OAKLAND -- Hello, September baseball. Hello, Athletics.
They're back, folks.
Sunday afternoon, on the first day of the ninth month of 2013, the A's continued to party as if it were 2012. And the Tampa Bay Rays looked a little befuddled after suffering a three-game sweep at the hands of the A's. This was especially significant, considering that these two teams might have to face each other in a one-game wild card playoff at season's end.
Not that A's manager Bob Melvin wants to ponder such a possibility.
"I don't want that game," Melvin said bluntly. "I'd prefer not to have that game. We're looking at (winning) our division. And the Rays are looking at their division, I'm sure."
Not certain about any of that. But if you have not been looking at the A's over the past seven days ... well, you have missed a very familiar sight. Just as last season, when they roared into September and surged to the division title, the A's are rolling.
Isn't that convenient? The Texas Rangers are coming to town for a three-game series beginning Monday afternoon. And the A's, after winning seven of their last nine, now trail the first-place Rangers by only one game. This means the A's could be in first place by Tuesday night with two victories. And if the Athletics win two of three, it would put them in a tie with Texas heading into the season's final 31/2 weeks.
But last season was so mystically perfect for the A's. Can they really duplicate that stretch run of a year ago that vaulted them over Texas in the last few days of the season?
"I don't see why not, the way things are going," said relief pitcher Sean Doolittle.
"Hopefully, we'll do even better than that," said third baseman Josh Donaldson. "But you've just got to go out and win one, then try to win the next one. We can't really get too far ahead of ourselves."
"It's all about peaking at the right time," said Doolittle. "It's all about getting that momentum. We saw how many things can change in a week or so."
Did we ever. On Aug. 26, the A's landed in Detroit with funk in their equipment bags. They had lost 14 of their previous 23 games. But the Tigers seemed to cause a spike in Oakland's concentration level and adrenaline. The A's won three of four in Michigan, then came home for the three straight blitz of Tampa Bay.
Some of it could be Melvin. However it happens, his teams have a knack for solid stretch runs. Over his nine-plus seasons as a big league manager in Seattle, Arizona and Oakland, he's had only two losing Septembers. His combined record in the month is 110-102.
That is a .519 winning percentage, which might not sound impressive. But if you are a team going in the opposite direction -- such as the Rays, who have lost seven of their last eight -- getting even one game above .500 tastes like a bowl full of double chocolate-chip ice cream.
It wasn't so long ago that Melvin was steaming publicly about his team's sloppy fielding and its inability to hit with runners on base. You must assume some of that steam also vented behind closed locker room doors -- and apparently, the message took. Melvin admits that the air in September smells a little different. So does A's outfielder Coco Crisp.
"The games are a little more electric," said Crisp, who flipped the switch early Sunday with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first inning.
"All of a sudden, the wind was in our dugout right away," Melvin said.
But the A's surge isn't just about the big stuff, such as Crisp's homer or starter A.J. Griffin's seven strong innings or Doolittle's shutdown eighth inning of relief. It's also about the little stuff, such as running hard even after hitting a fly ball that looks to be caught easily -- because you never know if opposing outfielders will be blinded by the traditional searing death-laser sun during Coliseum day games.
Crisp illustrated that principle Sunday, too. In a seventh inning at-bat, he lofted a high fly to center but hustled like crazy after making contact so that when Desmond Jennings was sunburned into an error, Crisp stood on second base.
Jed Lowrie applied the same principle in the third inning. He ended up on third base after an error on a rushed throw by third baseman Evan Longoria.
"Our last seven games, versus Detroit and these guys, this is some of the best baseball we've played all year," Doolittle said.
Melvin agreed but said the Rangers series will dial up the intensity knob even higher.
"Texas probably brings us to another level," Melvin said.
Hello, September. Hello, Texas. Your old pals, the A's, are glad to see you.