Senior Baseball Columnist

Surprising A's jelling at right time, answering bell during 'unpredictable' run

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Josh Reddick says 'we have to live in the moment, and play like there's no tomorrow.' (Getty Images)  
Josh Reddick says 'we have to live in the moment, and play like there's no tomorrow.' (Getty Images)  

DETROIT -- Johnny Cash is on Pandora, and now Willie Nelson is singing, and on and on it goes, just one more moment to treasure in an Athletics season stuffed with them.

"Redneck Thursday," center fielder Coco Crisp quips, nodding his head toward the clubhouse televisions. "We're supposed to have hunting on, too."

Inside on a rainy morning, football highlights dominate the airwaves on one of the few days not filled with sunshine and blue skies in Oakland's fairy tale of a summer.

Stick around long enough, though, and Swingin' A's highlights undoubtedly will show up on the screens.

Been that way all season ... and it was again Thursday as the A's hammered the Tigers 12-4 to get a game that maybe wasn't necessary, but sure was welcomed.

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"It's been unreal," outfielder Josh Reddick says. "It's been unexplainable. Unpredictable.

"It's been a blast."

That the Athletics doggedly cling to one of the two AL wild-card positions with just a few grains of sand left in the season should be the stuff of pure fiction.

That the 18 rookies they've used this season, including the 14 currently on their roster, have not pulled them underwater is pure chutzpah.

Bob Melvin's A's rank second in the AL this season with a 3.50 ERA, second in the AL since the All-Star break with 88 homers and first in the majors in avoiding doom.

Even Snopes.com hasn't been able to shoot holes in this urban legend.

"And our defensive numbers don't look great, but our defense is better than the numbers," Melvin says. "We make the big plays when we have to."

"It's the complete package," veteran Jonny Gomes says. "It's changing this organization around. It's great for these kids to be in the race in September in Year One.

"It's good for the game. The 18 rookies, they're not all going to be here in the future. But some of them are going to take this and run with it."

The Wizard of Oakland, club president and general manager Billy Beane, has done it again. When he traded starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey last winter, it left a team that only their mothers could love (and maybe not even all of their mothers).

Then they blossomed into a team everyone can love.

"We felt we did very well in trades in the offseason," Melvin says. "We knew the nucleus was in there somewhere."

Jarrod Parker (acquired from Arizona in the Cahill deal) has the best pure stuff among the rookie pitchers. Tommy Milone (Nationals, in the Gonzalez deal) owns 13 victories (and counting), an Oakland record and most for an A's rookie since Harry Byrd won 15 in 1952.

A.J. Griffin? Tenth-round pick in the 2010 draft. Travis Blackley? Pitched in South Korea, Mexico and for Australia in the 2007 World Baseball Classic.

Oakland rookies have combined to start 76 games, most in the majors. For much of the season, Oakland's rotation consisted of three rookies. Then, Bartolo Colon was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, Brandon McCarthy was smoked in the head with a line drive, and now with Brett Anderson (oblique) done for the season, all five starters are rookies. Hello, Dan Straily (24th-round pick, 2009).

Yoenis Cespedes (19 homers, 73 RBI) had never before played in the United States. Josh Reddick (29 homers, 79 RBI) was an afterthought with the Red Sox. Coco Crisp (.251, 34 steals) has come back from a miserable start.

"This is what I'm used to," says Gomes, whom winning follows around like a bloodhound. "I've never been on a big payroll team.

"When you're a low payroll team, you want to win instead of have to win. I'd imagine it would be terrible to have to win. Here, it's 'Hey, run it out there and see what happens.'"

Add it all up and the A's -- along with many others -- can't wait to see what happens with a story that started almost invisibly this spring.

Gomes picked his spots to sidle up to rookies and growl, "Don't be afraid to be a hero today." Playing on Tampa Bay's shocking 2008 World Series team and Cincinnati's 2010 NL Central title club gave him cache. The kids listened.

Melvin is the sharpest manager Oakland has had in years, and his staff is terrific. Bench coach Chip Hale will be a manager one day soon. Mike Gallego, Tye Waller, Curt Young ... and first-year hitting coach Chili Davis. Earlier this season, Davis told outfielder Brandon Moss that he was starting his swing, but not finishing it.

Presto, Moss, who had kicked around with three different organizations over the past five years, has produced a strong follow-through and 18 homers. First baseman Chris Carter, overmatched in short big-league stints in each of the past two seasons, is flourishing with 14 homers.

Essentially, Melvin runs a platoon at every infield position, right field, catcher and DH. Oakland's lineup is more fluid than Kool-Aid.

Yet instead of being on the receiving end of clubhouse griping, Melvin, neck-and-neck with Baltimore's Buck Showalter in the AL Manager of the Year, is earning rave reviews. Gomes, who has a case for more playing time, speaks of him in the same breath as some of his other managers -- Joe Maddon, Lou Piniella, Davey Johnson and Dusty Baker.

"His job title is manager, but that's fourth or fifth on the list of things he has to be," Gomes says. "Manager, coach, mentor, babysitter ... he's frickin' driving this ship, and everyone is loose in here. Happy, successful, riding his coattails."

On June 1, in another telling sliver from this season, both the Athletics and Astros were 22-30.

Now, the A's are 85-64, the Astros 48-102.

Since June 2, Oakland's 63-34 record is the best in the majors.

Some of it has been the A's jelling over time, some of it has been adjusting on the fly. Beane this summer shook up the catching when he acquired George Kottaras from the Brewers and dealt Kurt Suzuki to the Nationals. He acquired infielders Stephen Drew (Arizona) and Brandon Inge (Detroit).

Since that 22-30 start, the A's have turned every pivotal moment of the season in their favor.

They held it together even during a nine-game losing streak from May 22-June 1. They won six of nine games this summer in Anaheim, heretofore a constant nemesis. They delivered a four-game sweep of the Yankees at home in July. When the Angels swept a three-game series in Oakland earlier this month, the A's answered by going to Seattle and beating ace Felix Hernandez in their next game.

And after losing the first two games here in Detroit this week, they dropped a 12-run crop-duster Thursday in Motown.

"If we got beat, we wouldn't have pushed the panic bell," Melvin says. "We've been able to come up big when we've needed to, and today was right in line with that."

"For some people, this could be their only chance to make the playoffs," Reddick says. "Right now, this is once in a lifetime.

"We have to live in the moment, and play like there's no tomorrow."

So on they go to New York for the weekend, where none of their three rookie starters -- Parker, Blackley and Griffin -- have ever before pitched in Yankee Stadium.

The way these guys are going, don't be surprised if the wind remains at their back. Heck, by Thursday afternoon, Johnny and Willie had surrendered to rock and roll on the clubhouse stereo and, outside, the rain had given way to blue skies and bright sun.

Just as it's been all summer for these guys.

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