OAKLAND — The rap music was blaring and the card tables were hopping an hour before Tuesday night's game, giving the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse that familiar fraternity house feel these Brash Brothers thrived on during their run to the playoffs last season.
Yes, that old A's swagger is back, maybe stronger than it was in 2000, but it wasn't always like this in Oakland this season.
First baseman Jason Giambi thinks back to early May, when an A's team many picked to win the American League West got off to a horrendous 8-18 start, and visions of rush week weren't dancing in his head.
"We struggled, we were terrible, we went from being one of the best teams in the big leagues to one of the biggest disappointments," Giambi said before the A's scored eight runs in the seventh inning en route to a 9-3 victory over the Angels before 14,172 in Network Associates Coliseum Tuesday night. "But there was no finger-pointing, no scuffles in the clubhouse. No one pushed the panic button."
Instead, Giambi pushed the right buttons. The 2000 AL most valuable player, sensing newcomers such as Johnny Damon and youngsters such as Terrence Long, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada were pressing in an effort to make opponents pay for pitching around Giambi, called a team meeting.
"We just sat down and decided we can't sit around and wait for the three-run home run," Giambi said. "As my walks mounted, the other guys wanted to step up, but they were struggling so bad I said, 'Screw it, just relax and play the game. Let's hit and run and try to move guys over.' Then, the three-run jacks started coming again."
Oakland's first goal was to get to .500, which the A's did when they reached 22-22 on May 22. With Seattle running away with the AL West title, the A's set their sights on the wild-card spot. That was clinched with Sunday's victory over Seattle.
In between was a remarkable run that has even the A's shaking their heads. Since June 27, Oakland is 58-18, the best record in baseball by 61/2 games in that span. The A's won 11 in a row from Aug. 2-12, with seven of the victories coming over Cleveland, New York and Boston, to go from three games back in the wild-card race to two games up. Then, Oakland won 15 of 16 games from Aug. 25-Sept. 18 to take a commanding 11-game lead in the wild-card race and put itself in a position to win 100 games.
"It was amazing," Giambi said. "We were like a slingshot, going from one game up to 10 games up almost overnight. We got hot when everyone else in the wild-card race went on losing streaks. We just took off."
And where the A's land ... that will be determined in early October, when Oakland opens the playoffs against the three-time defending World Series-champion Yankees, who needed five games to eliminate the A's in last year's division series but may not be as fortunate this fall.
Oakland is a more complete team this season than it was in 2000. The A's have three of the best young pitchers in baseball in right-hander Tim Hudson (17-8, 3.40 earned-run average), left-hander Mark Mulder (20-7, 3.49) and left-hander Barry Zito (14-8, 3.56), and two up-and-coming starters in Cory Lidle (11-6, 3.61) and Erik Hiljus (4-0, 3.57).
The bullpen struggled early in the season, but the return of set-up man Jim Mecir from the disabled list on Sept. 5 and the resurgence of closer Jason Isringhausen, who has nine blown saves but has converted his last six opportunities, has the A's better positioned for the playoffs.
Giambi (.336, 34 homers, 41 doubles, 109 runs batted in) is having another outstanding season, Chavez (.279, 29 homers, 103 RBIs) has become one of baseball's best young third baseman, and Tejada (.262, 28 homers, 102 RBIs) is having a productive season.
But perhaps the biggest keys to Oakland's second-half surge have been the two ex-Royals, Damon, who was acquired from Kansas City last winter, and right fielder Jermaine Dye, who was acquired from Kansas City on July 25.
Damon was batting .211 on June 18 but is 98 for 331 (.296) in 79 games since then. Dye took over the cleanup spot behind Giambi and is batting .301 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs in 51 games with the A's.