OAKLAND - Arguably no team had a more challenging week leading up to the All-Star break than the A's, whose schedule called for three games in Pittsburgh against the Pirates followed by three at home against the Boston Red Sox, who have the most wins in baseball.
If that stretch was meant to ground the A's - who entered it with 52 wins and a half-game lead in the American League West - going into the break, it did nothing of the sort. The A's won four of six to reach the season's ceremonial halfway point with the league's second-best record and a two-game lead over the Texas Rangers.
The A's were one of baseball's surprises with their second-half playoff run last year, and they've done their best to show it was no fluke with a strong first half this season and the majors' best record (113-65) since last July 1.
"We expected to do well," manager Bob Melvin said last weekend. "(There was) a lot of talk about that second year after winning the first year, and there's always concern for that. And there's some guys that probably aren't putting up the same type of numbers they did last year, who I think will again.
"But again, we're still winning some games, and we're in the position we thought we'd be in coming out of spring training at this point in time."
Pitching is a main reason. The A's lead the American League in ERA (3.62) despite their rotation's 5.09 mark through their first 42 games, during which they went 20-22. Since then, they're 36-17 and the rotation is 27-9 with an ERA of 2.99.
That has often kept them in close games - their last four wins came by a combined score of 10-4 - with the offense doing enough to get by. Big first halves from Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie helped offset relatively slow starts from Yoenis Cespedes (.225, 15 home runs), Josh Reddick (.218), Chris Young (.190) and Derek Norris (.208).
"We have some guys who probably aren't where they want to be at the break, but I think they're going to be big for us down the stretch," Lowrie said. "We've got a really deep lineup, and I think it'll be one of our strengths (in the second half)."
The A's open the second half with 10 games against division opponents, including seven against the Los Angeles Angels, who are 11 games back but "will have something to say" in the division race before it's over, Melvin said.
The A's were a 43-43 team at the break last year before playing .671 baseball the rest of the way.
This season, their early play has them 17 games over .500 at the break.
Said Lowrie: "I think we're right where we want to be."