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Milone staying focused amid stiff competition

A's manager Melvin says left-hander remains in the mix for rotation spot

PHOENIX -- Tommy Milone received a text message from Bob Melvin on Saturday night, and he was also beckoned to the manager's office the following morning.

Milone typically doesn't pay much attention to what's being written about him by the media. But his name figures to be in plenty of headlines this spring, as he suddenly finds himself fighting for a job again, and Melvin wanted to make sure the lefty doesn't get wrapped up in any of it.

"If it sounds like I'm on the outside looking in," Milone said, "he told me that's not the case, and that there's still a possibility of me being in the rotation, whether I outperform someone or someone gets hurt.

"I really hadn't even seen anything, but he texted me trying to tell me to basically not listen to anything that was out there, and that he was going to talk to me. I don't know a lot of managers that would do that for their players. That was really cool."

The gesture perfectly demonstrated Melvin's respect for the 27-year-old Milone, who won a combined 25 games for the A's the previous two years. The southpaw was a mainstay in the rotation since the start of the 2012 season, until an August skid last year forced the playoff-bound A's to send him to Triple-A Sacramento.

Milone worked on the command that had strayed from him, but Dan Straily was making a case for a permanent spot in the A's rotation in the meantime. It wasn't until Bartolo Colon was forced to the disabled list two weeks later when the A's placed the call for Milone to return.

All he did was compile a 2.74 ERA in four starts and two relief appearances, earning victories in crucial starts against the Rangers and Tigers down the stretch.

"It was huge for him, because it gets lonely," said Melvin. "He's a guy that really is a leader here -- the example he sets with his work ethic, he's very consistent in what he does each and every day. Guys see that. To be able to come back and contribute in that fashion makes you feel a lot better because you feel a little left out when you're not pitching in the role you're used to being in."

"It did, it felt really good," Milone said. "Obviously there at the middle of the season I wasn't contributing as much as I would've hoped. They felt it was kind of better for me to go down and work on some things.

"To be able to do that and come back up and contribute, especially when we're in the middle of a playoff run, felt really good, and it boosts your confidence, particularly coming into a season like this where I'm trying to fight for a spot now."

Milone hasn't been in this position in two years, since coming to A's camp with Derek Norris in a trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals. The southpaw broke camp with the club that spring and went 13-10 with a 3.74 ERA in 31 starts during his rookie campaign, proving his worth as a reliable piece of the rotation.

With job stability on his side, Milone finally found the perfect time -- and ring -- to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Tina. They bought a new home in Arizona and were married this offseason.

But Milone's late-season struggles in 2013, which almost mirrored similar woes he experienced at the same time in 2012, when the A's simply chose to skip his spot in the rotation just once rather than send him down, have blurred his future on the pitching staff.

Sonny Gray, Jarrod Parker and Scott Kazmir will certainly be in the rotation come Opening Day, and Straily and A.J. Griffin -- who totaled 200 innings last year -- appear to have the edge on Milone for the final two spots.

"I feel like I have six starters here, and that's a luxury to have," said Melvin. "I have a guy here who won 25 games at the Major League level, so because of the depth, we have what looks to be a six-man rotation. We won't be a six-man rotation, but it wouldn't be fair to say Tom Milone is on the outside. We'll only start with five, and we don't know who that will be, but when I talk about our rotation and the guys that are in it, you're going to hear me talk about Tom Milone, too."

"We go back ever since he was drafted," said Norris. "He's a deserving candidate. He's done very well for us. The only sad part is he doesn't have the 'wow factor' that the front office and scouts look for. His is the ability to spot up. Someone's always going to want a guy like that. He's always on the mound, he never misses starts, he's always healthy."

Melvin said it's debatable whether the A's would consider using Milone as a reliever again. The bullpen's just as crowded at the moment, so it's likely he remains in a starting role when the season begins, even if it means he starts it at Triple-A.

"Obviously I want to be one of the five guys when we leave camp, and it's definitely possible that I could be still," he said. "I didn't ever see myself being sent down, but to be able to do that and kind of set aside the ego and take it as it was, it helped me realize you can't control those situations.

"I could pitch really well in spring and still not have a spot. But I don't think it would be the end of the world, either. So many guys are used over the course of the season, and we have the depth to not ever really miss a beat. That's really where we've been successful the last couple years."

Jane Lee is a reporter for Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB.
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