ATLANTA -- The outside perspective on the Oakland Athletics has changed. But how much have the A's actually changed?
Not that long ago, the A's were North America's best-bet underdogs. Other teams got the preseason publicity. The Oakland club simply won two straight AL West titles.
Then, with most of the known baseball world searching for pitching talent, A's general manager Billy Beane pulled off two trades in which he secured some imposing pitching talent -- Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs, and even more prominently, Jon Lester from the Red Sox in a deal in which the Athletics gave up Yoenis Cespedes.
Portions of the baseball world then decided that the A's had moved into a "win-now" mode. This just in: The A's have been in a win-now mode for a while. Anyway, outside expectations for the A's soared. The pressure would be on. You've seen it. You've heard it. You've read it.
Has any of this stuff seeped through into the club's psyche? A's manager Bob Melvin, when asked this question, responds with a small smile and places his thumb and index finger a very small distance apart.
"I would hope it hasn't," Melvin said.
"I don't think it does anything. Based on the way we started and the position we've been in all year, it's not like we're a secret or anything. I would agree that with the trades it's put more of a spotlight on us. I don't think this year we looked at it any differently, we just continue to do our thing, whether there's a spotlight on us or not, so be it.
"This team is very good about not worrying about outside stuff, whether it was two years ago, whether it was last year, whether it's this year.
"Regardless, if we want to be as good as we think we can be, it better not affect us. I'm still committed to running the thing the way we always have here, which is putting our best lineup out on the field that day, [having] expectations as a team that we're going to win, and that whatever happens we move on to the next day with the same expectations. That's what we've been doing here for three years now."
So the approach, the attitude, the expectations don't change for the A's. What changed here are some tangible parts of the club's performance.
Samardzija has been good overall (3-2, 3.21 ERA in eight starts for the A's). Lester has been terrific (3-0, 2.49 in three starts). But Hammel has been inadequate (1-5, 6.75 in seven starts). With two days off the upcoming week, skipping Hammel's next start would seem to be a distinct possibility.
Since the Cespedes-Lester trade, the Athletics are 7-9; 4-9 in games not started by Lester. Cespedes was not having his best statistical season, but he was undeniably a presence for the A's, a genuine middle-of-the-order run producer.
Before the Lester-Cespedes trade, the A's averaged an even five runs per game. Since the trade, the A's have averaged 3.69 runs per game. The latter figure springs from a much smaller sample size, but there isn't much doubt that the Oakland lineup hasn't completely adjusted to life in the post-Cespedes era.
Saturday night at Turner Field, the A's lost for the sixth time in the last seven games, in this case a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. Their lead over the Angels was in jeopardy, but in mid-August this is not an irreparable condition. The A's hit the ball harder, but less fortuitously in this game than the Braves did.
The phrase "this is just a stretch that we're going through" was in liberal usage in the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field. But when a team has been in first place since April 24, it has earned the right to look at the world -- and the standings -- that way.
"I can't remember the last time we got a bloop hit or anything like that," said catcher John Jaso, who hit a solo home run in the eighth to bring the A's to within one run. "But that's baseball and it can go in stretches like that. There is still a lot of season left. The key here is to get the momentum back and carry it on into after the season."
Maybe the A's offense is missing Cespedes. Or maybe the Oakland lineup is merely encountering a stretch of bad luck. Either way, this has been a very good team for 4 1/2 months. And when people tell you that the A's have entered a "win-now" mode, remind them who won the AL West the last two years.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.