OAKLAND Fittingly, this season in which the A's so often relied on the magic they conjured in their final at-bats has boiled down to its final day.
The A's beat the Texas Rangers 3-1 Tuesday night to pull even with the Rangers atop the American League West and force a winner-take-all game today for the division title.
The winner advances to a divisional playoff series. The loser goes to Friday's win-or-go-home wild-card game.
It seemed unlikely even a week ago that the Rangers could be fighting for their playoff lives Friday. But the A's have won seven of their last eight games and the Rangers have lost six of their last eight, and the five-game lead Texas held Sept. 24 is gone.
The A's, who trailed the Rangers by 13 games on June 30, could become just the fifth team in major league history to come back from a deficit at least that big to win a pennant or division. Seattle in 1995 was the last.
"Who would've thought that we'd be here?" mused closer Grant Balfour, who sealed the win with a strikeout, this time of Nelson Cruz, for the second consecutive night. "I don't know. I know we did. I know the whole team did.
"I don't know about anyone else, but as long as we believe inside this clubhouse and we know we can get it done, then we're going to do it. I honestly believe we're going to win it (today)."
The A's had already clinched their first playoff berth in six years Monday, and the bubbly aroma had not entirely faded from the clubhouse when they reassembled Tuesday behind scuffling left-hander Travis Blackley.
But Blackley stifled the Rangers' lineup for most of six innings, scattering three hits and stranding leadoff runners in the second, fourth and sixth five days after a dreadful start at Texas in which he gave up five runs in the first inning.
"That was the one thing I was just trying to not let creep into my head," said Blackley, who posted a 10.80 ERA in four games in September, two of them relief outings. "I just reminded myself I'm here for a reason. I just went out like I had nothing to lose."
After Blackley pitched just three innings in his two September starts, manager Bob Melvin said, "To give us six innings, throw close to 90 pitches for a guy that hadn't thrown more than 30 or 40 in quite some time, I think that was just as impressive as the actual stuff."
Blackley weathered two errors behind him and caught a break in the second, when Mike Napoli's hard-hit liner with two on and one out traveled straight to third baseman Josh Donaldson. He then struck Geovany Soto out looking to escape the jam and walked off in a burst of emotion he said was fueled by an edgy announced crowd of 30,660 at O.co Coliseum.
"It took a little time," outfielder Jonny Gomes said of the crowded stands, "but I think they're on board."
Blackley said he got over-amped on the curveball he hung to Josh Hamilton in the third, which Hamilton ripped for an RBI double. The A's wrested the lead back in the fifth when Derek Norris lined a single to right that scored Donaldson and Brandon Moss.
Gomes provided some insurance in the sixth with his 18th home run of the season. And then the A's turned to the same bullpen procession from Monday hard-throwing left-hander Sean Doolittle in the seventh, right-hander Ryan Cook in the eighth and a fired-up Balfour in the ninth that may loom large in the postseason.
"You go six, I feel like you've got Doolittle, Cookie and myself, and we feel confident," said Balfour, who earned his 24th save. "That's the way we write it up. And honestly, I feel like that's the way we can get it done."