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Doolittle to assume closer’s role

ST. PETERSBURG — The A’s are done playing musical chairs in the ninth inning.

Having toyed, sometimes unsuccessfully, with a closer-by-committee approach following Jim Johnson’s demotion from the role just 11 days into the season, the A’s appear ready to anoint Sean Doolittle as their new guy.

Manager Bob Melvin didn’t say so directly after Doolittle locked down the save in Tuesday’s 3-0 shutout in Tampa, but he sure suggested it, relaying as close to an official announcement as he has all year.

“The way things are setting up,” Melvin said, “there’s a good chance he will be in the closing role.”

To which Doolittle responded, “It’s pretty cool, I guess.”

“He’s done a good job of communicating with us as far as what our roles are all season long, so it’s not exactly a surprise when the phone rings,” the lefty continued. “We know what’s going on. I’ve said to him a number of times, whenever you need me to pitch, I’ll pitch. Whether you need me for two outs in the sixth or in the ninth, I’m ready to go.”

Doolittle’s promotion comes just four weeks after the A’s rewarded him with a five-year deal on the premise that, one day, he would be their closer. No one expected it to happen this soon, though, given the club’s decision to reel in Johnson via trade in the offseason and pay him $10 million in arbitration salary.

Johnson’s role is anything but defined at the moment. He’s allowed seven runs, all earned, over his last six outings following a 10 1/3-inning scoreless streak and has a 7.00 ERA in 19 appearances, compared to Doolittle’s 3.27 mark in 21 outings.

Doolittle issued his first walk since Aug. 31, 2013 with two outs in the ninth inning Tuesday. His strikeout total, meanwhile, stands at 30 over 22 innings — including 19 against right-handers.

Lefty closers form an exclusive class, but Doolittle has always felt “like I’ve been able to get righties out just as well as lefties. That’s something I take a lot of pride in, being able to get guys out on both sides of the plate.”

The A’s are now showing confidence in his ability to do it in the ninth inning.

“I’ve gotten to do it very sporadically over the last couple of years and a little bit this year, and it is a little bit different out there when you’re trying to nail down the last three outs of the game in a tight ball game,” he said. “But the more I’ve done it, the more and more I’ve been able to control that adrenaline and use it to my advantage and feed off it, and I’m starting to feel more comfortable in that spot.”

Blanks joins A’s; Barton designated for assignment

The A’s have acquired Kyle Blanks from the Padres in exchange for Minor League outfielder Jake Goebbert and a player to be named later.

Blanks, a right handed-hitting first baseman/outfielder, will join the A’s in Cleveland on Friday and take the roster spot of Daric Barton, who has been designated for assignment.

With Barton out of the mix, after hitting just .158 in 30 games, Blanks will presumably form a platoon with Brandon Moss at first base.

The A’s have 10 days to trade, release or, like has happened multiple times before with him, pass Barton through waivers. He can decline a Minor League assignment but has opted to remain with the organization before.

The 6-foot-6 Blanks was 2-for-10 with the Padres. He was promoted from Triple-A in early May after hitting nine homers but optioned again this week to make room for Carlos Quentin.

Blanks, 27, was a 42nd-round pick in 2004 out of Yavapai College in Arizona. But he wasn’t exactly a sleeper, as this was during the old Draft-and-follow days, which allowed a team to hold the exclusive rights to a player up until one week before the Draft the following year.

He made his big league debut at the age of 22, against the A’s on June 19, 2009. He got his first hit the following day. Blanks was a first baseman that was asked to play the outfield by the organization, and took to it far better than many thought.

In July 2009, a swarm of bees in left field at Petco Park – near where Blanks was playing – caused a 53-minute delay against the Astros. A month later, Blanks delighted the home crowd by chugging around the bases for an inside the park home run against the Cubs.

Heck, Blanks, not even with a year of service time, even had his own Bobble Head night at Petco Park in 2010.

But Blanks couldn’t kick the injury bug with the Padres.

He had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2010. He later had season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in April of 2012. He also had issues with a strained arch in his right foot and, last season, left Achilles tendinitis.

The most at-bats he had in the big leagues in a single season was in 2013, when he hit .243 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs in 308 plate appearances.

Goebbert, meanwhile, was hitting .257 with six homers and 25 RBIs in 31 games for Triple-A Sacramento.

Griffin to have elbow surgery Wednesday

ARLINGTON — A’s right-hander A.J. Griffin will undergo elbow surgery in Houston on Wednesday and, like Jarrod Parker, miss the entire 2014 season.

