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A's gear up for new season with added expectations

A's gear up for new season with added expectations

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Center fielder Coco Crisp strutted back into the Bay Area with puffed-up hair and a retro-style beard. Red-headed right fielder Josh Reddick slicked back his locks and added even more inches to his bushy beard as part of an ongoing competition. General manager Billy Beane still had his hair combed clean but picked ``a terrible time,'' he said, for a sun spot to be removed from his nose.

The Oakland Athletics are back, and with plenty of new looks.

In front of a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 fans at neighboring Oracle Arena, players and coaches returned to Oakland on Sunday to drum-up support before heading to spring training in a few weeks. FanFest, the meet-and-greet event the team canceled for three years until holding it again last January, swelled with so much support the team had to turn people away.

After an improbable run to the AL West title last season, attention on the low-budget club could be greater this summer. Unlike a year ago, the A's aren't sneaking up on anybody.

``It's better than having no expectations,'' Beane said.

Players said they started to realize their newfound fame during the offseason.

Reddick spent time back home in southeast Georgia. He bought his first house in Guyton, Ga., and a new English Bulldog named Murray - after Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.

``Felt like it was right,'' he joked.

Reddick said people recognized him more no matter where he went, and he even hosted his first charity event - a home-run derby to support his hometown of Rincon, Ga. Same went for several other players, whether they stayed in Northern California or returned to home for the shortened down time.

All of it was the result of Oakland's surprising success.

The A's played a video montage to start FanFest that highlighted the improbable run: They finished 94-68, capturing the AL West title on the final day of the regular season over Texas for the franchise's first playoff berth since 2006 and became the only team in major league history to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with fewer than 10 to play.

After losing the first two games in the division series at Detroit, the A's rallied at home to force a decisive Game 5 at the Coliseum, where Tigers ace Justin Verlander pitched a four-hitter in a 6-0 victory.

``Expectations haven't changed,'' Reddick said. ``We have firm belief we can do it again this year.''

Reigning AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin grabbed a microphone on stage following the video and team introductions. He quieted the roaring crowd of A's fans and took a few seconds to savor the moment before asking, ``What's up Oakland?''

Typical Bo-Mel, as players call him.

``My job is to get everybody with the right mindset, the right focus, knowing that we have to try to build on last year, create the momentum, understand what we did last year but know that each and every year is separate,'' Melvin said later. ``And that we have to work even harder, focus just as much, not worry about the distractions, outside things, whether that's expectations or anything like that and just focus on what we were good at last year in playing for that day.''

Creating the same clubhouse atmosphere could be tough.

The A's playoff berth came with a payroll of $59.5 million - lowest in the majors - and 12 rookies. They did it with significant injuries to their starting pitchers, and they did it after losing right-hander Bartolo Colon to a 50-game suspension in August for a positive testosterone test. Oakland then re-signed him in November.

Most of the team remains intact, with the notable exceptions of outfielder Jonny Gomes, pitcher Brandon McCarthy and shortstops Cliff Pennington and Stephen Drew. The A's dealt Pennington to Arizona in October in a three-team trade for outfielder Chris Young. Melvin said Young will be part of a five-man rotation - that includes designated hitter - with Reddick, Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith.

Crisp and Reddick, the team's most vocal leaders left, said this year's club will have to find its place. Some of the bonding even started at FanFest. New Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima said Young taught him his favorite new American idiom: ``For real?''

Crisp some changes might include tweaking the pie-in-the-face celebrations and the ``Bernie Lean'' dance that became staples last summer. He joked that Pee-Wee Herman's old routine is one possibility.

``Things are going to change up a little bit with our chemistry,'' Crisp said. ``I think that's the main thing, that's what made us so good last year was just our chemistry was perfect pretty much. That's going to be something we're going to have to work on in spring training and figure out our new identity.''

The A's once again will be underdogs in the AL West. The high-priced Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton away from hard-hitting Texas, and both division rivals could threaten Oakland's crown.

Players said money didn't matter last season, and they don't think it will this time around either.

``Other teams made a lot of improvements. That doesn't mean we can't have a similar or better season than last year,'' Cespedes said in Spanish. ``We just have to put in our heads that we're a good team together and to go out and enjoy the game. Don't put so much pressure on ourselves.''

The team's architect agrees.

``The one sort of narrative I never really bought into was that we snuck up on anybody last year,'' Beane said. ``I don't think you sneak up on somebody in 162 games.''

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

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USA TODAY Sports

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.

MORE CAPITALS: BIZARRE SEQUENCE LEADS TO CAPS SCORING AND GETTING PENALIZED AT THE SAME TIME

A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-SABRE

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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.