Before the A’s recorded their 58th win of the season last Thursday against the cross-bay Giants, matching their best record through 92 games since the franchise moved to Oakland in 1968, closer Sean Doolittle was asked whether there was any feeling in the clubhouse that the team had played above its head in the first half.
“I think it’s kind of what was expected in this clubhouse,” Doolittle said. “I know a lot of people probably didn’t see us doing something like this coming out of the gate. But if you look at the way this organization is built, there’s a lot of depth, and it gives guys a chance that if a hole opens up, they step in and they get an extended opportunity.”
Before Opening Day, the A’s lost two-fifths of their projected 2014 rotation to injuries that required Tommy John surgery. Jim Johnson, the reliever they signed for $10 million to be their closer, lasted all of three weeks in that role. Right fielder Josh Reddick has missed nearly half the season because of injuries.
Yet as they’ve done the past few seasons, the A’s shuffled the pieces and kept on rolling. They reached the season’s nominal halfway point with the majors’ best record (59-36) and run differential (plus-145), and their league-high six All-Star selections indicated the rest of baseball is taking them more seriously.
All-Star Scott Kazmir (11-3, 2.38 ERA) and the emergence of Jesse Chavez (7-6, 3.14) helped mitigate the loss of starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. After some early struggles by the bullpen, Doolittle provided stability by assuming the closer role. The A’s staff finished the first half with the American League’s lowest ERA (3.09), including a league-best 3.13 by the starters.
“Our pitching is key,” All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “They go out and put up a lot of zeroes, and our offense – you just kind of always have that feeling that it’s just a matter of time until we really get to a guy.”
That formula, buoyed by a lineup that has scored the second-most runs in the A.L. while having 13 different players make at least 100 plate appearances, has guided the A’s to division titles the past two years. For a third, they’ll have to hold off both the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners in a suddenly top-heavy A.L. West, which features three of the five best records in the league.
The A’s play just 30 of their remaining 67 games against teams that finished the first half above .500 – including 12 against the Houston Astros, whom they’ve beaten 20 times in 26 games since the start of 2013. But they also play 10 games against the Angels, who have kept them from running away in the West.
No A.L. team has a better winning percentage (.594) than the A’s since the beginning of 2012, yet they still are searching for their first trip to the A.L. Championship Series since 2006, when they were swept by Detroit. The Tigers have knocked them out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and Detroit’s Justin Verlander told reporters after the A’s recent trade for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel that Oakland made the deal “for us.”
Whether or not that’s true, the A’s parting with two first-round draft picks to land Samardzija sent a clear message for an organization that last reached the World Series in 1990: In Oakland, the time is now.