Parker succumbed to Tommy John surgery in March, and Griffin could be staring down the same fate, though the A’s won’t know for certain the extent of his procedure until it’s completed, manager Bob Melvin said Tuesday.

Dr. Thomas Mehlhoff, who performed Tommy John surgery on A’s reliever Fernando Rodriguez last March, will orchestrate Griffin’s surgery, which comes seven months after the righty first felt discomfort in his elbow.

The injury forced Griffin off the A’s postseason roster, and he was shut down in mid-March following a handful of Spring Training outings with what was described as flexor tendinitis. He attempted to start a throwing program just last week but immediately experienced a familiar ache, leading to Tuesday’s visit with Mehlhoff.

“We were certainly hoping this wasn’t going to be the case,” said Melvin. “Losing two guys like that for an entire season is a difficult blow. Losing one’s a blow, two’s tough. You move on, but you have sympathy for the two guys that are having to go through that because they’ve meant so much to this team over the last couple of years.”

Melvin is prepared to forge on with a Griffin-less rotation that entered the day with an American League-best 2.89 ERA. The A’s have starting depth in Triple-A arms Josh Lindblom and Arnold Leon — one of which will be needed during a scheduled doubleheader against the Mariners on May 7 — but not much beyond that. Lefty Drew Pomeranz, currently stationed in the bullpen, isn’t stretched out enough to start.

Leon has fared better in the early going of the season, pitching to a 3.75 ERA through five starts for Sacramento. Lindblom, who gave the A’s 4 2/3 innings in a spot start April 2, has allowed 19 earned runs in 23 2/3 innings spanning four starts for a 7.23 ERA in Triple-A.

Melvin spoke with Griffin briefly on Monday and said the pitcher, who is 21-11 with a 3.60 ERA in 47 starts over two seasons for the club, was “in good spirits.”

“He’s always pretty happy, go-lucky,” he said. “I think the fact that he’s having it done this early gives him the light at the end of the tunnel to pitch next season. He’s looking at it very positively.”

Johnson could regain ninth-inning duties soon

ARLINGTON — Jim Johnson may be nearing a return to the closer’s role he lost less than two weeks into the season.

The right-handed veteran allowed at least two runs in three of his first five appearances while absorbing two losses and a blown save, after collecting 101 saves over the previous two years. He’s since gained two wins while pitching in innings not named the ninth and hasn’t allowed a run over his last six outings.

Opponents are hitting just .179 against Johnson over that stretch, numbers that may very well suggest he’s back to old form. His sinker sure looks like it is.

In the meantime, the A’s have been utilizing a closer-by-committee approach and playing to match-ups, with Sean Doolittle and Luke Gregerson mostly splitting ninth-inning duties. But Johnson’s continued success could change that.

“It has certainly elevated the potential for him to close,” manager Bob Melvin said Monday. “He’s pitching really well.”

Melvin had Johnson warming up in a save situation in Houston on Friday, but his services weren’t needed after the A’s scored seven runs in the ninth inning.

The All-Star righty entered Monday riding a streak of 20 consecutive saves against American League West competition dating back to Aug. 6, 2012. He has a 0.64 ERA over that 27-game span.

Lowrie: “Someone should own up for their actions.”

HOUSTON — Jed Lowrie remains befuddled by his place in what he believes to be “an internal issue that they have over there” in Houston’s organization.

Moreover, this strange fallout with the Astros should be no more, he believes, particularly since the A’s don’t plan to retaliate in any way for the dramatics that unfolded in the seventh inning Thursday, when Houston’s Paul Clemens drilled Lowrie in the backside with a pitch — after unsuccessfully attempting to do so twice last week.

Clemens denies the act was intentional, even though the series of events that led to it suggest it was clearly premeditated. That he was ejected immediately supports this notion.

Astros manager Bo Porter was not pleased with Lowrie bunting with a 7-1 lead in the first inning a week ago, even though a shift was activated. Porter later charged the field and yelled at Lowrie, shortly after Clemens nearly hit him with a pitch.

Even though he missed, Lowrie believed the antics to be over. Thursday, they were brought to life again, though Porter repeated Friday what he said last week: “The game takes care of itself.” To which Lowrie responded, “What does that even mean?”

“I don’t know what else to say, because, clearly, he’s just stonewalling,” Lowrie continued. “At the end of the day, it seems like an internal issue that they have over there. I don’t know if it’s frustration or self-realization, but it seems like such an internal problem, honestly.”

