three appearances into his season. He struggled when he did pitch, allowing six earned runs in just an inning and a third.

Righty Jesse Chavez was recalled by the A's less than two weeks after being optioned back to the River Cats on April 30. Chavez had a 2.70 ERA with the River Cats in five starts and has allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings since returning to Oakland's bullpen.

Right-hander Evan Scribner was optioned to Sacramento after allowing three runs in a three-inning appearance in Cleveland. He hadn't allowed a run in eight of his 12 big league appearances to start the year. It was the second time this season Scribner has been demoted and he has thrown 2.1 scoreless-innings since returning to Sacramento.

Utilityman Connor Crumbliss was transferred to Double-A Midland on May 17 after hitting just .136/.297/.356 in limited action with the River Cats. Crumbliss came into the season having led all of the minor leagues in walks in 2012, but he couldn't get regular at-bats with Sacramento. In his first game in Midland, he walked in two of his three plate appearances.

On the same day Crumbliss was transferred to Midland, James Simmons was sent to High-A Stockton. He threw four scoreless innings in a start for the Ports. It is expected that he will join the RockHounds this week.

A's outfielder Chris Young made a one-game rehab appearance as he healed from his quad injury, getting a hit in his only at-bat before being pulled. He rejoined the A's on Saturday, switching places with Michael Taylor, who struggled with Oakland in limited playing time. Taylor managed just one hit in 19 plate appearances in his second major league stint of 2013.

Lefty reliever Hideki Okajima was promoted by the A's on May 17, giving the team a third option from the left side in the bullpen joining Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins. Okajima signed as a free agent in the off-season after spending the 2012 season with the SoftBank Hawks in Japan. He had an opt-out clause allowing him to test free agency if he wasn't in the big league before June 1st. He pitched a scoreless inning in his Oakland debut on Sunday.

Who's Hot

After a terrible start to the new year, Bruce Billings has put together outstanding back-to-back starts. The right-hander has allowed just one run in his last 13 innings on just seven hits with 16 strikeouts.

He said he made a significant mechanical adjustment – one that remains a secret – after the first inning of his April 21 start against Reno.

"I was lost and I couldn't figure out what it was," Billings said. "I thought it was just a mentality, I thought I just wasn't feeling good.

"Something clicked. Ricky Rod [Sacramento pitching coach Rick Rodriguez] mentioned something in the middle of the game against the Aces and it just clicked for me. The next inning I just focused on getting to a certain point in my mechanics and then my armed would come through."

Billings hasn't been on the A's 40-man roster since late 2011. He appeared in three games that season for Oakland and has been in the minors ever since. Given the way the A's starting rotation has thrown during the season's first two months, Billings could find himself in the running for a spot on the 25-man roster should he continue to throw well.

However, if the A's wanted to go with a younger option, the choice might be Sonny Gray, who has made four-straight quality starts, including a nine-inning, one-run performance against Fresno on May 1.

The 23-year-old Gray, Oakland's top draft selection in 2011, is in just his second full season in professional baseball after dominating at Vanderbilt. Scarsone managed Gray last season while with the RockHounds and has noticed significant progress from his ace right-hander.

"What I see from him is a little bit more of calmness. He's a little more calculated," Scarsone said. "Last year it seemed like there were a lot of starts where if he didn't get off to a great start in the first inning or so, then he tried to over-throw and he leaned on his curveball a little too much.

"This year it seems like he has better maintenance of his emotions and he's staying with his game plan."

Reliever Danny Otero continues to throw well in relief for the River Cats. He's allowed just one run in his 15 appearances and is a perfect 10-for-10 in save opportunities. Hitters are .156 against him and he will likely be the next reliever the A's call upon should they need to.

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