1. Beware hot teams heading into the playoffs. Last year it was the White Sox, in 2004 it was the Red Sox, in 2003 the Marlins were the scourge of the second half of the season. This time the A's have baseball's best record since the break. A healthy and well-rested Rich Harden could mean for Oakland what a healthy and well-rested Josh Beckett meant for the Marlins in the playoffs three years ago.
2. Oakland's offense has picked up the pace in the second half. Since the break the A's are averaging 5.2 runs per game, a figure surpassed by only the Yankees, Twins and Rangers, among AL teams. That kind of run support with Oakland's pitching should be more than enough to get the A's to the next round.
3. They're due. Four times in the last six years the A's have gone into the playoffs usually favored in at least the first round, only to lose. This team doesn't come in with the gaudy credentials of some of the Miguel Tejada/Jason Giambi-led teams of the first half of this decade, but it has an effective cast capable of running the table in October or short of that, at least ending the string of postseason futility.
Achilles' heel: The A's have been among the worst hitting teams with runners in scoring position. Oakland's average with RISP was only .242, among the lowest in the AL. The A's win primarily with pitching, defense and big innings, but in the playoffs the ability to hit -- or not -- with runners in scoring position can mean the difference between winning and going home.
Key showdowns: The A's lineup against Minnesota lefty Johan Santana. The leading Cy Young Award candidate hasn't lost at home since August of 2005 and will pitch the opener and Game 5 if necessary at the Metrodome. If the A's are going to advance to the American League Championship Series they'll have to deal with Santana.
Darkhorse: Harden. Just off the disabled list, Harden was surprisingly dazzling. If he keeps it up Oakland could ride this horse well into October.
Reasons the Twins will win:
1. Santana wins two games and one of the young pitchers works to his potential instead of his inexperience. That's three victories. On to the AL Championship Series.
2. A huge home-dome advantage. The Twins play extraordinarily well in the Metrodome, and its bizarre characteristics make it a difficult venue for any opponent.
3. A better offense. The Twins, with AL batting champ Joe Mauer, first baseman Justin Morneau and center fielder Torii Hunter, have an offense that posted the best batting average in the league in the second half.
Achilles' heel: Maybe the young starters, unaccustomed to the rarified playoff atmosphere, perform to their ages instead of their abilities.
Key showdown: Twins bullpen against A's slugger Frank Thomas. Thomas, a Comeback Player of the Year and MVP candidate, has picked up the pace during the final weeks of the season and came through with late clutch hits in key series wins against the White Sox and Angels.
Darkhorse: Rondell White. Yes, his first half was miserable. But he came on in the second half. He knows the territory. He's a veteran with proven power. And he's the sort of likable player who teammates want to do well. This may be a long shot, based on his overall numbers, but he might be able to give the Twins a major lift.
The winner: Minnesota in five.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.