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The 60-game season is approximately one-quarter complete and the Oakland Athletics stand alone atop the MLB standings at 12-4. The A's have won nine consecutive games, the longest winning streak in baseball this season, and they swept the AL West rival Astros in three games this past weekend. Houston hasn't been this far back in the standings in four years.

"Being able to sweep and extend our lead in the AL West is great," left-hander Jesus Luzardo told reporters, including MLB.com's Martin Gallegos, following Sunday's win (OAK 7, HOU 2). "Having the ability to win these big games early in the season is big for us."

FanGraphs gives the Athletics a 79.6 percent chance to win the AL West, up from 25.0 percent the day the nine-game winning streak started. They earned an A+ in Dayn Perry's quarter-mark grades and Matt Snyder has them atop his weekly power rankings. Play this well and accolades will follow. Oakland has been the best team in the American League this year.

How have the A's won nine straight games? Well, by being a really good team, first and foremost. These four factors stand out as well.

Montas and Bassitt have been incredible

In spring training and again in summer camp, the A's planned to use righty Chris Bassitt in the bullpen, where he excelled last year. A.J. Puk's shoulder injury and Luzardo missing time with COVID-19 forced the A's to put Bassett back in the rotation and he's been brilliant, allowing just two earned runs through three starts.

Chris Bassitt
OAK • SP • 40
ERA1.08
WHIP.90
IP16.2
BB4
K15
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"Another terrific game -- seven innings against that lineup," manager Bob Melvin told Gallegos after Bassitt held Houston to one run in seven innings Friday (OAK 3, HOU 2 in 13 innings). "This time of year we're only looking for him to go six. In a close game, as well, where every pitch meant something. He's off to a great start." 

Frankie Montas, the club's Opening Day starter, came into the year with something to prove after last year's breakout season was interrupted by an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension. Was the 2.70 ERA in 15 starts before the suspension the real him or a mirage? Thus far this season it looks like the real Montas.

Frankie Montas
OAK • SP • 47
ERA1.57
WHIP1.00
IP23
BB9
K22
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"He's gotten to the point now where he doesn't really care who he faces, he just likes pitching," Melvin told reporters, including Gallegos, after Montas held the Astros scoreless over seven innings Saturday (OAK 3, HOU 1). "Last year he really came into his own. He came into this season really looking forward to leading the way. He's feeling it at this point. That all comes with maturity and his multiple pitches."  

Sean Manaea (8.03 ERA) and Mike Fiers (5.63 ERA) have struggled in the early going and Luzardo only recently joined the rotation after beginning the year in the bullpen. Montas and Bassitt have really carried the rotation in the early going and it's no coincidence they combined for four starts (three runs in 26 2/3 innings) during the nine-game winning streak.   

Timely hitting...

Truth be told, the Athletics are not off to a great start offensively this year. They're averaging 4.44 runs per game, which is only slightly better than the 4.36 league average, and as a team Oakland has managed a .213/.321/.377 batting line. Once adjusted for ballpark, that is only three percent better than league average.

Marcus Semien is off to a very slow start (.211/.243/.296), though he did hit a leadoff home run Saturday. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson hit back-to-back home runs Sunday...

...and are just now really starting to get it going. Khris Davis (54 OPS+), Stephen Piscotty (88 OPS+), and rookie catcher Sean Murphy (70 OPS+) haven't contributed much at the plate. The A's best hitter has been center fielder Ramon Laureano, who's authored a .278/.406/.519 batting line and is now likely to be suspended as a result of Sunday's brawl

The A's aren't getting much offense but they are getting timely offense. They're hitting .271/.416/.562 in close and late situations, which are defined as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later in which the game is tied, the team is leading by one, or has the tying run at least on deck. Four times during the nine-game winning streak Oakland did not take the lead for good until the seventh inning or later, including scoring two runs in the bottom of the 13th to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 win Friday.

"Our offense is struggling a bit and for us to win these games that we're winning is going to pay such extreme dividends in the end," Bassitt told Gallegos following Friday's game. "I can't be more proud of our guys. We're grinding every out."

