OAKLAND – Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour grouped around a table in the middle of the home clubhouse at the Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, chatting quietly after each contributed a scoreless inning of relief in the A's 7-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
The relaxed nature of the conversation seemed a somewhat odd sight, given the presence each normally brings into games – Doolittle the hard-throwing left-hander known to let out a scream when walking off after a successful outing, Cook the burly right-hander with the mid-90s fastball, Balfour the demonstrative closer who enters to Metallica and stalks around the mound in a whipped-up frenzy.
It was not, however, unusual to see them together. The trio, or some combination thereof, regularly appears late in games when the A's need to protect a lead, such as Sunday when left-hander Tommy Milone weathered a rocky start to pitch six innings and turn the game over to the bullpen in the seventh, up 6-5.
According to baseball-reference.com, this was the 39th time this season the A's have taken a lead into the seventh inning, and they are 36-3 in those games. Three teams in the American League – the Mariners, Rangers and Red Sox, with two – entered Sunday with fewer losses when starting the seventh with a lead.
While not the only options for manager Bob Melvin in those situations, the Doolittle-Cook-Balfour parade has been a big reason for the A's success.
Doolittle has a 3.19 ERA in 37 appearances – tied with Jerry Blevins for most on the staff – but 10 of the 13 runs he has allowed came in a five-game stretch in late May. Doolittle has since given up one run in 10 innings in nine games and said the rough patch is "in the rear-view mirror." Cook has a 2.80 ERA in 35 outings and has not allowed a home run. Balfour has converted his past 37 save opportunities, including 19 this year.
"I'd put those three up against anybody in the league," said A's shortstop Jed Lowrie.
Melvin hadn't used any of them in the first two games of the series, with the A's winning 6-1 on Friday and getting handcuffed by Adam Wainwright in a 7-1 loss Saturday. Sunday, the Cardinals took a 5-2 lead in the third against Milone, but the lefty stranded four runners over three more scoreless innings while the A's clawed back with two runs in the third and a two-run homer by Lowrie in the fourth.
Doolittle pitched a scoreless seventh inning with some help. After Matt Carpenter's leadoff double, Yadier Molina hit a flare that second baseman Eric Sogard caught in shallow right field on a dead run, battling the sun.
Doolittle called it "one of the better (plays) of the year." Two batters later, third baseman Josh Donaldson made a diving stop of Allen Craig's sharp ground ball to end the inning.
Cook retired the side in order in the eighth inning and Balfour did the same in the ninth against three left-handed hitters. Balfour, who is three saves from tying Dennis Eckersley for the longest streak (40) in Oakland history – and refuses to talk about it, a rule the other relievers are following – is one of two closers in baseball this season without a blown save. The other, the Cardinals' Edward Mujica, didn't get into the series.
Balfour said that, when the A's have a lead in the late innings, he feels "very confident" the lead will get to him intact.
"We have a tight-knit bullpen and a good bunch of guys that enjoy the competition together," he said. "We can joke and mess around and at the same time go out and compete at a high level. I like what we've got and I wouldn't change it."
So far there hasn't been a need. Entering Sunday, Doolittle was tied for the sixth-most appearances among A.L. relievers and Cook the eighth-most.
Both, though, said they feel fine physically. Cook is on pace to throw fewer innings than in 2012, when he pitched in 71 games. Doolittle threw a combined 721/3 innings between the minors and Oakland in his first full professional season as a pitcher, but said having a full offseason healthy to "train as a pitcher probably helped a little bit, too."
Of Sunday's three-man progression to close out the series win for the A's, Doolittle said: "I guess if we could draw it up, that'd probably be how we could do it."