OAKLAND – Shortly after securing the final out of a three-game sweep over the Chicago White Sox, A's closer Grant Balfour said of Sunday's 2-0 win: "For us, that was the perfect game."
It hit these qualifications under Balfour's formula – the A's received a strong outing from their starting pitcher and managed enough offense to hand the game to their bullpen with a lead.
How reliable has the latter part of the formula been? The A's are 24-1 this season when they lead after six innings. That they've also won 14 of their past 16 games – a run that has them a season-high 10 games over .500 as they leave town for seven games – has been largely attributable to the part that was most erratic early in the year.
With right-hander Jarrod Parker holding the White Sox scoreless for 6 1/3 innings, the A's rotation finished the series having pitched 21 1/3 innings and allowed one run on 13 hits while striking out 18 batters.
During the current 14-2 stretch, starters have allowed one run or fewer in eight games and have a combined ERA of 2.67.
"That's been the key," manager Bob Melvin said.
Parker has been emblematic of the upturn. After recording a 7.36 ERA in April, he has a 2.41 mark in his past five starts, four of which the A's have won. On Sunday – pitching against a White Sox lineup missing middle-of-the-order fixtures Paul Konerko and Alex Rios – Parker didn't allow a runner past second base and struck out seven.
"I think it's something where we're feeding off each other," Parker said.
"This team is built around pitching and defense, and it's something where if we're able to keep our team in the game, we've got some big bats and we're able to scratch runs across.
"We don't have to be spectacular. We just need to be solid and just keep us in games."
Sunday, at least, that meant matching zeroes with White Sox left-hander Chris Sale, who entered the game with a 23-inning scoreless streak and extended it to 28 before the A's broke through in the sixth. Coco Crisp led off with a walk, took third on a Jed Lowrie single and scored on Josh Donaldson's sacrifice fly.
Parker faced one batter in the seventh inning before giving way to the A's bullpen. Jerry Blevins retired Adam Dunn for his lone hitter, Ryan Cook got four outs – three of them on strikeouts – and Balfour converted his 31st consecutive save opportunity.
Melvin afterward described Parker's outing as "the Jarrod we're used to seeing." As with much of the A's rotation, though – with the exception of 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who threw a shutout Friday – Parker's big-league track record basically encompasses this season and last.
With the starters owning a 5.09 ERA on May 15, that might have seemed reason to give extra pause before writing off their struggles as a fluke.
Balfour, though, said his confidence in the rotation is rooted in more than last season's performance.
"I look at the guy and think, man, he's got way too good of stuff to be in a slump for that long," Balfour said. "All the guys on the staff, if he has a rough patch there, either he's not feeling great or he's just in a rough patch right now, 'cause the stuff is going to prove to come out on top for me."
Parker attributed his improvement in May to "a combination of things, feeling healthy and cleaning a few things up mechanically, and just attacking." He said nobody felt the need early on to pull the rotation together and give a rallying speech.
"We know who we are, and we don't try to panic and press," Parker said.
Still, left-hander Tommy Milone, who starts the series opener today in Milwaukee, said the performance over the past few weeks has been "what we were looking for, especially to start the season. Someone throws a good game, the next guy's trying to go out there and do the same, kind of keep it rolling."
So what does Milone have to do for an encore to this series?
"Just feed off the energy," he said. "We're on a good little streak, and you just want it to stay that way."