When the bases are empty, the A's have been six percent worse than the average offense. When there are men on base, they've been nine percent better than average, and when there are runners in scoring position, they've been 11 percent better. Feel free to chalk that up to clutchiness. I see the A's as a team with really good hitters who have underperformed when the bases are empty, and once that sorts itself out, their offense will be dynamite. As things stand, they've gotten enough timely hits to win nine straight.

...and also timely defense

Oakland is not just getting the big hit. They're also making big plays in the field too. The A's turned 72.2 percent of balls in play into outs last season, third best in baseball behind only the Astros (73.0 percent) and Dodgers (72.9 percent), and they brought back the same roster this year (mostly). That means the much improved Semien and two Gold Glovers in Chapman and Olson on the infield.

The Athletics have turned 72.9 percent of batted balls into outs this season, which is better than last season but only middle of the pack because the MLB batting average is currently .230. Pitchers have been ahead of hitters in the early going and lots more outs have been made. That's not to take anything away from the A's, of course. Their defense has been solid.

Case in point: Chapman robbing Jose Altuve of an RBI single in the 10th inning Friday night:

The A's have made only six errors this year, the sixth fewest in baseball (the Cardinals and Phillies have fewer errors but have also played way fewer games because of COVID-19 outbreaks), and they lead baseball with a plus-7.9 Ultimate Zone Rating. In English, that means their defense has saved about eight more runs than the average team in the early going.

The middle relief has been stellar

During this nine-game winning streak the Athletics trailed in the sixth inning or later four times and in the fourth inning or later six times. They've been able to consistently come back to win games because the middle of their bullpen has been stellar. They've prevented the other team from tacking on runs and given the offense a chance to get back in the game.

Liam Hendriks (two runs in 8 1/3 innings) remains entrenched as closer and veteran Joakim Soria (7 2/3 scoreless innings) has served as his primary setup man. Check out some of the other arms in the A's bullpen:


IPHRERBBKHR

LHP Jake Diekman

6 2/3

2

0

0

4

9

0

LHP T.J. McFarland

5 2/3

4

0

0

0

2

0

RHP Yusmeiro Petit

7

7

2

2

1

7

1

RHP Burch Smith

10 1/3

4

0

0

1

10

0

RHP J.B. Wendelken

6

4

1

0

2

6

0

Total35 2/321328341

That's a 0.59 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP in over 35 innings from five middle relievers. Petit has been consistently great the last half-decade, so what he's doing is no surprise. Diekman learned a new slider that has paid dividends this year -- as MLB.com's David Adler writes, Diekman learned it from Twitter -- and McFarland and Wendelken have done solid work in the past.

"We only had Lou (Trivino) left and (Daniel) Mengden for length. It was important," Melvin told Gallegos after Wendelken threw three innings in Friday night's 13-inning win. "He was pitching well and kept his pitch count low. To only give up one run in three innings when there's a man on second every time, that's some good pitching."  

Smith, meanwhile, has been a revelation in the early going. The 30-year-old is well-traveled -- the A's are his fifth MLB team in four seasons -- though that's largely because his stuff is so good that he keeps getting chances. He's retired 19 of the last 23 batters he's faced and has become a multi-inning weapon for Melvin, so much so that he recorded a three-inning save Sunday.

That the A's have won nine straight games without firing on all cylinders (the offense hasn't clicked yet, the starters other than Montas and Bassitt have been hit or miss, etc.) speaks to how deep and well-constructed this team is. There is no glaring weakness on the roster and, when they're struggling in one phase of the game, they do enough in the other phases to win anyway.

The winning streak will end eventually, probably sooner rather than later because that's baseball, but the Athletics have made it clear they are a legitimate World Series contenders. This team was very good to begin with -- the A's won 97 games in 2018 and 2019 -- but their core is more mature now, and additions like Luzardo (from within) as well as Diekman and Smith (from outside) make them even more dangerous.

"A lot of our games have been close but we're playing good defense, timely hitting. The pitching's been very consistent, it's almost surprising when we give up runs," Semien told the Associated Press over the weekend. "That's a good sign. I think we're playing good ball, regardless of the batting averages up there, whatever, we're doing what we have to do to win games."