Billy Beane: A’s Win the A.L. West With One Final Rally

October 4th, 2012

The New York Times
By Jason Turbow
Oct. 3, 2012

OAKLAND, Calif. — Jonny Gomes isn’t much for standard operating procedure. Not content to fling Champagne in the A’s clubhouse after Oakland’s 12-5, American League West-clinching defeat of the Texas Rangers, he waited until his booze-soaked teammates had gathered on the mound for an impromptu photo shoot. Then, spying a groundskeeper’s hose, he unleashed a jet of water upon the unsuspecting A’s that put to shame anything that came out of the bottles of Chandon California brut back in the locker room.

So it goes for the remarkable A’s, who at this point have become accustomed to seizing opportunities wherever they find them. On Wednesday, it was at the expense of the Rangers, heavy division favorites coming into both the season and this series but who left Oakland in defeat when a single victory would have relegated the A’s to a wild-card play-in game. Instead, it’s now Texas that will face Baltimore for the right to advance to a first-round series.

The A’s, meanwhile, will move on to Detroit, where their unlikely journey will continue in a Game 1 on Saturday night.

“It’s always good for the underdogs to come out on top,” said closer Grant Balfour, who was called upon to close out Texas in the ninth despite his team’s seven-run lead. “That’s something I’ll take every time.”

In their underdog role, the A’s pulled off one of baseball’s great surprises in recent decades. This was a team picked to finish last in its division, even before trading its three best pitchers for youngsters during the off-season in what seemed a move designed for the 2015 season, and certainly not this one. It is also a team speckled with castoffs, a team that was 13 games behind Texas on June 30, and five games back with only nine to play. A team with a $59.5 million payroll, baseball’s lowest. A team that, in the end, is a little bit hard to believe.

It was easy to think Wednesday afternoon that the magic had finally cracked. The Rangers put together a five-run third inning, aided by two dropped pop-ups, which knocked Oakland starter A. J. Griffin from the game. Trailing, 5-1, the A’s looked, for the first time in recent weeks, like the very young ball club that they are.

And then, suddenly, they didn’t. Wearing their gold alternate jerseys, the A’s came right back in the bottom of the fourth with a big inning of their own, scoring six runs to take a 7-5 lead. From there, the Oakland bullpen shut Texas down, making the seasoned Rangers look like the team unaccustomed to such pressure. The Rangers made three errors in the game, none more prominent than the easy fly ball dropped by Josh Hamilton in the fourth. It allowed the A’s to score the final two runs of their big rally. Three innings later, with Rangers on second and third, nobody out and Texas down by three, the rookie reliever Ryan Cook — Oakland’s lone All-Star representative this season — shut the door for good with a groundout and two strikeouts. Oakland’s stadium still had tarps over all but three sections of the third deck Wednesday, but every other seat, all 35,067 of them (plus another 1,000 standing-room-only tickets) was sold. Chants of “Let’s go, Oakland” serenaded the team from the first pitch onward. Every two-strike count against the Rangers set off a minor roar.

That Oakland started a rookie pitcher in its biggest game of the season should not be surprising; its rotation is currently made up of nothing but rookies. The starting five — Griffin, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Travis Blackley and Dan Straily — had 14 games of major league experience between them coming into the 2012 season, and have now started 14 games in a row.

Then again, as the season began, Oakland’s rotation included the veterans Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon, who were knocked out of action by a line drive to the head and a flunked drug test, respectively. Even Brett Anderson, who returned from Tommy John surgery in August to go 4-2 with a 2.57 earned run average in six starts, has been shelved recently with an oblique strain.

With the victory going to Evan Scribner, who held the Rangers to two hits over three shutout innings, rookie pitchers have now accounted for 54 of Oakland’s 94 victories — the highest such number in major league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“Experience is one thing, but when you trust yourself and you’re good at baseball, you win games,” McCarthy, a seven-year veteran, said. “These young guys are so together, they’re almost too mature.”As Oakland General Manager Billy Beane held one of his 4-year-old twins, Brayden, in the celebratory clubhouse, he said that it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that he was convinced his club had what it took.

“I thought our debutante ball, so to speak — our coming-out party — was the series against the Yankees,” he said, referring to three games at Yankee Stadium in mid-September.

To Beane, it hardly mattered that the A’s won only one of them. “The Yankees are the barometer for success in this league, and when we went toe-to-toe with them, that really told me something about this team,” he said.

Now his team is a division winner, with a couple of days to rest and contemplate its next miracle.

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