Canha finds comfort zone against Sale, then walks off for A's in 10th

Canha finds comfort zone against Sale, then walks off for A's in 10th

OAKLAND — An early-season ticket to Triple-A Nashville wasn’t what Mark Canha had in mind, but the time in the minors was well spent.

The A’s outfielder says he came back a more confident and prepared hitter, and was that ever apparent Friday night. Canha capped a 3-for-4 night with a 10th inning game-winning homer off Heath Hembree to sink the Red Sox 3-2 and give the A’s their fourth walk-off victory in their past 13 games.

Hembree fell behind 2-0 and then left a slider hanging on the inner half of the plate, and Canha turned on it and launched it over the left field wall, ending an entertaining and well-played game that had the bipartisan Coliseum crowd charged up throughout the night.

To hear Canha tell it, he wasn’t in his comfort zone stepping in against Hembree to lead off the bottom of the 10th.

“Even in that at-bat, I was kind of battling myself,” he said. “My take on the 1-0 pitch was super-rushy and super-jumpy, and I told myself I needed to calm down after that pitch. I told myself ‘calm down, go slow,’ and I saw it really well and put a good swing on it.”

Strangely enough, Canha appeared quite comfortable taking his hacks against fireballing Red Sox lefty Chris Sale, the five-time All-Star and major leagues’ strikeout leader. Sale struck out 10 over seven innings of two-run ball — matching his own modern-day major league record with eight consecutive starts in a season with double-digit strikeouts (a mark he shares with Pedro Martinez).

But Canha lined a double to left in his first at-bat, then got the A’s on the board with a run-scoring triple to right in the fifth.

Canha had faced Sale just one prior time, going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts on Opening Night a year ago when the lefty was mowing down hitters for the White Sox.

“I was a different player at the beginning of last year than I am now,” Canha said. “I just kept telling myself that, and telling myself tonight I’m gonna see the ball better against him than I did. I just had a plan to be aggressive all night, and it worked out.”

Canha went 2-for-19 to begin his season and was optioned to Nashville. At the time, manager Bob Melvin said Canha needed consistent at-bats in order to make a quick return to the bigs. Looking back, Canha believes that stint at Triple-A was important. In the seven games he’s played upon returning, he is 10-for-21 (.476) with two homers and six RBI.

“I needed the at-bats and I needed to make some adjustments,” he said. “I wasn’t where I needed to be. I had some things to figure out. I’m not saying I’ve figured it out, but I’m seeing the ball a little better.”

A's lower strikeout rate should help improve situational hitting

A's lower strikeout rate should help improve situational hitting

OAKLAND – We're still early in the MLB season, but through 27 games, the A's have been striking out at a noticeably lower rate than last year.

As a team, the A's have struck out in just 18 percent of their plate appearances this season, the second-best mark in the majors. Last year, Oakland ranked 18th in the league, striking out at a rate of 22.1 percent.

A’s manager Bob Melvin admits it’s probably too early in the season to really focus on those numbers, but he does credit hitting coach Darren Bush for the improvement.

“It’s just probably Bushy preparing them like he does and knowing the league a little bit more,” Melvin said. “The emphasis on trying to put the ball in play and staying within your zones – probably all those things add up.”

As noted by Athletics Nation's Alex Hall, three players have keyed the team’s improved contact rate: Marcus Semien, Chad Pinder and Matt Chapman.

Semien has lowered his strikeout percentage from 18.6 percent last year to 11.2 percent this season. Pinder has gone from 26.4 percent to 15.2 percent. Chapman has taken the biggest step of all, dropping from 23.7 percent all the way down to 10.2 percent this year.

Not surprisingly, all three players are having career years at the plate.

Pinder leads the team with a .320 batting average and ranks third with an .848 OPS. Semien is slashing .311/.379/.505 and looks like an All-Star at shortstop.

And then there’s Chapman. The A’s third baseman looks like a legitimate MVP candidate, hitting .311/.407/.633 with eight home runs and 18 RBI, while only striking out 11 times all season. Chapman is also on pace to shatter his previous career high in walks.

[RELATED: Chad Pinder making strong case to be in A's everyday lineup]

To this point, the decrease in strikeouts has not led to an increase in run production, but it is certainly putting more pressure on opposing defenses. Over the course of the season, it should also help the A’s improve their situational hitting, such as driving in a runner from third with less than two outs.

Oakland is still hitting for plenty of power, which means it will likely succumb to its share of strikeouts. But the improved contact rate this season is certainly a noticeable and welcome development.

Ex-A's reliever Shawn Kelley has no hard feelings toward former team


Ex-A's reliever Shawn Kelley has no hard feelings toward former team

OAKLAND -- After Shawn Kelley's stellar stretch run with the A's last season, it seemed likely he would return to Oakland as a free agent.

The 34-year-old right-hander appeared in 19 games last August and September, registering a 2.16 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, with 18 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings. But while there was initially mutual interest in a reunion, the A's decided to go in a different direction and Kelley signed a one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Texas Rangers.

"We talked from the very end of (the season) about getting something done," Kelley told NBC Sports California. "I think when they got (Joakim) Soria and gave him that money (two years, $15 million), my agent called right away because we were kind of worried. We had been talking to (A's general manager David) Forst. Both sides were like, 'Yeah, let's get something done.' When Soria signed, we kind of saw the writing on the wall. And then (Forst) wished me luck in whatever decision I made. He said, 'We spent a little on a couple of guys and so we wish you the best and thanks for everything you did coming over, but we're out of money.'"

Kelley says he carries no hard feelings toward his former squad, as he understands the business side of baseball. He still has a great relationship with his old teammates and manager.

"I talked to all the guys when they came to Texas and I talked to them (Tuesday)," Kelley said. "I went over and gave BoMel a big hug and told him, 'Man, I'm sorry. I wanted to be here. It just didn't work out.' That's part of it. It wasn't for a lack of effort. There was obviously genuine interest from me and definitely some genuine interest from their side. Things just go different ways sometimes in free agency."

Kelley has carried last year's success into this season with the Rangers. He is already 3-0 with a save and a 1.80 ERA, as well as a 0.80 WHIP. He has notched nine strikeouts in 10 innings without issuing a single walk.

"It's been great," Kelley said. "It's a good group. It kind of reminds me of what we had over there last year (with the A's), as far as a good mix of young guys with some veterans, a lot of energy, and a lot of will to not give in and keep fighting. It's been a good experience."

Kelley is extremely thankful for the opportunity the A's gave him last season, especially after the Nationals let him go following his now infamous -- and probably overblown -- glove-slamming incident. He believes his time in Oakland rejuvenated his career.

[RELATED: Versatile Pinder forcing way into everyday starting role]

"I had fun when I went over there and saw a renewed energy and passion for just going out and having fun and enjoying it, and it not feeling like work every day," Kelley said. "It was a great experience. I loved it."

For now, Kelley is happy to be a Texas Ranger, although he doesn't rule out a return to Oakland down the road.

"Hey, you never know," he smiled. "One day, I may be back."