That’s why Lowrie shrugged his shoulders after being hit Thursday and calmly trotted down to first base. Had he motioned toward Clemens or sparked an argument, there’s no question his teammates would’ve charged the field. Instead, they went about their business.

The A’s are 4-0 against the Astros this season, outscoring them, 29-8.

“You don’t want to give them any extra fuel,” said Josh Donaldson, who homered behind Lowrie. “It really depends on what Jed wants to do. If he wants to play it cool and take his base, then we’re fine. But if they start talking back and forth with each other, it could’ve been different. But I think Jed handled it the way he wanted to handle it, and it was squashed.”

“I think it was pretty obvious what was going on, and no need to even dignify it,” added manager Bob Melvin, who has not spoken to Porter about the incident. “Just move on and hope it just goes away.

“Personally, I’d just like to move past it. It’s been going on too long for me, anyway. I thought we had moved past it when we were at home.”

So did Lowrie, who, believes the actions ultimately fall on Porter. The Astros manager, asked Friday if he ordered Clemens to hit Oakland’s shortstop, didn’t deny it, saying, “The game takes care of itself. I don’t think any of us would want to sit here and talk about conversations that take place in the dugout or in the clubhouse. It’s almost like, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Said Lowrie: “When his response is, ‘The game takes care of itself’ and ‘George Springer got hit, so I don’t see a problem with it,’ and then Paul Clemens says, ‘I wasn’t trying to hit him,’ that he cut a fastball and clearly it was a two-seamer coming back into me, they’re not on the same page. It’s pretty contradicting. It seems like someone should own up for their actions.

“The manager, with his comments, essentially said he didn’t see a problem with them throwing at me, and Clemens said he didn’t throw at me because he doesn’t want to get suspended. That’s the way I read it. Like I said last night, every way you look at it, it’s stupid, it’s embarrassing.”

So what’s next?

“Honestly, I’m so confused by the situation, I don’t even know where it stands,” said Lowrie. “I don’t know who’s keeping score in the situation. I’ve been confused from the beginning, and it’s become more convoluted.”

Lowrie: “It’s flat-out embarrassing.”

HOUSTON — This time, Paul Clemens didn’t miss.

Six days after unsuccessfully attempting to hit A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie on two occasions, Clemens plunked Lowrie in the backside with a pitch in the seventh inning of Oakland’s 10-1 win in Houston on Thursday and was immediately ejected by home-plate umpire Toby Basner.

That he even tried again is “flat-out embarrassing,” said Lowrie, whose payback came in the form of a run on Josh Donaldson’s ensuing two-run homer.

“There’s no other way to say it. Every perspective, every angle you look at it, it’s embarrassing. That kind of conduct should be condemned.”

The antics stem from Houston manager Bo Porter’s displeasure with Lowrie’s decision to bunt in the first inning with his team already leading, 7-0, on Friday. Except Porter had turned on the defensive shift, so Lowrie saw no other choice.

Later in the game, Clemens threw in between Lowrie’s legs, and Porter was seen yelling at the infielder. No matter, Lowrie believed the drama to be over.

“I still don’t understand why it was made into a big deal to begin with,” Lowrie said. “He throws at me twice in Oakland, and then throws at me again today. For a number of reasons it’s embarrassing. I had him in an at-bat before, I hit a double off him, and then he throws at me the first pitch. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It hit me in the back leg. I’d be curious what his answer was, or what Bo’s answer was. It’s pretty obvious that he was throwing at me on purpose for the third time.”

Porter’s response was identical to the one he fed reporters last week, saying, “The game of baseball takes care of itself.”

Houston’s manager added, “George Springer got hit tonight, too. It’s part of the game. … I don’t see it as frustrating. I don’t see it as something to get past. What are we getting past?”

“There was no carryover on my end,” insisted Clemens. “What happened in Oakland was squashed in Oakland. Bad pitch there and it just so happened I cut a fastball. Guy’s been hot, swinging a good bat. I wanted to let him know I’m not afraid to come inside.”

For Lowrie, he wants it to be known these actions are not acceptable. For that reason, he believes a suspension from Major League Baseball is “worth looking into.” He also noted, “The buck stops with [Porter]. He’s the one that’s responsible for his players’ conduct.”

“I thought it ended in Oakland. I said this then,” he said. “If they want to continue to hold a grudge, that’s up to them. Clearly they’ve taken it very personally.”

Griffin to get second opinion on elbow

HOUSTON — A’s right-hander A.J. Griffin, sidelined by a flexor strain for nearly six weeks, will get a second opinion on his pitching elbow in Houston next week.

