A's fielding their best, and just win

A’s versus O’s in September, and there’s something major at stake? Gritty starting pitching, a stack of well-turned double plays and the winner winds up being whoever homered with somebody on base -- what is this, a "That ’70s Show" rerun? Perhaps not since the Big Green Machine of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter had to try going through the Earl Weaver Orioles three times in four years 40 years ago has this matchup meant so much.

In the end, it was Yoenis Cespedes’ two-run home run that was the key blow, but that’s only because it was the noisiest feat in a game that reflected a few reasons these teams are here. The A's Friday starter, Tommy Milone, leads the team in turns through a combination of unhappy accidents (to Brandon McCarthy) and better living through chemistry and a suspension for Bartolo Colon. He wasn’t supposed to be “the” guy, but here he was, giving the A’s a chance at keeping the Rangers in range in the American League West while defending Oakland’s AL wild-card lead.

Cespedes’ power production has been crucial for an A’s team that could never afford a premium free agent in the outfield. General manager Billy Beane and friends reached into their bag of roster-rebuild tricks to conjure up an unexpected Cuban solution to their need for power and their inability to afford it on the free market.

But what’s remarkable about this showdown between the A’s and Orioles is that neither team was pegged to finish in the top half of their respective divisions, let alone be sparring in September for the second-best record in the league. Both clubs are huge surprises. However, that’s about all they have in common, because as surprising as they’ve been, they’re surprising in very different ways.

Plenty of people have already commented on the Orioles’ “luck” this season. Whether that’s a matter of being a record 20 games over .500 in one-run games or their being more than 10 games over in extras or their bullpen’s remarkable success despite the absence of a classic late-game flamethrower ... pick your poison, really. All of those things contribute to a Pythagorean record that was an MLB-best 12 games in the black before Friday’s contest. It’s all very fun from a stathead point of view because it’s not suppose to happen -- that’s not how we believe teams win, and the fact that the Orioles are winning this way is one of those fun exceptions to the rule. It’s the sort of piled-up stack of improbabilities that makes the game so much fun to follow from the get-go.

That isn’t the A’s. Say what you want about how surprising it is to find them in multiple races -- for the AL West, an AL wild-card slot or, perhaps most surprising of all, the second-best record in the league -- at this stage of the season, one thing is clear: The A’s aren’t lucky to be here. Going into Friday night’s game, their expected record was just one game worse than their actual record. Unlike the Orioles, they’re not a surprise on the basis of what they’re doing -- they’re an ongoing surprise because the collected wisdom of the know-it-all-ocracy was just flat-out dead wrong about them six months ago. And six weeks ago. And probably six days ago.

One key? Defense, as the A’s managed to kill the Orioles with four double plays. As a team, they’re second only to the defense-obsessed Mariners in defensive efficiency in all of baseball. That hasn’t been a function of the Coliseum’s foul territory, either. They’re fourth in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, rating behind the Padres, Mariners and the Rays -- the team that employs the man who invented that stat, James Click.

What’s incredible about that is that if defense is the product of team play, the A’s performance on D has come despite a ton of turnover at all four infield positions, five if you count catcher. Not one of their opening day starters is still playing his season-starting position regularly. Toss in the since-reversed decision to put Cespedes in center and Coco Crisp in left, and the only guy left from that March 28 opener in the Tokyo Dome is right fielder Josh Reddick.

That commitment to churning through their options until they get the best team possible is what put catcher Derek Norris on the spot Friday night. It was his throw from behind home plate that ended the game, not a closer whiffing someone at home and not some dramatic bit of walk-off drama. Norris wasn’t even on this team until June 21, and he didn’t take over as the regular receiver until after longtime regular Kurt Suzuki was dumped, casually chucking notions about the virtues of team chemistry and veteran leadership.

Which seems totally in character for this A’s team. Their approach to personnel led them to just put the better player on the team. Contend with a rookie catcher? Sure, because they think he’s the best they have. A no-name rotation? Again, not a problem, they know what they’ve got. Turn over the entire infield? Why not -- just win, baby.