A's step on gas, refuse to fade from playoff race

A's step on gas, refuse to fade from playoff race

In 2010, nobody saw the Giants coming on their merry way to a World Series championship. Maybe it was the notorious San Francisco fog.

Over on the east side of the beautiful bay and the bridge that cracked during the 1989 earthquake, there's an unfamiliar rumbling in a charmless ballpark few Major League players enjoy visiting. The hearty fans in the dark, dank O.co Coliseum have come alive along with their amazing Athletics, who have joined the Pirates as the surprise teams of 2012.

Playing the best baseball on the planet during a memorable July, the A's have made the American League West a surprising three-team race.

Even with a loss on Tuesday to follow Monday's 15-inning triumph over the Rays, their 12th walk-off win of the year, the A's went 19-5 in a month they're sorry to see go. They have been transformed by a blend of energetic kids and wily veterans, who have responded to a pressure-free environment created by few expectations.

Seriously, show us the expert who had the A's over .500, challenging the Rangers and Angels, as the calendar flips to August?

While true believers outside the East Bay might be hard to find, that doesn't matter to a loose, fun-loving outfit assembled by progressive general manager Billy Beane and nurtured by understated manager Bob Melvin.

"We're a better team than people know," said third baseman Brandon Inge, a revitalized Detroit import, "and we like it that way."

Inge, along with fellow veterans Jonny Gomes and Coco Crisp, have encouraged a relaxed, go-for-the-gusto attitude in which 17 rookies have contributed. Freshmen constitute 40 percent of the current roster.

In a division seemingly destined for a showdown between the two-time reigning AL champion Rangers and star-laden Angels, the A's have joined the heavyweights with a flyweight budget.

Consider the division payrolls. Angels: $151.4 million; Rangers: $120.8 million; Mariners: $84.9 million; Athletics: $52.9 million.

This is Beane at his cunning best. The celebrity accompanying the bestseller and "Moneyball" big screen fame clearly hasn't disrupted his work ethic.

Their remarkable run has the A's 3 1/2 games behind Texas, a half-game behind Los Angeles and currently holding down one of the AL's two Wild Card spots. The Angels, busy now with the Rangers, come to Oakland on Monday for a three-game series.

"They have some young guys who have come up and done the job," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "They're playing well. Oakland has always had good arms, going back to the [Tim] Hudson, [Barry] Zito and [Mark] Mulder days.

"They had some terrific arms in the rotation last year and reloaded. They've got a great staff with a bullpen that's starting to come together and do a job."

Even after dispatching All-Star closer Andrew Bailey in a blockbuster with Boston, the A's lead the AL in bullpen ERA and batting average against. Melvin is mixing and matching with All-Star Ryan Cook, durable Grant Balfour, Jim Miller, Evan Scribner and southpaws Jerry Blevins, Jordan Norberto and Sean Doolittle.

The rotation is fronted by rookies Jarrod Parker -- the centerpiece in a deal that sent former ace Trevor Cahill to Arizona -- and lefty Tommy Milone, who was acquired in the trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to Washington.

Southpaw Travis Blackley and A.J. Griffin, a strike-throwing righty, have joined with ageless Bartolo Colon, who keeps rolling along and filling up the strike zone.

"Bart and Brandon [McCarthy] are veterans with a lot to offer. You can learn a lot watching them," Parker said this spring. This was before he had any idea he'd emerge as a staff anchor, as McCarthy and Dallas Braden suffered injuries and Brett Anderson was recovering from Tommy John surgery.

"There's a lot of opportunity here," said Parker, who is 7-4 with a 3.38 ERA. "That's the way we're looking at it. It's nice to be around a lot of young guys. There's a lot of drive in the clubhouse. Everybody is excited to show what we can do."

Beane whiffed on his most publicized offseason move -- signing Manny Ramirez to a low-risk contract -- but almost everything else the GM touched over the winter yielded gold.

He landed an emerging star with personality in Josh Reddick, as part of the deal sending Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney to Boston.

Beane's signing of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for four years and $36 million is looking like one of the wisest investments ever made in international talent.

On fire in the second half with a .423/.461/.718 slash line, Cespedes has Manny's build and is hitting like the All-Star outfielder: .305/.361/.532 for the season, with 14 homers and 54 RBIs.

Deals costing the club Cahill and Gonzalez -- along with Bailey, Sweeney and reliever Craig Breslow -- have fortified the organization with youthful talent: Reddick, Milone, Parker, Cook, pitchers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Raul Alcantara, catcher Derek Norris, corner infielder Miles Head and outfielder Collin Cowgill.

Young players such as Reddick and Cespedes, along with massive first baseman Chris Carter, have given the A's much-needed thump. Reddick, a superb defender in right, has 22 homers and 50 RBIs. Carter (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) has delivered eight homers and 17 RBIs in only 66 at-bats.

In his fourth professional season -- he missed 2010 with Tommy John surgery -- the poised Parker embodies the attitude of the new A's.

"I never want anything handed to me," Parker said. "I've always worked for it and competed."

The A's have worked hard for everything they've earned this season, and that shows especially in the pitching staff.

Griffin, a 10th round Draft pick in 2010 from El Cajon, Calif., has delivered seven consecutive quality starts, going 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. Milone is 9-8 with a 3.68 ERA and 97 strikeouts in 134 1/3 innings. Blackley, a 29-year-old Aussie, is 3-3 with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP in 14 appearances, 10 as a starter.

Anderson is on the mend, throwing 93 mph in rehab outings, and McCarthy also is on the way back.

If you're expecting these A's to fade into the Pacific sunset, don't hold your breath.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.