- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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The Oakland Athletics play in the only ballpark in baseball that still heralds the end of August with the appearance of yardage markers in the outfield. A big patch of the center-field grass looks like the county fair just folded up shop and left town.
During Saturday night's game, and I swear this is true, there was nowhere -- no scoreboard, no video screen, no nothing -- to tell you the hitter's batting average. Honestly, something as simple as batting average -- not to mention such advanced metrics as home runs and RBIs -- was not visible in the ballpark.
In Houston, where the worst team in baseball loses its games, you will find run probability on the scoreboard. But in Oakland, home of the most interesting team in baseball, mythical birthplace of the first exploitation of the first statistical inefficiency, you needed to bring something from home to figure out Yoenis Cespedes' batting average.
In a weird way, it's perfect. From a distance, most of what's happening in Oakland doesn't make sense. The A's were eight games under .500 on June 1, and today they are two games ahead for the first American League wild-card spot, 19 games over .500, winners of nine straight and 15 out of 17.
Why? How? It starts with a pitching staff that has the second-best ERA (3.42) in the American League and precisely zero household names. To understand the A's you first have to understand this: General manager Billy Beane treats starting pitchers like a guy flipping houses. Look for good bones and potential, do some touch-ups here and there and sell for a big profit. He traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for, among others, left-handed starter Tommy Milone (a team-leading 11 wins) and catcher Derek Norris. He traded Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for starter Jarrod Parker (9-7, 3.52), and setup man/erstwhile closer Ryan Cook (6-2, 2.40, 13 saves). The trades raised eyebrows and left most baseball people thinking the A's would be fortunate to win 60 games.
"At the time, you're thinking, 'OK, this is interesting,'" pitcher Brett Anderson says. "Now, it's all worked out. It's pretty incredible."
The A's have the lowest payroll in baseball, under $50 million for the lot of 'em. Or, to put it in layman's terms, Oakland's entire payroll is roughly 25 percent of the Yankees', which makes it equivalent to a player to be named later in the next Dodgers' trade.
"We have a lot of retreads and castoffs," says veteran starter Brandon McCarthy. "But it's too easy of a cliché to say we are motivated by being the underdogs. We just want to be good at baseball. Everybody wants to have fun, and it's more fun to listen to your music after a win than to sit in silence and be mad."
There's a story at every cubicle. Sean Doolittle was a first baseman and one of Oakland's better hitting prospects a year ago; now, 13 months into his pitching career, he's a left-handed setup man with a 13.2 K/9 ratio and a 5.6 K/BB ratio. Doolittle has a rare ability to throw fastball after fastball to right-handed hitters and have them be routinely late. His first two appearances in the big leagues featured two innings and exactly zero off-speed pitches. His arm action, which starts at his hip and runs up his body on a straight line, creates the appearance of the ball materializing out of his left ear.
Travis Blackley was released by the Giants on May 13 and claimed by the A's two days later; he's been invaluable as a swing guy -- 4-3 as a starter, 1-0 with a 3.28 ERA as a long man out of the bullpen. His role changes so often he pitches from the stretch all the time, just to eliminate any possibility of confusion.
A.J. Griffin was a 13th-round pick just two years ago (June 2010) and started out his minor league career as an effective closer before the A's converted him into a starter last year. He's 4-0 with a 2.26 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP in nine major league starts. He carries the type of goofy coolness that permeates the roster. On Saturday, he had a perfect game going through 4 2/3 innings before Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia added to the pervasive Red Sox dysfunction by bunting for a hit against an overshift in a 5-0 game. Griffin wasn't happy about it, but he kept his cool and ended up throwing seven innings of one-run ball. He even faced Saltalamacchia with two outs and nobody on and didn't bother to retaliate.
"These guys don't act like rookies," says McCarthy. "They don't pitch like rookies. None of this seems new to them."
Of course, timing's everything. Just as Bartolo Colon's magical physical rejuvenation proved to be too good to be true (to the tune of a 50-game suspension after testing positive for testosterone), Brett Anderson came off the disabled list 13 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery to pitch like the best left-hander in the American League. ("I wouldn't say it was good timing," Anderson says. "I'd say it was fluke timing.") In three starts, Anderson has a 0.90 ERA with a .164 batting average against and a 0.70 WHIP. It's almost like they're kidding.
Anderson returned about 25 pounds lighter than he was last we saw him. He took advantage of his down time to retool his lifestyle.
Out: Cokes, most refined sugars. In: brown rice, grilled chicken, cardio.
"When I came out of surgery, I decided it was the perfect time to get my body in shape," he says. "I'm never going to be on the cover of Men's Fitness, but once you start you see the benefits. I sleep better, I'm not lethargic when I wake up. I think it's going to keep me stronger."
McCarthy is a big believer in the kinds of statistics that turned Beane into Brad Pitt, but he retains a romantic side. "The one argument I have is it gets to be based too much on the numbers and people take out the actual emotional, mental aspect that does exist. Because you can't quantify it, it gets pushed aside when it does play a massive role. This team, if you'd just put a different manager here, you might not have this at all."
Yes, it's easy to forget Bob Melvin. He's a background guy, more interested in talking to his players than the media. He spends his time during batting practice walking around the field with a fungo in his hand, making contact with just about everyone on the club. He has an easy smile and an unassuming manner, two traits he shares with pitching coach Curt Young.
"You don't feel like there's an ego on their side," McCarthy says. "Your failure isn't a personal insult to either one of them. It's one of the worst feelings in the world when you're playing for a manager or a pitching coach and you feel you're personally insulting them by doing poorly. It's demoralizing, and it exists way more than people would think."
There's a three-game series starting on Labor Day in Oakland: Angels versus A's. It's supposed to be a big one, but it's really big only to the Angels. Nine in a row and 15 out of 17 put 5½ games between the two teams, and the Angels -- the team with the big payroll and the big expectations and the big pressure -- are the ones fighting for September relevance.
Because if you're asking yourself whether the A's can hold off the Angels, you might be asking yourself the wrong question. As they sit three games back of Texas with 29 to play, maybe the most pertinent question regarding the A's is this: Will they catch the Rangers and win the AL West?
It's not a question they're willing to entertain, at least publicly. They'll listen to Melvin, who says he has a few simple rules: "Play for the day, enjoy each other and have fun. That's about as far as we want to take it."
The no-name A's have suddenly become the talk of baseball.