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Oakland Athletics pitcher Ryan Cook (L) and catcher Derek Norris celebrate after beating the Texas Rangers in their MLB American League baseball game in Arlington, Texas July 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

Nice trick the A's have managed, leveraging their .500 first half into tempered optimism among the fan base even though only three A.L. teams have fewer wins.

Knowing that the A's began the millennium as the second-best team in baseball (behind only the Yankees), and that they averaged 95 wins while making five playoff appearances from 2000-2006, this new whiff of hope speaks loudly about the level of expectation in Oakland.

They've fallen far enough that 43-43 at the All-Star break provides a degree of relief to the dwindling die-hards, as in, "Hey, we're not as unwatchable as we feared."

As true as this is, it also begs the question of how the A's will spend the next three weeks, whether general manager Billy Beane is sufficiently moved -- and properly authorized -- to reignite his competitive zeal. And, if so, is he capable of working the kind of midsummer magic that earned rivers of praise during his first decade on the job?

Inasmuch as their bats seem to be awakening -- summoning first baseman Brandon Moss from Sacramento appears to be a stroke of genius -- to support excellent pitching, the A's might play themselves into a position where Billy and team co-owners John Fisher and Lew Wolff find themselves facing a difficult decision.

Do we add talent and keep fighting, further exciting our fans?

Do we sit passively and leave the playoff pursuit to more aggressive franchises?

Or do we go full fire sale and drop off the landscape?

Though the second option is more likely, the third might be preferable to Fisher and Wolff because it would serve their cause, allowing them to reiterate a familiar refrain. Being in Oakland, they insist, conveniently ignoring historical data, only means they're 40 miles north of being able to compete.

The last time the A's were semi-relevant this deep into a season was 2010, when they were second in the A.L. West, two games over .500 (51-49), three days before the trade deadline. They neither bought nor sold. Instead, Fisher and Wolff occasionally glanced at the games while dreaming of building a ballpark village in San Jose.

Even if winning had been a priority for the owners, Billy was enough of a realist to accept that his boys didn't have much of a chance to catch an ambitious Texas club that sacrificed a piece of its future to get Cliff Lee, much less stay in a wild-card race that included Tampa Bay, Boston and the Yankees.

More to the point, though, the Rangers and Rays and Red Sox and Yankees all expressed a greater desire to get into the October sweepstakes. And, yes, we know Tampa Bay's dismal ballpark situation could be sold as no less a barrier for the Rays than the Coliseum is for the A's.

So here we are again, two years later, with Oakland on a similar path, winning more often than most anticipated. This time, however, the circumstances are more favorable. A second wild card berth has been added.

Five teams are invited to the postseason, and the A's are in a three-way tie for the ninth-best record in the league, only 21/2 games behind Baltimore, which now holds the second wild-card spot.

The A's are in the early version of playoffs discussion. They're in it despite dizzying offseason turnover, despite ranking last in the A.L. in batting average and runs scored, despite the spotty availability of their $36 million man, slugger Yoenis Cespedes.

They're in it as Wolff and Fisher and even commissioner Bud Selig tell everyone they lack the resources to be in it.

They're in it because Billy is coming off his best winter in years. He dealt proven producers for untested youngsters and thus far isn't suffering for it. Through 86 games last season, Oakland was 38-48 and had seen Bob Melvin replace Bob Geren as manager.

The A's have not only a more respected man in the dugout but also a roster that appears to be improving as the season ages.

They have, as of July 11, a chance to make things interesting over the next 11 weeks.

If the A's continue to hang around, I'd like to see Fisher and Wolff take the reins off their G.M. Let Billy fight. It once was what he did best, engaging the clubhouse and the fan base. It has been too long since he charged into battle as the trade deadline loomed, raiding clubs for fresh ammo while shaking his fists at the big spenders, daring them to prove their money could outmaneuver his mind.

Such energy and fury have been missing around this franchise, lost to the archives -- and drowned out by the falsetto whine of the Low Payroll Band singing an endless loop of the "Territorial Rights Blues."

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/1montepoole.