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A's 'pen is mightier

Newcomers turn major weakness into team's strength

Posted: Thursday March 31, 2005 11:43AM; Updated: Thursday March 31, 2005 1:27PM
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Huston Street
Baseball America ranks Huston Street as the A's fifth-best prospect.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

PHOENIX -- Oakland manager Ken Macha likes to tell this story about getting booed at his home park. It was last July and he was walking out to the mound at Network Associates Coliseum -- with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the A's leading the White Sox, 5-3 -- to pull a cruising Mark Mulder in favor of struggling closer Octavio Dotel.

"Man, they were booing me," Macha said recently before an exhibition game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. "[The fans] were all over me. So I just said to Dotel, 'You got my back?'"

Dotel remembers it well. "I told him he didn't have to worry," he said with a laugh.

That day Dotel sandwiched a walk of Carlos Lee between swinging strikeouts of Magglio Ordonez and Paul Konerko, preserving Mulder's 16th win of the season.

The outing turned out to be fairly smooth compared to a lot of others for the Oakland bullpen last season.

Nobody in the American League blew more saves than the A's did in 2004. (The Tigers also failed to convert 28 of their 63 save opportunities.) The A's bullpen was the major reason Oakland pulled an uncharacteristic fold in the season's last month, going 10-17. During that stretch, the relief crew blew five games.

The A's came into camp looking to fix that. Dotel will open the season as the closer again, though his spring has been spotty, to say the least. He's had a mysteriously slow fastball, and he's given up more than a hit an inning.

"Right now, I don't have my fastball," Dotel admitted last week. "It's hard for me to come out here the first day and 'Boom!' Ninety-five. I'm not a Spring Training guy."

The A's seem willing to let Dotel work out his problems, at least for now. They don't plan on letting him go much beyond an inning an outing -- something they did too often last season -- which should help. In his first appearance with the A's last July, following his midseason trade from Houston, Dotel went 2 2/3 inning and blew his first chance at a save. Altogether, he blew six saves with Oakland in 28 opportunities.

Dotel will have help from Kiko Calero and young Huston Street. Calero, a righty with a hard cutting fastball, a good curve and a solid change, was obtained in the trade that sent Mulder to St. Louis. And Street, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2002 College World Series, is a hard thrower who could take on the role of Dotel's setup man and who could, if Dotel falters or gets traded, take over the closer's job.

Street, a 21-year-old right-hander, was a compensation pick after the first round in the 2004 June draft and has raced through the organization. He's been a little spotty this spring, too. But one American League scout told the San Francisco Chronicle that Street's stuff is so good he could be the team's closer by May.

Street will have none of that talk. Though he's virtually assured of making the team, he's trying to keep things simple.

"I'm just thinking about the mitt," he said the other day in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the A's were playing an exhibition against the Giants. "Only one pitch at a time. It's all about perspective, how you approach it."

Whether it's Street or Dotel on the back end, the A's figure to have a much better bullpen in '05. And that should mean a lot less booing when Macha heads to the mound.