This time last year, the Oakland Athletics were putting together a thrilling late-season surge that not many had seen coming. Fueled by a little-known crew of eccentrics, they rode late-inning heroics and solid pitching to win the AL West by a single game. After storming into the postseason, they were defeated by Justin Verlander in game five of the ALDS, ending what many saw as a Cinderella campaign that wouldn’t be repeated in 2013. Well, 2013 is here, and here again are the Oakland Athletics. How are the A’s doing it again? Mostly the same way as last year, combining energy, pitching and timely hitting.
Pitching and defense
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The A’s pitching staff began the season like much of the rest of the team: young, doubted, unproven or some combination thereof. Having lost ace Brandon McCarthy and emerging starter Tyson Ross, it was left to youngsters like A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker to pick up the slack. They’ve done so admirably, settling in as dual aces while others like Sonny Gray have picked up steam. Bartolo Colon, the former ace who had fallen from favor due to poor performances, banned substances and conspicuous weight gain, surprised onlookers with a stellar first half. Brett Anderson, another former ace whose career had been derailed by injuries, has reintegrated as a long reliever and occasional closer. The rest of the bullpen has performed solidly, with arms like Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle preserving leads or holding down the fort for closer Grant Balfour, who has converted 37 of 39 save chances.
While the overall defense is fairly average, third baseman Josh Donaldson and center fielder Coco Crisp have played excellently and Yoenis Cespedes has a strong arm in right field. In a spacious, pitcher-friendly park with tons of foul territory, the A’s are able to stay close often enough for their offense to strike in key moments. And the offense, well, it’s been just as counter-intuitive as last season’s, and similarly explosive.
As usual, the A’s just seem to produce runs when they need to. They’re beginning to score in bunches again, dropping 26 runs in two days on the Minnesota Twins and riding the surprise power surge, of all people, Coco Crisp. They’re only 14th in team batting average, but they’re eighth in on-base percentage and seventh in slugging — and fifth in runs scored. Whenever Coco Crisp hits his next home run, he’ll be the fourth player on the team with 20, joining Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and All-Star snub Donaldson. Anyone who’s watched baseball for a while knows that Coco Crisp is there more for defense, speed and veteran presence than power — but with Josh Reddick recently retuning from the DL, the A’s should continue to pound the baseball down the stretch.
With Coco Crisp, the A’s have a veteran presence as well as speed in the outfield and an experienced leadoff hitter. They also picked up infielder Alberto Callaspo after the All-Star break, solidifying their infield and adding a solid, albeit not overpowering, bat to their lineup. Cespedes and Reddick, though still young, are already familiar with the pressures of a late-season pennant race, and the A’s continue to show they’re never out of a game and undaunted by big moments. With a 47-27 home record, they feed off the energy of the Oakland fans — but their 38-34 road record shows they don’t need to be at home to win. And manager Bob Melvin is experienced and smart, and knows how to push the right buttons.
The Oakland Athletics have youth, veterans, leadership, pitching, timely hitting and experience winning down the stretch. They go into Texas this weekend, with a chance to put more distance between themselves and the slumping Rangers. The A’s are putting it all together at the right time to win another AL West title. If they finish as strong as they did last year, home-field advantage could carry them to the ALCS and perhaps the World Series.