OAKLAND -- Ryan Cook was traded to the A's from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the winter meetings in 2011 with no idea what was in store.
He would wind up beginning the 2012 season as the setup man, advance to making the All-Star team as a closer, then would settle back into setup relief work, he and left-hander Sean Doolittle essentially paving the way for the A's to bring in Grant Balfour to seal the deal.
Together, the three hard-throwing short relievers have become a fellowship of the fastball, dominating the final three innings of games.
"I'd never been in a professional situation like this,'' Cook said. "It's so far beyond anything I thought was possible. "It's not just the back end of the bullpen, but all of the relievers, everyone in the pen.
"These guys are my friends. That makes it easy to root for another guy even if he's pitching in a role that you'd want to pitch in. No one has big egos or is above anyone else. That makes it easier.''
What makes it work are the fastballs -- Cook and Doolittle can hit 98 mph with regularity and Balfour isn't far short of that. And the heaters have led to success. Balfour heads into the American League Division Series against Detroit with a 2.59 ERA, a 1-3 record and 38 saves in 41 tries. Cook is 6-4 with a 2.54 ERA with two saves and Doolittle is 5-5 with a 3.13 ERA and a pair of saves.
These are guys who can help themselves when pitching with men on base. Between them they have come up with as many big strikeouts with runners in scoring position as anyone -- a total of 199 strikeouts in 199 innings.
Basically, the A's have three closers -- Balfour who has the job now, and Cook and Doolittle who almost certainly will close somewhere for somebody sometime.
"I think it comes down to us being three guys who have similar mentalities, at least when we're on the mound,'' Doolittle said. "We're out there to attack with our fastball and go on from there. We learn from each other. We can ask questions about pitching sequences and hitters' techniques.
"I know I've developed as a pitcher from working with these guys and watching them. And we've developed a nice rapport. I'll pitch the seventh, Cookie will pick up the eighth and Balfour will shut it down.''
Not that it's easy. Cook had a tough stretch in September, Doolittle and Balfour both stumbled in August. By season's end, however, everybody was clicking again, just in time for the postseason. From Sept. 19 on, the trio combined to appear in 10 games, throwing 10 innings while giving up no runs, just three hits while striking out a dozen.
"Everybody has those,'' Balfour said of the hard times. "But we're surrounded by a lot of talent here, not just at the end of the game but guys like (Jerry) Blevins, (Dan) Otero and (Jesse) Chavez, too. That helps you, because we feed off each other's successes, just like hitters would in a lineup.
"The key thing is, nothing much else matters but winning. The numbers don't matter, just winning, but if you win enough, the numbers will be there.''
Doolittle said Balfour has a greater desire to win than anyone he'd ever met, and Cook said the rest of the relievers feed off that drive.
"I think we all have it, we're all competitors,'' Cook said. "But the way Grant exudes it, it brings it out more in the rest of us I think when you look at the group of us, there is a non-stop will to win. No matter how down or out it looks, we're always in there fighting.''
When he can, manager Bob Melvin likes to use all three of his fastball-laden relievers to finish up games.
"They are a solid group,'' the manager said. "Grant's the closer, but we're not afraid to put anyone in any situation. They're all competitors that way.''