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A's third baseman still learning on the fly

A's third baseman Josh Donaldson tosses the baseball during a spring training baseball workout last week in Phoenix.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 9:31 p.m.

PHOENIX — Oakland A's third baseman Josh Donaldson took Oakland infield coach Mike Gallego aside the other day to voice his concerns about the angle he's been taking on slow grounders hit his way.

“He's not afraid to ask questions, and he thought the approach he was taking was making him fall offline as he was throwing,” Gallego said. “He wasn't satisfied with his angle and felt he could make a stronger throw.”

The answer was for Donaldson to keep his shoulders over the ball more, that way to get better spin and more accuracy on his throws to first base.

And that's how it is these days for Josh Donaldson, the baddest of the Bad News Bears — learning on the fly.

When the 2012 season ended in the playoffs, Oakland had an outfielder playing first base, a shortstop playing second, a catcher playing third and four rookies in the starting rotation. Walter Matthau's bunch didn't have anything on these guys.

Donaldson was the catcher-turned-third baseman. And as he comes back for a second season at what is still something of a foreign position, the question arises: Was last year a fluke?

The A's don't think so. Manager Bob Melvin has Donaldson penciled in as the starter at third, to be sure, but the A's also went out and traded for Jed Lowrie, a shortstop who could play third if needed. And Scott Sizemore, whose injury last spring led to Donaldson's ascension from behind the plate, is healthy, too, and he could be pulled from the second base competition to third if Donaldson isn't true to form.

Sizemore's ACL injury on day one last spring sent the A's scrambling for options. They didn't have another true third baseman they wanted on the roster, so they turned to Donaldson, a catcher who had spent perhaps a month playing third base in winter ball in the Dominican.

The move was hardly an immediate success. Donaldson wound up getting sent down a couple of times, but by season's end he was a threat offensively and defensively as the A's surged to the American League West title.

His goal now is to make sure his travels to the minor league need not be repeated.

“I used the time in Triple-A to regroup,” said Donaldson, who hit .290 in the final month and a half after his final recall, lifting his average from .153 to .241. “I managed to work it out.”

That six weeks, as good as it was with 11 doubles, eight homers and 26 RBIs in 47 games, is at best a partial résumé. The same is true for his strong defense down the stretch which is why he's still asking question of Gallego on an almost daily basis.

“When a pitcher makes a pitch, I want to be able to make a play,” Donaldson said in describing his defensive philosophy. “I had a little experience in the Dominican playing at third, but I'd always been a catcher. So from day one here this spring, I'm back working and trying to learn the position.”

The question Donaldson doesn't ask is this: Will he continue to own third base?

Gallego, who played second, third and short in his 13 seasons in the big leagues, is the one serving as Donaldson's Yoda. They'll work before or after practice, as necessary, and get in plenty of time during practices, too, to make sure the answer to that question is “Yes.”

“This is still a new position to him, it's not natural to him,” Gallego said. “so he's out here working on his footwork, on his positioning and on seeing the ball off the bat. The good thing is he has great athletic ability and he doesn't take shortcuts. He's out here working hard to get better; nobody works harder.”

In addition to having spent a year at third base now, Donaldson has one more advantage in the spring of 2013. His body isn't barking at him.

In the past couple of seasons, he's had to deal with hip and lower-back pain, but that pain has subsided.

“For the first time in two years this winter I could pick a ball up off the ground, and I didn't hurt because of it,” he said. “To me, that is as much an advantage for this year as anything. It's great to not have to play in pain.”

Even if he is still something of a stranger in a strange land.

A'S 7, ANGELS 5

At Tempe, Ariz., this early in spring training, the Oakland Athletics want to be careful with even the slightest twinge.

Especially on a chilly afternoon with temperatures in the upper 50s.

Chris Young doubled home a run before leaving with a leg cramp in Oakland's 7-5 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday.

Seth Smith had two RBIs and Coco Crisp added a pair of hits for the A's in a game that took 3 hours, 44 minutes. Young doubled and scored in the first inning but got a cramp in his quadriceps while running down a fly ball in the bottom half and was removed as a precaution.

“It's a cramp more than anything else,” said A's manager Bob Melvin, adding that Young would be back on the field in two days. “He had a nice hit. He made a nice play. It's something you don't mess around with.”

Young, acquired from Arizona during the offseason, is expected to play all over the outfield this season because the A's already have three regulars in Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick.

Oakland starter Travis Blackley allowed three hits in a scoreless inning. He gave up a leadoff single to Tommy Field in the first but picked him off.

“I'll take any zero I can get right now, as ugly as it may be,” Blackley said. “It was a tough day to pitch. My cutter was really good today. My pickoff is still there. It saved me.”

Blackley said gusts of more than 25 mph throughout the day nearly pushed him off the mound while he was in the stretch. The left-hander went 6-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 24 games (15 starts) for Oakland last year after he was claimed off waivers from San Francisco in May.

Angels starter Barry Enright managed only two outs. He gave up three runs and four hits in the first inning.

Young doubled in Crisp, who had singled to open the game, for a 1-0 lead. Smith followed with an RBI double and scored later on Scott Sizemore's sacrifice fly. After Daric Barton's single, Angels manager Mike Scioscia lifted Enright.

“You just grit your teeth and get through it,” Enright said. “It's a little discouraging to come out like that.”

Enright, obtained from Arizona last July, has a 7-11 career record in the majors with a 5.13 ERA in 140 1-3 innings.

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