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A's Are on a Mystery Tour

Despite being near or at the bottom of the league in several offensive categories, Oakland can clinch the AL West this weekend.

September 22, 2006|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Stonehenge, the Bermuda Triangle, the ancient Maya lands, the 2006 Oakland Athletics -- oh, the great mysteries of the world.

They lost co-ace Rich Harden for four months, shortstop Bobby Crosby for three months, right fielder Milton Bradley for two months, closer Huston Street for three weeks, and much of the power of cleanup batter Eric Chavez, whose strength has been so sapped by forearm injuries that he begged his manager to bat ninth last month.

Yet, here the A's stand, ranked 13th in the American League in batting, 13th in slugging percentage, last in average with runners in scoring position, and first in the AL West, seven games ahead of the Angels with 10 to play, closing in on a division title many thought would go to the Angels.

"I wish I could give you an explanation; I have none," Oakland first baseman Nick Swisher said of the A's, who are a major league-best 44-20 since the All-Star break entering a three-game series against the Angels tonight. "That's why statistics are overrated.

"We've dealt with the most adversity of any team in the big leagues and battled through it to be in the position we're in. But it doesn't surprise me with the caliber of guys in this locker room."

It's amazing how far a deep and talented pitching staff, sparkling defense, and a healthy dose of the Big Hurt, with a twist of Swisher, can take you.

Swisher, who is batting .254 with 32 home runs and 88 runs batted in, fueled the offense in the first half, and Frank Thomas, a.k.a. the Big Hurt, the Chicago White Sox castoff and injury-prone designated hitter, has carried it through the second half.

Thomas, who had a very bitter and public separation with the White Sox last winter, batted .190 with five homers and 11 RBIs in April, but after warming in May, June and July, he went on a tear.

Since Aug. 1, Thomas is batting .329 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs -- 10 of those homers and 28 RBIs coming in September -- bringing his season totals to .277, 38 homers and 107 RBIs. All for the bargain-basement price of $500,000 guaranteed and $2.6 million in potential incentives and bonuses.

"I'd love to take all the credit in the world for that, but I'm not sure I can," Oakland General Manager Billy Beane said. "This was all Frank. We needed a right-handed bat, and Frank wanted to come here at a cost we could afford. It was by no means a stroke of genius on my part."

Thomas, who had a reputation of being more concerned with his stats than the team, wasn't the only player of questionable character Beane acquired last winter.

Beane traded for oft-troubled Bradley, the former Dodger who had run-ins with his manager, teammates, fans, the media and the law, and signed pitcher Esteban Loaiza to a three-year, $21-million deal, despite a work ethic some have criticized and pointed to as a reason the right-hander is with his fifth team in five years.

But Loaiza, after missing five weeks in May and June because of a shoulder injury and going 1-3 with a 7.26 earned-run average in July, is 7-1 with a 2.55 ERA since.

Bradley, after batting .120 with no homers or RBIs in June, is batting .303 with eight homers and 37 RBIs since, helping a resurgent offense hit .288 and average 5.3 runs a game since Aug. 1.

The only transgression between the three was Loaiza's DUI arrest earlier this season. Otherwise, they have fit in well.

"Chemistry is created through winning," Beane said. "In a losing clubhouse, there's friction, and people are throwing barbs at each other from every which way. We felt we'd be a competitive team, and because of that, people who come here would enjoy themselves and get along.

"I don't buy into the theory that you go get chemistry guys, and therefore you have a good team. Then I'd sign 25 guys like Tom Hanks. You need talent to win, and then you have chemistry. I haven't heard anyone ever say, 'We stunk this year, but everyone got along great, so we're going to bring them all back.' "

Beane knew an existing core that includes starters Barry Zito, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, relievers Street, Justin Duchscherer, Joe Kennedy and Kiko Calero, middle infielders Marco Scutaro and Mark Ellis, third baseman Chavez, center fielder Mark Kotsay and outfielders Jay Payton and Bobby Kielty, would keep the A's competitive.

Both the A's (Harden) and Angels (Bartolo Colon) absorbed significant rotation losses, and both have top-notch bullpens, but the biggest reason Oakland pulled away from the Angels in August was defense.

While the Angels have made an AL-high 118 errors and given up a major league-high 80 unearned runs, the A's, who have made 79 errors and given up 46 unearned runs, have been consistently strong.

Scutaro has been a more-than-capable replacement at shortstop for Crosby, and Beane believes Ellis and the Angels' Adam Kennedy are the two best defensive second basemen in the league. Though Chavez (.240, 20 homers, 68 RBIs) has struggled offensively, "he's been a game-changer with the glove," Beane said.

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