Seeing A's as a fluke would be a mistake
PHOENIX -- What do the Oakland Athletics do for an encore? Actually, that may be the wrong question. Is an encore even possible for a team that rode waves of youth and energy into the playoffs in a 2012 season in which so little was expected of them? Can anything these players do in their careers be as much fun as that wild ride in which a team picked to finish last climbed atop the American League West for the first time by winning the 162nd game of the regular season?
It was a season of shaving-cream pies and bear hugs and believing in one another when almost no one else gave them a second thought. Somewhere hidden amid their success, the A's reminded all of us about the importance of teamwork and relentless effort and shutting out the noise.
"It was a blast," outfielder Josh Reddick said. "It's the most fun I've had in baseball. What we did that last week was unbelievable. It was a very exciting moment to be part of."
There are similar feelings in every corner of the A's spring clubhouse, a determination to do it all again, but also a pride in having already accomplished something almost no one on the outside thought possible. On the first day of Spring Training last year, manager Bob Melvin told his team that they simply wouldn't accept losing and that they had to sweat the small stuff and remain resilient through the tough times.
"The biggest thing is that this is a kid's game -- we rode that attitude," third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "We had fun. We played the game the right way. We went hard for all 162. Being here the last few days, I feel the energy is the same. Everybody is excited about to be back."
When the season finally ended with a Game 5 AL Division Series loss to Justin Verlander and the Tigers, Melvin said that one thing stood out.
"The effort every day," he said. "I told 'em on day one of Spring Training, 'We need to push. It has to be 27 hard outs.' We kept coming, and I think teams felt it."
His boss certainly felt it.
"It was my most enjoyable season," general manager Billy Beane said. "When you see the highlights and video, it hits you all over again."
Looking back on it, Beane said that the low expectations ended up being an advantage.
"We were having a lot of fun before anyone noticed us," he said. "We didn't have to deal with all the things that come along with success during the season. The expectations created a nice buffer for us."
Still, it would be a mistake to see them as a fluke. By the end of Spring Training 2012, they knew they had the kind of pitching depth a lot of other teams would love to have. Their offense would be a work in progress as Melvin mixed and matched the various pieces, but they knew they had a chance to be good.
"I never bought into us sneaking up on anyone," Beane said. "You don't play 162 games and sneak up on anyone. I think teams around the league respected us early on."
It was a fascinating roster as injuries and slumps prompted Beane to shuffle and reshuffle the names. The A's used 10 starting pitchers, and Melvin started five catchers, eight first basemen and seven left fielders.
Donaldson started games at third and catcher. Shortstop Cliff Pennington shifted to second base. Outfielder Brandon Moss played some games at first. The A's didn't clear .500 for good until the 85th game of the season, but they finished on a 52-25 sprint and made up a five-game deficit in the final 10 days of the regular season. They led the Major Leagues in home runs after the All-Star break.
"We just let the talent take over," closer Grant Balfour said. "As we won, the confidence built. When you've got confidence, you can be pretty good."
Their strength was starting pitching. Even after ace Brandon McCarthy's season ended with a line drive off his head and Bartolo Colon was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs and Brett Anderson missed most of the season because of injuries, the A's kept running quality arms to the mound -- Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin and others.
Almost all those pitchers -- McCarthy signed with the D-backs -- likely will still be the strength of the A's in 2013, and their best hope for another magical ride. Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes will attempt to build on a 23-homer rookie season, and Beane believes that he's upgraded at catcher (John Jaso), outfield (Chris Young) and shortstop (Hiroyuki Nakajima and Jed Lowrie).
Melvin will again be shifting players to take advantage of matchups, and although the Angels and Rangers have gotten more of the attention, the A's believe they'll be competitive again.
"We're sort of back in the same spot we were last year, where it's the Angels and Rangers [getting the attention]," Beane said. "That's fine. That'll help."
One of the more interesting dynamics will be seeing how the clubhouse leadership evolves without Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge, who did a terrific job leading and mentoring the young guys last season.
"I think what they did will continue to roll forward," Donaldson said. "You can't replace a personality like Gomes or Inge, but what you can do is learn from how they played the game and went about their business."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.