Click photo to enlarge
Oakland Athletics' pitcher Grant Balfour (50) prepares to deliver a pitch in the ninth inning of their baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. Balfour allowed a home run off Los Angeles Angels' Josh Hamilton scoring two runs tying the game. The A's went on to lose the game 5-4 in the 11th inning. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- They're back, defying convention and torching preseason forecasts, proving yet again that in baseball, perhaps more than in any other sport, success can be achieved by ignoring unfavorable circumstances and playing with skill and tenacity from first pitch to last out.

The Oakland A's, for the second year in a row, have jumped onto center stage of the American League pennant race. They are not yet in the postseason, but they're close enough to start the countdown. So close that playoff tickets went on sale this week.

The journey thus far has required clearing numerous obstacles and brushing aside a long list of convenient excuses, many of which are legitimate.

"They've got short memories," general manager Billy Beane said Wednesday after the A's lost 5-4 in 11 innings to the Los Angeles Angels. "There's a bounce to this team that's pretty consistent. It's something I noticed last year, and it's matured over this season."

The A's could have held a pity party one month into the season, when opening-day pitcher Brett Anderson was felled by injury. They could have faded during summer, as their most feared hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, searched in vain for his stroke.

They could have crumbled after the July exit of catcher John Jaso, who remains sidelined with concussion-related symptoms, followed by the 15-day disablement in August of 40-year-old All-Star pitcher Bartolo Colon.


Advertisement

The A's don't do pity and they don't crumble. This incredible, unsinkable team refuses to stray from its goal, which is to win every pitch.

"Their preparation is very consistent, and so is the expectation to win on a particular day," manager Bob Melvin said. "That's what we've been trying to enforce here for the last couple years. I know it's cliche to say that we play for the day, but we really do. It shows up when you have a tough loss, or a dramatic loss, like we've had over the course of a couple years here. We're able to put it away, come back and play well the next day."

Thursday will be the next test of the A's resiliency, because Wednesday was particularly rough. One out from victory, their All-Star closer, Grant Balfour, gave up a game-tying two-run homer.

It was only the third time all season that Balfour had failed in a save situation, and he didn't stick around to talk about it. Before the game, he had acknowledged the pressure of the job.

"Sometimes it's tough," he said, "but you learn over the years how to handle it. If not, it's just going to get worse. You have to let it go, come out the next day and hopefully get a 1-2-3 inning and get on another roll."

That's what the A's have done. Unlike 2012, when they used a late-season surge to soar into the playoffs, winning the A.L. West on the final day of the season, this team has been remarkably steady. Only twice this season have the A's lost more than three consecutive games and they've posted winning records every month, including 12-5 so far in September.

As defending division champs, the A's were expected to be competitive. But logic dictated the division heavyweights would be Texas and Los Angeles. Those two franchises spend bigger and expect bigger than Oakland.

The Rangers are a perennial contender with the seventh-highest payroll ($114 million) in baseball. The combined 2013 salaries of their top five players, according to the ESPN database: $62.25 million. The Angels opened with a $128 million payroll; their four highest-paid players will earn a combined $61.1 million.

Oakland sits atop the A.L. West despite an opening-day payroll of roughly $61 million for the entire 25-man roster. It's another testament to the team's approach that the man with the highest salary, outfielder Chris Young, acquired last October and making $9 million, is having the worst year of his seven-year career.

These A's are vastly superior to the total of their salaries or individual statistics. None of their hitters was invited to the All-Star game; only third baseman Josh Donaldson, having a fine season one year after being converted from catcher, was considered.

Whereas most baseball managers expect to present a set lineup each day, Melvin plays roulette with his roster, mostly out of necessity. Through 152 games, he has used 131 lineups, usually based on the opposing starting pitcher. Only three players -- shortstop Jed Lowrie, first baseman Brandon Moss and Donaldson -- have missed fewer than 20 games.

"We've got some tough players," Melvin said. "But we're also able to rest guys because we do platoon quite a bit. Every day, there is a group of guys that go out there hungry and rested."

Said Beane: "When you look at the individuals, the national pundits are saying, 'Who's there?' But we're not based on stars. We've got 25 very functional, useful parts."

It's not just the lineup that features a rotating cast of heroes. The ace of the pitching staff was Anderson, and then it was Colon, who over the past two months was bettered by 24-year-old right-hander Jarrod Parker. The bullpen was outstanding until about a month ago when it devolved into mediocrity.

Still, Oakland owns the league's second-best pitching staff. And that's the primary reason behind the team's consistency and success.

Cespedes recently found his groove and has been one of the league's hottest hitters. Assuming the A's advance to the postseason, Colon is a good bet to start the first game.

But Anderson, who returned in August, still is not healthy enough to rejoin the starting rotation. There's a good chance Jaso won't return. That the team is not fully healthy doesn't seem to bother anyone in the clubhouse. The A's remember last season, when nobody thought they could win. They won anyway.

Now that they expect to win, they don't fret about such matters as fraying carpets or peeling paint on the dugout bench or stadium plumbing problems. These things are beyond the scope of their focus, so they become invisible.

They leave any whining about attendance to Lew Wolff, the managing partner who has said this team can't win in this town.

Fortunately for A's fans, the players are too busy winning to consider the skeptics, even if one of them is a co-owner.

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