Sean Doolittle comes to Jim Johnson’s defense regarding boos

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OAKLAND -– Jim Johnson once again struggled and got an earful from A’s fans on Thursday, and one of his bullpen teammates expressed disappointment with the home crowd.

Johnson gave up two runs in the seventh inning Thursday against the Detroit Tigers; runs that proved critical as the A’s battled back before falling 5-4 in the finale of a four-game series.

After retiring the side, Johnson left to a chorus of boos, a scene that has marked his rough first season in green and gold. He’s now allowed nine runs over his last nine outings (8 1/3 IP), increasing his overall ERA to 6.55 in 22 appearances.

A’s closer Sean Doolittle maintains faith in Johnson, saying he believes the sinkerballer has the stuff and track record to turn his year around. Doolittle wasn’t as supportive of the treatment Johnson got as he exited the field.

“We spent all offseason telling the new guys about how great our fans were,” Doolittle said. “And from game one — game one — he got booed off the field. We’re sitting in the dugout looking around. I can’t remember that happening since I’ve been here. We went through some rough patches last year when we were pretty bad, but I don’t remember the boo birds coming out like that.”

Johnson had a large group of reporters gathered around his locker after the game.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “Balls are finding holes. I’m throwing pretty good pitches. I just feel like I’m getting a little bit of bad luck. I don’t think it’s as bad as it really seems, but I think everybody else thinks that way.”

Johnson has found success on the road –- a 3-0 record, 1.98 ERA and .208 opponents’ batting average in 11 games.

At home? He is 0-2 with a 14.05 ERA and .465 opponents’ average in 11 games.

Asked if the boos are affecting him on the mound, Johnson paused before responding: “What am I supposed to do?”

The reason for the home fans’ treatment of Johnson certainly was tied, early on, to him replacing a fan favorite closer in Grant Balfour. And though Balfour left via free agency — and Johnson was only acquired via trade after it was clear Balfour wouldn’t be back –- fans initially seemed to view the situation as a straight-up swap, Johnson for Balfour.

Then Johnson allowed two ninth-inning runs in an Opening Night loss to Cleveland and was serenaded by boos right off the bat.

[RELATED: A’s fall to Tigers, split four-game set]

“I would’ve booed me too,” he said that night.

In defense of the home fans, Johnson got an encouraging reception later in that season-opening homestand. Dealing with boos comes with the territory for professional athletes, and Johnson’s home stats aren’t doing much to win fans over during the first one-third of the season.

Entering in relief of Jesse Chavez on Thursday with Oakland trailing 3-2, Johnson retired his first batter before giving up singles to Don Kelly and Miguel Cabrera. Then Victor Martinez followed with a hard-hit two-run double down the right-field line that made it 5-2.

Still, Doolittle — a fan favorite and one of many A’s players who often speaks highly of the Coliseum crowd — doesn’t like the treatment Johnson is getting.

“I mean, we all take notice of it,” Doolittle said. “One guy was giving him the double-barreled middle finger above the dugout after one of his outings. That’s disgusting. That’s pretty ridiculous that he has to deal with that.”

After losing the closer’s role early in the season, Johnson finds himself pitching earlier in games and often when the A’s are already trailing.

“Guys have to respond to the opportunities they get,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ll continue to try to find a good spot for him and get him going.”

Two injured MVPs is a major bummer for baseball

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Last week Christian Yelich‘s season ended with a fractured kneecap. At the time he went down he was neck-and-neck with Cody Bellinger — I think a tad behind, though people may reasonably differ — and, at least by my reckoning, a hair or three above Anthony Rendon, Ketel Marte and Pete Alonso in the race for the NL MVP Award. As I wrote last week, I think that means Bellinger is going to walk away with the hardware when the winner is announced in November. Yelich’s injury will prevent him from making a late season surge to surpass Bellinger, but I think it would’ve taken a surge for him to do it.

Over the weekend we learned that Mike Trout’s season is over as well. He’ll be having foot surgery to deal with a nerve issue causing him pain. At the time he went down he was the clear frontrunner to win his third MVP Award. Unlike Yelich, I’m pretty sure Trout will still win the trophy. Sure, Trout hasn’t played since September 7, meaning that he’ll miss more time than Yelich will, but strained articles stumping for alternative candidates notwithstanding, his lead in the MVP race was more secure.

Trout’s 2019 ends with him setting a career high in homers with 45 and slugging percentage at .645—both of which lead the American League. He likewise leads the league in on-base percentage (.438), OPS (1.083), and in both Baseball-Reference.com’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR at 8.3 and 8.6, respectively. With just under two weeks to go it seems likely that Jorge Soler of the Royals will pass Trout for the home run lead, but he’s not an MVP candidate himself. Alex Bregman will likely pass him in walks. Trout seems pretty certain to finish with his lead in all or most of the other categories intact. That’s an MVP resume even if he’ll only have played in 134 games. To give the award to anyone else would be an exercise in narrative over reason. Something born of a desire to reward a guy — like, say, Bregman — for playing on a winning team as opposed to his individual accomplishments. Sure, voters are allowed to do that, but they’ve mostly eschewed such tendencies in recent years. It’d be a surprise if they backslid.

Even if Yelich’s and Trout’s injuries aren’t likely to radically change the MVP race — again, I think the NL’s was Bellinger’s to lose — they’re both still lamentable separate and apart from the fact that all injuries stink. Lamentable in a way that, unfortunately, creates a downer for baseball as it gets ready for the postseason.

The Brewers won the game in which Yelich went down and have won four of five since then. In so doing they have remained close in the race for the second Wild Card and currently stand one game back. They also have an insanely favorable schedule the rest of the way, exclusively facing the weak sisters of the National League in the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies. Even so, it’s no gimmie — those Reds and Rockies games are on the road, and Great American Ballpark and Coors Field makes those bad teams better — and the reward at the end of this is likely to be a one-game play-in. You want your best player in any and all situations and the Brewers don’t have theirs. And won’t, even if they make the postseason and even if they win the Wild Card game. Having one of the game’s brightest stars on crutches for the playoffs is not something anyone at the league office wants.

The Angels have no such postseason concerns and haven’t had them for most of the season. Once again they’re terrible. As they have been for almost the entirety of Trout’s career. They’ve made the postseason only once in his career — back in 2014, losing the LDS in three games — and do not appear poised to put a winner on the field any time soon. Trout is still in his prime, obviously, but like all players he’ll either slow down or break down eventually. Given the state of the club, I’m not sure I’d put a ton of money on them being good, let alone consistently good, while Trout is still the best or even one of the few best players in baseball. The upside to me seems to be an Al Kaline situation with the Tigers, in which the team finally put it together behind him only after he began to age and miss time to injuries. Having the best player in baseball outside of the playoffs looking in is not something anyone at the league office should want either.

Yet here we are.

Injuries happen. Every contender is missing at least one and in some cases several important players. But for one MVP candidate to miss the postseason this year and another one to miss the postseason every year is a major bummer for a league that has a tough go of it marketing itself even under the best of circumstances.