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Oakland Athletics' pitcher Sean Doolittle (62) pitches against the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of their game at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. on Saturday, July 21, 2012. Oakland defeats New York 2-1. Doolittle would be awarded his first major league save of his career. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

OAKLAND -- With all due respect to BillyBall and MoneyBall, no A's team has defied the CrystalBall quite like the 2012 version.

Using the lineup of a B-squad spring training game -- rookies, no-names and players out of position -- the A's captured the American League West and posted the 10th highest win total in Oakland history. They face the Tigers in a best-of-five playoff series that opens Saturday in Detroit.

"All part of the plan,'' General Manager Billy Beane quipped.

Amid a jubilant celebration Wednesday, Beane was asked which of his players had the most improbable storyline. He scanned his eyes around the room, pointed behind him and said, in essence, take your pick.

We'll limit the choices to our top 10.

1. Sean Doolittle. Other players had more impressive stats but nobody better represents the mind-boggling A's better than their best left-handed reliever.

"If you're going to point to one, the journey that Doolittle has taken is pretty amazing,'' Beane said.

Just over a year ago, Doolittle was a minor league first baseman with a bum knee and a cloudy future. He passed time on the disabled list last April by working out as a pitcher and discovered he still had the lively fastball he'd last used at the University of Virginia in 2007.

Doolittle persuaded assistant G.M. David Forst to give him a shot on the mound. He made his professional pitching debut on Aug. 29, 2011. Wednesday, he pitched a scoreless eighth inning in the clinching game of the A.L. West race.


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2. Brandon Moss. The 28-year-old journeyman outfielder lost his power stroke as a youngster in the Boston organization, when coaches envisioned him as a left-handed pinch hitter and tinkered with his swing to make him more of a contact hitter.

Years later, with Moss' career in jeopardy, his batting coach at Double-A Indianapolis (Jeff Branson) in the Pirates' chain stumbled across footage of Moss as a young and powerful prospect. Branson got Moss to resurrect his old stance and, just like that, Moss was a monster again.

Moss blasted 21 home runs in 84 games for Oakland. The only A.L. players to ever hit more homers in fewer than 90 games were Ted Williams (28 in 89 games, 1950) and Juan Gonzalez (24 in 82, 2003).

3. Josh Donaldson. The A's expected Scott Sizemore to be their starting third baseman, a plan that lasted until the first full workout of spring training, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury.

In desperation, the A's turned to Donaldson, a minor league catcher, who promptly flopped. He hit .094 over his first nine games before being demoted to Sacramento. In his next brief recall, he hit .182 over 19 games.

But upon being recalled a third time, after an injury to Brandon Inge, Donaldson batted .290 with eight home runs over his final 47 games.

4. The Sneaker Salesmen. A year ago, prospects A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily supplemented their Double-A incomes by selling shoes during the offseason.

Clearly, there are richer (and better-smelling) days ahead.

After making the leap from Midland to Sacramento to the majors this season, they helped offset the loss of Bartolo Colon (drug suspension), Brandon McCarthy (brain surgery) and Brett Anderson (strained oblique).

5. Rookies rule the rotation. It wasn't just Griffin and Straily. The A's got 54 wins from rookie pitchers, the most ever by a team that reached the postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In all, the A's started a rookie pitcher 101 times in 2012, including the final 14 games.

They handled the September stretch drive often with fellow rookie Derek Norris guiding the staff from behind the plate.

"I just think we're too young and dumb to feel much pressure,'' Norris said.

6. Yoenis Cespedes. The Cuban import hit more home runs (23) than any rookie in A's history except Mark McGwire (49 in '87) and Jose Canseco (33 in '86).

Did anyone see this coming?

"I mean, yes,'' Beane said after a pause. "We signed him to be the everyday outfielder with the idea that he could hit in the middle (of the order)."

The A's gave the 26-year-old Cuban star a four-year, $36 million deal and he delivered a .292 batting average with 82 RBI and 16 stolen bases.

"Was it risky? Certainly,'' Beane said. "But I don't think we were completely flying without a net when we did that."

7. Josh Reddick. After struggling for playing time during three uneventful seasons with the Red Sox, the outfielder was an unlikely rock for the A's.

With 131 starts in right field, he was the only player with more than 115 starts at one position. Though Reddick's bat ran hot and cold, he still led the A's in home runs (32) and RBI (85). He became the first A's outfielder with at least 30 home runs since Matt Stairs had 38 in 1999. Defensively, his 14 assists were the most by an A's outfielder since Mike Davis had 16 in 1983.

8. Travis Blackley. The A's answer to the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong, Blackley traveled the same road from prospect to vagabond to breakthrough.

The left-hander spent last season playing professional baseball in Korea, but only after the Mariners, Giants, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Mets, A's and Giants again gave up on him first.

How hard was it to keep track of Blackley?

It wasn't until September that someone noticed that, at age 29, Blackley still qualified as a rookie.

Re-signed by the A's on May 15, Blackley went 6-4 with a 3.86 ERA as a spot starter and delivered six sterling innings against the Rangers on Tuesday to keep the A's division hopes alive.

9. Manny Ramirez. One of the A's pivotal moves was the one they never made. Rather than promote Ramirez as a publicity stunt, even at a time when the A's needed power, Beane turned to more deserving players.

Jonny Gomes, pegged as the odd man out if Ramirez had been called up, provided the right-handed thump by hitting 11 of his 18 home runs against left-handers. Chris Carter, summoned from the minors June 29, hit 16 home runs to rank third among A.L. rookies.

In sum, the once power-starved A's did just fine without introducing MannyWorld: They hit a major league leading 112 home runs after the All-Star break.

10. Grant Balfour. Like an R-rated version of Mark Fidrych, the eccentric Balfour shouts obscenities to himself while on the mound -- sometimes into his glove, sometimes into the sky and almost never, he says, toward an opposing hitter.

He's also been (expletive) good. Balfour nailed down 18 of 18 save opportunities after returning to the closer's rule on Aug. 22.

Balfour is older than his teammates but no more established. At 34, this was his first season as a full-time closer.

"I know I look crazy out there, but I feel I'm in control,'' Balfour said. "I know what I'm doing and I like it."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com.

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