ANAHEIM, Calif. – Rather than try to explain this complete mindwarp of an Oakland Athletics team, perhaps it is best to get out of the way and cede to someone who thinks he understands it. Jonny Gomes is a tattooed, goateed, don't-wanna-meet-in-a-dark-alley bad mother. He survived a heart attack as a 22-year-old. He hits baseballs with anger and ferocity. In his ability to frighten and resurrect himself and slug, he is a one-man embodiment of his 25-man team.
When he considered these A's, Gomes could've opted for some boring explanation. Only he didn't. That's the thing about this Oakland team. Everywhere the A's go, they seem to reveal another surprise.
Underneath his gruff exterior, it turns out Jonny Gomes is something of a poet.
"We came in with a square wheel," he says. "If you're able to sand down the edges, you're gonna roll."
OK, there's more than that. It can't be as simple as shaving one shape into another, not when a team that was 22-30 on June 1 – tied with the Houston Astros that day – today is 80-60, the fifth-best record in the game, better than the New York Yankees and with a strong grasp on an American League wild-card slot.
There's got to be something better to clarify how the A's have now won 10 straight road games after a 3-1 victory here Monday night that snapped the Los Angeles Angels' six-game winning streak. Maybe it's a deal with the devil, or a sacrifice to the baseball gods, or something that transformed a team that going into June lost nine straight games into one that won 58 of its next 88, a .659 winning percentage, more than half a season in the territory of baseball's greatest teams.
[Jeff Passan's 10 Degrees: As heat rises, Yankees' Joe Girardi tries to avoid September meltdown]
This had better be good, because a team that hasn't been able to buy a home run for the last four years – finishing 12th, 13th, 14th and 11th in the AL, never with more than 135 – suddenly has popped 164 longballs, the ninth most in all of baseball.
And come on. Monday night, against the Angels' Dan Haren, the A's rode home runs from Brandon Moss and Cliff Pennington. Moss turns 29 this week. Coming into this season, he hit 15 career home runs in 678 at-bats. This was Moss' 17th in 199 this year. And Pennington is listed at 5-foot-10, closer to 5-8 and owner of a .309 slugging percentage entering the game.
"That's kind of been our recipe here recently," A's manager Bob Melvin says.
"Good pitching and a bloop-and-a-blast," outfielder Josh Reddick says.
So that's it, huh? Good pitching and a bloop-and-a-blast. Easy as that.
There's more. There's got to be.
Wearing a bright-green polo shirt with an A's logo emblazoned on the left breast, Lew Wolff, enemy of the fan base he'll never win over, can't wipe the smile off his face. It's a couple hours before game time. He's on the A's bench. When players walk by, he thanks them.
"You're making me real happy," Wolff says. "Keep it up."
"That's one thing you'll get from this team," says reliever Ryan Cook, one of 14 rookies currently on the roster. "We'll try."
Wolff nods. He is the enemy because of his desire to move the A's from the decrepit Oakland Coliseum and into a new stadium in San Jose. Oakland is drawing a little more than 20,000 fans a game, nearly 2,000 more per game than last season and still the second fewest in baseball, less than 300 per game more than Tampa Bay. Two of the best teams in baseball, and two of the best stories, can't get people to watch their product. It's funny and it's sad, the balance dependent on one's perspective.
To Wolff, of course, it's sad. He sees the financial leviathans in his division – the Angels spending more than $150 million and the Rangers upwards of $125 million – and believes Oakland can support neither that sort of payroll nor a team with aspirations of annual competitiveness.
"You can elect to lose a lot of money," he says. "We bought the team talking to the commissioner. He basically said, 'You can do whatever you want, but it's foolish to lose money.' The biggest asset we had to avoid that and still be competitive is Billy and other people."
Billy is Billy Beane, the A's general manager and public architect. The other people include assistant GM David Forst and top liaisons Farhan Zaidi, Billy Owens, Eric Kubota and Dan Feinstein. "Moneyball" lionized them. Five years without a winning record left them prone to slander. This year has reinvigorated them.
Because so many moves have gone right. Look at the roster. Dynamic outfielder Yoenis Cespedes? Signed to a four-year, $36 million contract deemed risky by plenty of personnel men. Reddick, Oakland's best all-around player? Acquired in a trade with Boston for reliever Andrew Bailey. Moss? Scrap-heap pickup. First baseman Chris Carter? Traded to the A's four years ago in a package for … Haren.
There are moves like that everywhere. The A's are a kaleidoscope. One turn and they look different from the last version. Players are flipped and the A's cross their fingers and hope the return pans out. Sometimes it doesn't. Lately it has. And to complement that with some revenue, some money, the riches San Jose would bring – well, the A's, the little team that could, instantaneously would become the big, bad wolf.
All it takes is the San Francisco Giants ceding a territory that baseball will have to pry from their cold, dead fingers. That's why, as the great newballpark.org notes, it has been 1,276 days since MLB looked into Oakland's stadium options. It is one of the great embarrassments of Bud Selig's tenure, and yet Wolff refuses to get too worked up. Not right now, not with his team where it is.
