CLEVELAND -- The "Moneyball" book had its place in the advance of baseball analytics, the movie treatment had its place in the Academy Award nominations, and the mystique of the movement still stands as the identity we often associate with the Billy Beane-era Oakland A's. Something special, though, is taking place in this 2012 season. It's something that, if seen to its full fruition, would make for a better story than "Moneyball" ever was. The present-day A's are a contender, no matter how much we might have assumed otherwise mere months ago. They are steaming toward September, having won nine of their past 11, including two of three over fellow Wild Card contender Tampa Bay over the weekend. And Oakland entered Tuesday with a record identical to that of the equally surprising Orioles, with both clubs holding a Wild Card spot in the American League.
For the A's to be in this position, with a roster scant on established veterans and loaded with retreads, qualifies as a surprise. For the A's to hold onto this position down the stretch, despite the loss of Bartolo Colon to suspension and a grueling schedule that will pit them against contending teams in 23 of their final 29 games, will require a further test of their fortitude. Don't think they've got it in them? Well, did you imagine they'd get this far? "The fact that we've gotten contributions from not just the 25 guys here right now but many more than that with our Triple-A team, too, would suggest we can move on from just about anything at this point," manager Bob Melvin said. "We are a 25-man team here, and really -- probably -- a pool of 32." Hold the roster of these current A's up next to that of their "Moneyball" predecessors from a decade ago, and the latter looks like an All-Star squad by comparison. It's laughable how much the movie, in particular, overlooked the contributions of certain top talents to instead give us a story centered on Scott Hatteberg. "You had an MVP at shortstop [Miguel Tejada], you had three absolute Cy Young contenders [Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito] in the rotation, and there were guys like Jermaine Dye," said Brandon McCarthy, the current de facto ace. "Yeah, there were a lot of fill-ins that made the story good, but there were still a lot of guys who were hugely respected in the game. "Here, we're all kind of guys clawing and trying to fight and make a name for ourselves." And remember, these 2012 A's are a team that, unlike even the O's, was supposed to take a step backward this season. A strong rotation was gutted by trades that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals and Trevor Cahill to the D-backs, and closer Andrew Bailey was sent to Boston. The focus was not as much on immediate contention as it was on a future move to San Jose -- a move that is still stalled. But a funny thing happened on the road to irrelevance. The Cahill, Gonzalez and Bailey trades all reaped immediate returns, primarily in the form of rookie rotation stalwarts Jarrod Parker (8-7, 3.52 ERA), Tommy Milone (10-9, 3.87 ERA), All-Star reliever Ryan Cook (2.45 ERA) and productive right fielder Josh Reddick (26 homers, .813 on-base plus slugging percentage). A four-year, $36 million flier on Cuban import (and YouTube hit) Yoenis Cespedes brought added thump. The lineup began to jell when Coco Crisp, who nearly departed in free agency last year before signing a two-year, $14 million deal to stay in Oakland, shook off an early-season slump and took over the leadoff duties on June 14. In the time since, Crisp has hit .304 with a .360 on-base percentage, while the A's have gone 42-22. And even when Colon got suspended for 50 games, the timing worked out in the A's favor, as Brett Anderson was due to return from Tommy John surgery. Anderson has now tossed seven brilliant innings in each of his first two starts. He blanked the Indians on Monday night, thanks in part to the help of a breaking ball that looked to be in midseason form. It was enough to make you forget the hit Oakland took with Colon's suspension. "Colon was very well-liked here and did a nice job for us," Melvin said, "but I think the timing of Brett Anderson coming back and the depth of the starting rotation would suggest that we can move on from this fairly quickly." It is a credit to pitching coach Curt Young, who returned to the Oakland organization after an eventful one-year run in Boston, that the A's always tend to get the most out of that staff, regardless of age or rank. Oakland starters have the second-best ERA (3.77) in the league, behind that of the Rays (3.50). "I think our front office trusts us, and we trust them," Young said. "We've always had great depth in the starting pitching department. It's always been quality that's come to us through a trade. Gio is an example, Brett Anderson is an example. Jarrod Parker and Tom Milone. In all the trades that have happened, quality has come our way." Like the Rays, this staff also benefits from the comforts of a home park that plays in favor of pitchers. "I think guys gain confidence from that stadium they pitch in, and that carries over to the road," Young said. "We've got a bunch of confident guys, and their teammates know what they're going to get from them each time they take the mound. I think that's the most important thing when establishing a team." And we might as well toss out one more Rays comparison, while we're at it. You don't outplay your payroll at this high a percentage without a certain amount of clubhouse chemistry or, at least, an environment in which the pressure to perform does not outweigh the pleasure in performing. "Tampa's been the mold of that the last few years," McCarthy said. "You just don't see any uptightness or any panic from them. And that's the mold that we've been following." If this season follows its current path, and if the A's don't tighten up or get besieged by injury, you just might see them wind up where three of the past four Rays clubs did: October. It might not get the book or movie treatment. But man, what a story that would be.