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Victory is extra sweet to scrappy, low-budget Oakland Athletics

The A's, with a fondness for sugary treats and walk-off wins (AL-best 13), have defied expectations, contending for wild card despite league-low $53-million payroll.

August 06, 2012|By Ben Bolch
  • A's center fielder Coco Crisp gets a celebratory pie to the face from teammate Brandon Inge after a 5-4 victory over the Yankees to complete a three-game sweep last month in Oakland.
A's center fielder Coco Crisp gets a celebratory pie to the face from… (Eric Risberg / Associated…)

OAKLAND — The symbol of these Oakland Athletics wears an apron and a baker's hat.

He is a fan who shows up at the Oakland Coliseum dressed as if he's ready to make pastries, knowing that sugary confections have become as much of a fixture at the end of games as bats and balls.

Coco Crisp hits a two-run single in the 12th inning to beat the New York Yankees . . . and gets a whipped-cream pie in the face.

Jemile Weeks lofts a game-winning fly ball in the 15th to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays . . . after a handful of relievers have polished off "rally doughnuts" in the clubhouse.

The Athletics' major league-leading 13 walk-off victories have spawned Pie Man, an unofficial mascot who fashions himself as the team's culinary captain.

If a wild July in which Oakland had a record of 19-5 with seven walk-off celebrations is any indication, the Athletics take the cake as the biggest surprise in baseball.

"It's really indescribable," said All-Star closer Ryan Cook, one of several breakthrough rookies. "This has been an awesome ride."

Had the season ended Sunday, the notoriously chintzy Athletics would have secured a playoff spot as one of the league's two wild-card entrant, edging out several privileged rivals who play moneyed ball.

The Angels, who open a three-game series here Monday night, began the season with a $151-million payroll, nearly three times the Athletics' AL-low $53-million figure.

The $98-million head start has netted the third-place Angels (58-51) a half-game deficit in the AL West behind the second-place Athletics (58-50) with less than two months left in the season.

"Obviously, it's not a surprise that we don't have the same payroll as other teams," said rookie left-hander Tommy Milone, a former USC pitcher. "It's cool to think about that we can compete with those guys even though we're predominantly young."

A team with 10 rookies on its 25-man roster has taken a sweet and sour approach to pitching and hitting.

The Athletics lead the league with a 3.43 earned-run average while ranking last in runs (430) and batting average (.229). They have been shut out a major league-worst 12 times, though only once over their last 54 games.

The Angels were supposed to be the AL West team that grew appreciably better in the off-season, acquiring Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols and star pitcher C.J. Wilson.

Meanwhile, the Athletics got younger and cheaper, per unspoken team policy. They traded three All-Star pitchers — Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey and Gio Gonzalez — in exchange for roughly half a roster of prospects.

Oakland didn't even have to wait for its first quarterly statement to realize its investment was paying off.

Milone (9-9, 3.91 ERA) and fellow rookie Jarrod Parker (7-5, 3.44) have become mainstays of the starting rotation. Cook (11 saves, .149 batting average against) is among the game's top young closers and Josh Reddick, a 25-year-old right fielder, leads the team with 24 home runs and 56 runs batted in.

"It just shows how big confidence is," Angels pitcher Dan Haren said of his former team's success. "You come into a game thinking you can win, you've got a good chance of winning."

One head-scratching move is also working out. The Athletics shocked much of the baseball world in February when they signed Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36-million contract that vastly exceeds their typical pay scale.

Cespedes has rewarded his employer by hitting a team-high .306 with 14 homers, which may provide only a glimpse of the left fielder's potential given his legendary batting practices that have fans and opposing hitters gawking in amazement.

"He's one of those guys that you look over on the other side and everybody's watching him," Manager Bob Melvin said.

If only the A's could excite a few more fans. Only 15,836 showed up Tuesday despite a promotion for $12 field-level tickets in honor of the team's 12 walk-off victories to that point.

Maybe the Athletics should offer pregame clubhouse access so fans could watch players goof around with a miniature bat and ball or good-naturedly razz each other after their latest heroics.

"This is the best team, the most fun team, the most fun clubhouse, most fun days at the ballpark I've ever had in my life," said infielder Brandon Moss, who was called up from triple A in June after spending parts of six seasons with Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. "This is exactly what I envisioned the big leagues being."

Moss said the Athletics are thriving in part because the team largely consists of players who think they have something to prove after being dismissed earlier in their careers.

Moss was told he struck out too much and would never be able to adjust to major league pitching. Left fielder Seth Smith heard that he couldn't hit left-handed pitchers. First baseman Chris Carter was all but written off after starting his career 0 for 33.

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