Oakland A's Camp Notes: Baserunning Blues

The Oakland A's split their two games on Monday, downing the Chicago Cubs 6-4 and losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks 10-2. Joe Blanton had a strong second spring appearance, while Tim Harikkala took a step back in his quest to win a bullpen spot. As for the A's quest to incorporate more "small ball" into their game; well, let's just say that it is still a work in progress.

In the split-squad game against the Chicago Cubs, the A's sent rookie Joe Blanton to the mound to square off with Carlos Zambrano. Blanton matched Zambrano's zeros through the first three frames. The Kentucky alum limited the Cubs to two hits, while walking none and striking out one batter. It was a strong second appearance for Blanton, who has done nothing to jeopardize his place in the A's rotation for 2005 so far this spring. Thus far in two appearances the only blemish on Blanton's record is a homerun he allowed on the heels of a hit batsman in his first outing.

Fellow rotation competitor Keiichi Yabu did not fare as well as Blanton, however. Yabu entered the game in the 6th inning with the A's losing 1-0 and he proceeded to allow two runs in his first inning of work. He recovered to throw a scoreless second inning, but he struggled with his control the entire appearance. He'll need to pitch better in his next outing to get back in the competition for the 5th starter spot. Reliever Juan Cruz made his first game appearance as an Oakland A, throwing two innings and allowing one run.

The most interesting aspect of the A's game against the Cubs was the galling baserunning by both teams. There were an astounding four baserunners cut down trying to steal or caught in failed hit and runs, two for each team. Only the A's Mike Rouse was successful in stealing second base. Oakland has been caught stealing four times and has been successful only twice so far this spring. The A's have also hit into an astounding number of double-plays this spring, a trend that continued in their game against the Cubs.

Despite the poor baserunning, the A's managed to pull out the victory against Chicago thanks to a pair of late rallies. Down 3-0 going into the top of the 7th inning, Oakland rallied for four runs, keyed by a Charles Thomas double and an RBI single by Erubiel Durazo. Thomas finished the game 2-5 with two runs scored and a pair of RBIs. Durazo went 2-2 with two RBIs hitting in the third spot for the second straight day. He homered from the third spot on Monday. Prospects Kurt Suzuki and Matt Watson continued to impress. Suzuki threw out an attempted base-stealer and made a couple of nice defensive plays. He also drove in a run in the decisive 9th inning. Watson went 2-5 and drove in the A's 6th and final run. He is hitting .364 so far this spring.

The A's second game was a forgettable contest, as they were trounced by the Diamondbacks. Dan Haren started the game and struggled during his first two frames, allowing two runs and hitting two batters. He settled down in the third frame and retired the side in order. Tim Harikkala followed Haren in the 4th and was met with an onslaught. Harikkala allowed seven hits and six runs in that 4th inning, the biggest blow coming in the form of a three-run double by Tony Clark. A's relief prospect Jairo Garcia made a one inning appearance and managed to get through the frame without walking a batter. However, he did allow a homerun to D'Backs prospect Conor Jackson. Garcia has pitched decently this spring, but he is likely behind Huston Street, Tyler Johnson and Kirk Saarloos in the competition for the A's final bullpen spot.

Rich Harden in control this spring:

Starter Rich Harden has received a lot of praise from the A's catchers and coaching staff on the progress he has made with his control on the mound since last spring. The third-year starter scuffled with his command throughout spring training last year and was actually sent to AAA-Sacramento to make one start at the beginning of the year in an attempt to improve his command. This spring, Harden appears to need no such seasoning. In his first spring outing on Monday, Harden threw three shutout innings, allowing only two hits and walking none. According to Harden, his improvements as a pitcher are related knowing how to harness his powerful fastball.

"Location is still more important than velocity," Harden said. "I've learned that over the past year and a half."

Last year, Harden went 3-5 with a 4.52 ERA in the first half, often getting doomed by one bad inning. In the second half, he was 8-2 with a 3.49 ERA and averaged nearly an inning longer per start.

"The last six weeks of the season, he was probably our best pitcher," A's manager Ken Macha said. "That was all in a time when we were in a tight pennant race. The maturity he showed, being able to handle pressure. He was able to control his emotions better and make quality pitches."

Harden's command was better and he didn't try overpowering every hitter. But the biggest difference was the re-emergence of his split-finger fastball.

"It was as close to unhittable as a pitch can be," Adam Melhuse said. "We'd get to two strikes, and I wouldn't have to put a sign down. We already knew. The other teams knew. Our dugout knew. The whole stadium knew a split was coming. It was no secret."

"Some teams would just take it and hope it's a ball. It was the only chance they had when he's rolling like that. It's tough to catch, so I have to imagine it's tough to hit."

Scout.com contributed to this report.

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