The A’s hoped rest would be the cure for Griffin’s ongoing discomfort, felt since the later stages of last season, but it was still there when he attempted to begin a throwing program this week.

“He’s throwing a little bit and not feeling much better,” manager Bob Melvin said Thursday in Houston.

Now there’s concern that the issue, once believed to simply be a bout of tendinitis, could lead to surgery.

Griffin will meet with the Houston-based Dr. Thomas Mehlhoff on Tuesday to decide if that’s necessary. Mehlhoff performed Tommy John surgery on A’s reliever Fernando Rodriguez on March 27, 2013, and Rodriguez is nearing the end of what’s been a very successful rehab process.

Griffin, 26, was 14-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 32 starts in his first full season in the Majors last year, compiling a team-best 200 innings. But he was left off the American League Division Series roster because of elbow issues, which never went away. They only worsened with each start in Spring Training, and the A’s opted to send him for tests with Dr. Doug Freedberg, who suggested the pitcher undergo platelet-rich plasma therapy.

Griffin, originally penciled in as the club’s No. 4 starter entering spring,  did just that and was initially expected to return to the rotation in late May or early June — an encouraging prognosis for a team that knew it would already be without righty Jarrod Parker, who succumbed to his second Tommy John surgery, for the entire season.

Suddenly Griffin could be facing the same fate, though the A’s remain equipped with an enviable rotation that entered the day with an AL-best 2.80 ERA.

Johnson out as closer

MINNEAPOLIS — Jim Johnson is out as the A’s closer.

Manager Bob Melvin said Thursday morning he’s “going to give Jim a break” from the ninth inning and go with a closer-by-committee approach. Right-handers Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook and Dan Otero and lefty Sean Doolittle are all options.

“There’s no timetable,” Melvin said. “Let’s just get him straightened out. And we have plenty options. That’s the good thing about our team, our versatility. We’ll play it by ear based on how the game’s going, who’s available on that particular day.”

The news comes a day after Johnson gave up two runs in the ninth inning to allow the Twins to tie a game the A’s ultimately won in extras. An All-Star closer with 101 saves to his name in the previous two seasons, Johnson is already 0-2 with a blown save and has allowed at least two runs in three of his five appearances and seven runs overall — tied for most among all American League relievers — in just 3 1/3 innings.

The 30-year-old right-hander has offered up nine hits and issued six walks in that span for a 4.50 WHIP.

Johnson wasn’t surprised by Melvin’s decision and told MLB.com and the San Francisco Chronicle, “He has to do what he has to do. I just gotta keep working. Nothing else I can do.

“I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. The ball’s not going where I want it to go consistently. Try to get it sorted out, try to get locked in … I wish I had an answer.”

The A’s traded for Johnson from Baltimore in December to offset the loss of Grant Balfour and are paying him $10 million, before he becomes a free agent at season’s end.

Lindblom called up to start nightcap

Right-hander Josh Lindblom has been brought up from Triple-A Sacramento to start the nightcap of Oakland’s split doubleheader with the Indians on Wednesday.

Clubs participating in split doubleheaders are allowed to employ a 26th man on their active roster for the second game, so the A’s will not have to take another player off their current roster to make room for Lindblom.

Acquired by the A’s with Craig Gentry in the trade that sent Michael Choice to the Rangers in the offseason, Lindblom went 0-2 with a 4.02 ERA in six games for the A’s this spring and took a no-hitter into the fifth inning in his final start against Seattle.

Lefty Scott Kazmir, originally scheduled to start Tuesday’s game that was postponed, gets the nod for the first game. Melvin said the decision for the second game came down to Lindblom and prospect Arnold Leon.

“A little more experience with Josh,” said Melvin. “He’s pretty similar to a guy like [Jesse] Chavez. He can give you the type of versatility, whether it’s an inning or two or long relief or starting. His last outing was his best for us, started throwing a little bit of a slider, too, and now a four-pitch guy, so we’re excited about seeing him perform.”

The 26-year-old was 1-3 with a 5.46 ERA in eight games (five starts) with the Rangers last year and is 5-8 with a 3.82 ERA in 109 big league appearances overall, including stints with the Dodgers and Phillies. He faced Cleveland once last season, allowing five hits and three runs in six innings with one walk and six strikeouts.

The lineup for Game 1: Crisp CF, Donaldson DH, Lowrie SS, Moss 1B, Cespedes LF, Reddick RF, Callaspo 3B, Norris C, Sogard 2B

Donaldson will be back at third base for the second game, said Melvin, who expects to use all of his position players today.

