A's show a different way to win the A.L. West
09/23/2013 12:00 AM
09/22/2013 11:26 PM
OAKLAND – While his players formed a whooping, goggles-wearing mass in the middle of the clubhouse Sunday afternoon, dousing each other with sprays from bottles of champagne and cans of beer, A's manager Bob Melvin stood off to one side, holding a bottle and watching. His jersey had been cast off, traded for a gray T-shirt that featured the A's logo and the words: "We Own the West."
For the second year in a row, they do. The A's clinched the American League West when the Rangers lost to the Kansas City Royals in the early afternoon. The A's then put an emphatic conclusion on the day and division race by beating the Minnesota Twins 11-7 in front of a crowd of 30,589 in the regular-season finale at O.co Coliseum.
It featured neither the improbability nor the last-day drama of last year's clincher, which capped a whirlwind comeback in the second half. This time, the A's seized first place for good on Sept. 6, the start of a 13-3 run that resulted in the franchise's 16th division title and 17th playoff appearance in the Oakland era.
"It's actually probably more meaningful (than 2012) because everybody was looking for us to fail," left fielder Brandon Moss said. "Everybody was trying to discredit what we did last year as we just got hot at the right time and went on that roller coaster. But this year, I don't think there's many teams that have been as consistent as we have.
"This year feels better because we were in control. Last year, we were chasing the whole time and it wasn't our division to lose. This year, it was our division to lose. And we kept it."
As it played out, the A's didn't need to win Sunday to do so. Justin Maxwell's walk-off grand slam for the Royals made the title official when the A's and Twins were in top of the third. As word spread, pockets of fans began to cheer, though the scoreboard waited to update the final until the middle of the inning.
Video monitors then showed Maxwell's homer, and the crowd erupted. Reaction among the A's was more muted, with a few fist pumps and handshakes in the dugout.
"It was a weird feeling because it wasn't a sense of relief, even though you knew you won the division," Melvin said. "We wanted to win this game desperately and do it the right way in front of our fans."
They shed some restraint as soon as Evan Scribner struck out Josmil Pinto for the final out in the ninth, bringing the A's sprinting out of their dugout and into a jumping circle in the infield. It lacked some of the giddy spontaneity of last year's celebration, perhaps fitting for a team that, reliever Sean Doolittle said, realized early on the burden of defending a division title.
"We knew we weren't going to sneak up on any teams, so the margin for error was a little bit less," Doolittle said. "But that was the biggest thing was we came together as a team, kind of found our identity, and then from there we played really, really good baseball."
The A's trailed the Rangers by three games Aug. 29, with another taut finish looking likely.
But while the A's surged, with an 18-5 record since that date, the Rangers faltered, going 6-16. In their sweep of the Twins, the A's tied an Oakland record with 39 runs in a four-game series and hit three more homers Sunday, giving them 68 in 43 games since Aug. 9.
It helped make a winner of Sonny Gray, who started the clincher a little more than two months removed from his major-league debut and called it "one of the most nerve-wracking starts I've had, just knowing what's at stake."
It marked the 74th day the A's spent alone in first this season. Last year, they had one.
"Last year was a storybook ending; it was just really crazy," third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "But this year, we feel that we're better. We feel that we're a little more accomplished. And we feel like we have all the pieces to the puzzle to go out and win it."
The A's now can rest players and set up their playoff rotation but stressed their final two series are not irrelevant.
The A's have the A.L.'s second-best record, two games better than the Detroit Tigers, whom they would face in the ALDS with home-field advantage if the postseason began today. Beyond that, recent history has shown that teams going down to the wire just to make the playoffs have thrived in the postseason.
"We still want to continue to play good baseball going into the playoffs," Donaldson said. "Baseball's not one of those things you can just turn on and off. We want to continue to fine-tune things."
Still, as the celebration went on, and he was asked how long he would allow himself to enjoy it, Melvin answered: "All day. We'll figure out tomorrow, tomorrow."
Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015.
About This BlogMatt Kawahara has covered baseball for The Sacramento Bee for three years. Kawahara, a McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley graduate, joined The Bee in 2010. Before joining Sports, he was a general assignment news reporter. Reach Kawahara at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @matthewkawahara.
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