ANAHEIM, Calif. – So, the Oakland A's, the team I picked to win the AL West, were in first place in the AL West, right where I picked them, and still I thought, "Huh, the A's are good again."
Two starting pitchers on the disabled list, murky closer situation, decent enough lineup, somewhat hazardous home working conditions, long early road trip and, yeah, they have the best record in the American League.
Because, well, because of course they do. Because, and this is about the most A's-ish thing ever, they just spent three games hitless with runners in scoring position – 23 at-bats in all – and won all three. Because the only A's players on a leaderboard after 2 ½ weeks are Brandon Moss, who has 15 RBI and is as appreciative of his big-league experience as anyone in the game, and who a couple years ago was contemplating going home to be a fireman or something, and Alberto Callaspo, who is batting .357, a good 80 points over his career average.
Because they're 3-1 in extra-inning games and 3-1 in one-run games, and their best starting pitcher is 24 (Sonny Gray), and their next-best starters are a journeyman reliever (Jesse Chavez) and a fairly recent Sugar Land Skeeters alumnus (Scott Kazmir).
And here's the thing about the A's: They sleep off a Justin Verlander hangover every winter, get whacked by the Tommy John scythe that's going around, their ballpark acts up, they draw Felix Hernandez twice (and lose to him twice) before April is half over, and by Thursday morning they'd won four of five, eight of 10, and despite a regretful 12th-inning loss here Wednesday night, were a healthy 10-5.
In some ways – how they pitch, how they stack and attack their at-bats – they remind you of the St. Louis Cardinals. In others – how they make the most of their market – they remind you of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Still, maybe, you're a little surprised they're this good, and then you're surprised you're surprised, because this is how the A's win games, and win division titles (and, admittedly, lose in October), and you ought to be accustomed to it by now.
Scott Boras, the super analogist, has compared the A's to goulash, as the ingredients can be something of a mystery – a dash of Cespedes, a half-cup of Donaldson, a sprinkle of Doolittle, and throw some Coco in there – and it may have a curious aroma, but, hey, it's not bad.
The A's gave away a late lead Wednesday night, and appeared defensively vulnerable, and were a pitch or two from sweeping the Angels. Instead, they got beat. They wore that in manager Bob Melvin's postgame curtness, particularly as it related to sorting through his ninth-inning options ("I'm tired of answering these questions every day," he snapped. "I'll let you know."), and in a clubhouse pleased with a 7-2 trip through Minnesota, Seattle and Anaheim, but wholly bummed with the past four hours and 19 minutes.
They'd lost at their kind of game, the kind that wanders toward midnight and wears out the hinges on the bullpen door, that feels like somebody's going to lose a pint of blood before it's done. The air turns cold and the crowd thins and there go the A's again, not pretty, not fancy, and unwilling to take a step backward. They win more of those than they lose.
"It's a grind," Josh Donaldson said, and he grinned. "All of our games are grinds. You come in knowing it. We're in those so much, we're used to it."
It has been said the A's prosper because they understand who they are, and therefore accept who they are, and that's probably true. They do tend to run a little smarter than most on the baseball operations floor, and you're free to debate whether that's nature or nurture or just plain desperation. In the end, or by 7 o'clock every night, they put a pitcher on the mound who'll at least compete and often dominate, and a team in the field that'll find the couple inches it'll need to win, and as of Thursday that's with very few of their regulars being extraordinary.
"It's hard to articulate it," assistant general manager David Forst said Thursday morning. "We don't have a lot of great individual performances in the books yet. Other than the starting pitching, the numbers don't jump out at you."
Down Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, who together won 26 games in 2013, A's starters have a league-best 2.48 ERA. Only the New York Yankees' rotation has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. As currently constructed, their five will cost the A's $9,292,500 in salaries this season, $7 million of that to Kazmir. The Yankees' rotation will plow through $10 million by late April.
None of that matters, of course. What does matter is today, and the three hours that are coming, which the A's make more of than most. They take the wins where they find them, and chase down the wins that don't come as easy, and sneer at stuff like Wednesday night, one lousy game at the end of an entirely proper two weeks.
"Well, look," Melvin said, "I mean, we battled hard again. You're not going to win 'em all. At the end of the day, you move on.
"We're playing at the same level, the same intensity, we had the last couple years."
It works. Somehow it works. Yeah, the A's are good again.
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