A’s forced to make tough roster decisions

First baseman Daric Barton and outfielder Sam Fuld have made the A’s Opening Day roster. Catcher Stephen Vogt will begin the season at Triple-A Sacramento, and Michael Taylor, one of the club’s former top prospects, was designated for assignment.

Those were just a handful of announcements made Saturday my manager Bob Melvin, who has also elected to start the season with a bullpen that will include lefties Drew Pomeranz and Fernando Abad and right-hander Evan Scribner. His other four relievers — Jim Johnson, Sean Doolittle, Luke Gregerson, Dan Otero — were already locks.

As expected, righty Ryan Cook (shoulder) will begin the season on the disabled list, as will outfielder Craig Gentry (back). Both are expected to be back when eligible April 5.

Lefty Joe Savery, who was in battle for a bullpen spot, will pitch in relief for Sacramento.

“Certain times you look at Spring Training numbers and sometimes you don’t, and when you’re competing for jobs you do,” said Melvin. “Pomeranz and Abad had terrific springs, and we do need the length option. We feel like Pomeranz and Scribner give us that, and Abad gives us that lefty matchup we were looking for, and deservingly so.”

Melvin’s most difficult conversation Saturday came with Vogt, who hit .364 with three homers this spring, after enjoying a breakout stint with the A’s last year and collecting the walk-off hit in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.

The A’s very much expect Vogt back in the big leagues this year, but they’ve opted to begin the year with only two catchers — Derek Norris and John Jaso — to ensure roster room for Barton, who will be entering his eighth season in Oakland.

Barton will start at first base against most right-handers, while the A’s other left handed-hitting first baseman, Brandon Moss, sees more time at designated hitter. Alberto Callaspo will start at first base against lefties.

“I went about my business all spring as if I was going to make the team,” said an emotional Vogt. “Obviously you never want to believe it until it happens. I believe in myself and I know at some point this year I’ll be back to help. It’s still a tough day to get that news.

“This is such a great team, a fun team, and it’s just hard to not necessarily be a physical part of it at the beginning of the year. I think that’s the hardest part for me. I love these guys.”

“That was maybe the most difficult one I’ve had to do,” said Melvin. “Not only what he’s meant to this team in the time he’s been here, but he comes into spring trying to make the team and proving he belongs here and he did. That’s a tough one on everybody, not only myself but the front office, the coaches, certainly him. Now, is he going to be here at some point in time this year? I don’t see how he can’t be.”

Emotions also ran high for Taylor, who spent four years in the organization, the bulk of it at Triple-A. He hit just .135 in 74 at-bats at the big league level but excelled this spring, batting .274 with three home runs.

“I’m obviously a little sad because I’ll be missing some of the guys I’ve grown up with in this game,” said Taylor. “I know they’ll have a great season. Now, for me, it’s just seeing what the next step is for me and my family.

“I think I have a lot to offer as a player. It didn’t really come out here at the big league level. I’ll just continue to work hard and hopefully, at some point, I get the opportunity to break through and stick.”

The A’s have 10 days to trade, release or pass Taylor through waivers to keep him in the system, though that’s not likely to happen, with outside interest thought to be high for the outfielder.

“I can’t imagine that it’s not better than it’s ever been for him,” said Melvin. “When you’re getting as much playing time as he had, all the big league scouts are watching at that particular time, and he really impressed and performed well, not only offensively, but defensively. As an organization, certainly we’d like to keep him. But as a human being, you want the best to happen for him.”

For Fuld, his place on the A’s roster could be a temporary one, since Gentry is anticipated back during the team’s first homestand. But considering he had an opt-out date March 26, the A’s are fortunate to ensure more time with him.

Fuld can play all three outfield spots “plus-plus,” said Melvin, and “deserved to make the team,” after batting .271 with six extra-base hits, including four triples, this spring.

“Obviously I’m really excited,” Fuld said. “All you can ask for when you come into a situation like I did is an opportunity, and I got a good opportunity to play, and I’m generally pretty happy with how I played.

“This is an easy place to feel comfortable. It seems like whether you’re Josh Donaldson or the 25th man, everybody has a role here. I feel like everyone is going to have an opportunity to contribute, and that’s great.”

Speedster Billy Burns, acquired in the offseason from Washington for lefty Jerry Blevins, will begin the season at Double-A Midland, according to Melvin, after totaling a team-high 22 hits in 72 spring at-bats.

“He was very appreciative of the opportunity, and from what we’ve seen,” said Melvin, “he’ll be a big leaguer at some point, I believe.”

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