"I look at every life as a balance sheet," he says. "I'm in baseball because of the commissioner, and so are my partners. And I put a lot of credit to that. So if he has a deliberative way of doing something, even though we might disagree on the length of it, maybe he knows something I don't know. I'm happy with it. We'll get a result."
In the meantime, they play. They play because all the stadium stuff matters not a damn to them. That's billionaire problems. They're concerned with what's on the TV and the radio and the flavor of the sports drink in the dugout. They're trying to sand that wheel.
The first dust sprinkled off May 11. The A's were 16-16. Less than two weeks earlier, Brandon Inge, the 35-year-old third baseman unceremoniously whacked by the only team he'd played for, Detroit, had signed. He homered and drove in four runs in his sixth game with Oakland and hit a grand slam the next game. Then Detroit came to Oakland. In the series' first game, Inge hit another granny. And one day later, May 11, he whacked another homer, this one tying the game, and drove in four runs again.
"Everyone was looking over their shoulder, like, someone do it. Someone win a game. Someone take that step," Gomes says. "Then Brandon Inge came in. You know how it is when you play your old team. He comes in and we're playing Detroit. Granny. Game-tying. Great plays."
It turned contagious. In both of the A's series against Boston, Reddick homered in the first games, and Oakland went 4-2. In a three-game sweep of Colorado, outfielder Seth Smith was on base eight of 14 plate appearances and had four extra-base hits, including a homer. Gomes' 1.268 OPS against the Rays this year is his best against any opponent he has played more than twice.
It wasn't just them. Carter turned from 4A player into power-hitting freak, and Moss replaced Kila Ka'aihue and can't stop hitting homers, and among players with at least 200 plate appearanaces, they rank fifth and sixth in the AL in slugging percentage, behind only David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout.
And sometimes, with this pitching, all they needed was that bloop-and-a-blast. The A's had lost Dallas Braden to shoulder surgery and Brett Anderson to Tommy John. They had traded Trevor Cahill to Arizona for Jarrod Parker, and Gio Gonzalez to Washington for Tommy Milone and a package of prospects. All that remained was Brandon McCarthy, and his spotty health kept him out of the rotation enough that at times the A's were starting all over.
And despite all that – Bartolo Colon thriving and then getting suspended for testosterone use and McCarthy taking an awful line drive off his face last start and all the other trials and travails that have necessitated 10 starters over 140 games – the A's starters' ERA is 3.72 and their overall ERA is 3.40, third best in the major leagues.
Whether the Brandon Inge magic really did spark all of this is impossible to tell. It's an intangible, and intangibles are supposed to be inexplicable. But that's what Jonny Gomes believes. He believes the erosion of the square wheel started that day. And soon thereafter, once the kinks worked themselves out, something happened.
"We just started rolling."
Nobody inside the Oakland A's clubhouse has been around as long as Jerry Blevins. He's 29. He looks like a pipe cleaner, 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds of left-handed relief. He was the only current Athletic around in 2007, when he pitched six games. Eric Chavez was still with Oakland. So were Haren and Nick Swisher and Huston Street.
Rarely has there been a paucity of top-end players in Beane's time as GM. It's just a matter of getting them together, and that is what they've done here. It's why they're 3½ games up on an Angels team with a payroll more than three times Oakland's $55.4 million. It's how they're in a position to go to the playoffs for the first time in Jerry Blevins' career.
[Tim Brown: Yankees let Orioles know they're not backing down]
He came a year late for that. The A's descent had begun. And to see them edging back toward not just respectability but the place considered their birthright after four consecutive playoff appearances starting in 2000 warms Blevins' baseball heart. He sees how they're playing, and does he ever love it.
"We don't rely on an ace," he said. "We don't rely on one power guy. Our walkoffs are spread out.
"That's pretty damn good baseball."
Blevins looks at Monday night's game and sees the A's personified, and he sees Tuesday's just the same. McCarthy is out indefinitely, so in comes Dan Straily, who, like rotation-mate A.J. Griffin, popped out of nowhere to play savior to the season.
"In spring training," Gomes says, "I didn't even know those guys were alive."
It's them and Anderson, who's pitching as well as anyone ever has in the immediate aftermath of Tommy John, plus Parker and Milone, who, at 25, is the oldest pitcher in the rotation. Think about that: five pups, only one of whom can rent a car without hassle, and they're trucking the rest of the AL.
They don't care that the A's came into September with the toughest schedule in baseball. They're 6-3 so far. They shrugged off that those three losses came last week at home to the Angels. Just go into their place and beat them up, too. There are 22 games left, against Los Angeles and Baltimore and Detroit and New York and Texas and Seattle and Texas, not an easy series among them, and nobody shows the least bit of concern. And the vortex of the mindwarp deepens.
Turns out there's not more than the square wheel. There didn't have to be. A bloop-and-a-bomb and good pitching is enough. So is their craptastic stadium and meager payroll and eternal limbo. This is the 2012 Oakland A's. And no matter the impediment, they can't seem to stop rolling.
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