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Oakland brings its A's game to playoffs

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
October 5, 2012 -- Updated 1513 GMT (2313 HKT)
The Oakland Athletics celebrated after they beat the Texas Rangers to win the American League West Division title on Wednesday.
The Oakland Athletics celebrated after they beat the Texas Rangers to win the American League West Division title on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oakland A's beat Texas Rangers 12-5 to nab the American League West title
  • Wednesday marked the A's first division crown in six years
  • Entire team's payroll is $55 million, second lowest in Major League Baseball
  • Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane was played by Brad Pitt in the film "Moneyball"

Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He can be reached at spoliti@starledger.com or Twitter: @StevePoliti

(CNN) -- Dennis Eckersley is one of the greatest relief pitchers in baseball history, and he spent nine years of his career closing games for the Oakland A's. So surely, if there is somebody out there who believed this current team could have a remarkable season like this, it's him.

Right?

"Not a chance," Eckersley said over the phone.

Okay, fair enough. The A's did lose 88 games last season, finishing a full 22 games behind Texas in the American League West standings. It would be hard to project that they'd win that division before the season.

But surely, if somebody could have believed that this ridiculously young team would take off at midseason and stun the Rangers in the final game, it would be a legend from the team's glory days like Eckersley.

Right?

"Nope," Eckersley, now an analyst for TBS, said over the phone. "I mean, I didn't really buy into (this team) until a couple months ago. I think I got a call from somebody at the trade deadline who said, 'Do you still think they're pretenders?' And I still thought they were!"

Eckersley is forgiven. The A's magical season is so confounded, so unexpected, that you really don't even know where to begin. It's hard to even pick out the most mind-bending number related to their success.

Is it 13, the number of games back they were in the standings on June 30, making their comeback to win the division one of the five biggest in baseball history?

Is it five, the number of games back they were just nine days ago, when their chances to make the playoffs at all, much less win the AL West, seemed borderline at best.

Is it four, the number of runs they were down in the final game against the Rangers, before they scored the next 11 to storm back for a 12-5 win and a champagne-drenched celebration?

Is it .238, the overall team batting average, which is the third lowest in all of baseball? Or 15, the number of rookies on the current roster? Or 94, the number of victories this team won?

For most, it'll be this number: $55 million. That's the entire A's payroll, the second lowest in the major leagues. They are proving that, in an era when sports are big business and the biggest spenders are usually the biggest winners, that it's possible to win without breaking the bank.

Baseball's big night

That's why, in the estimation of MLB Network analyst Sean Casey, "They're the best story in baseball."

Maybe this is a good spot for a quick history lesson: The A's are hardly some plucky newcomer. They are one of the eight founding members of the American League, a franchise with roots in Philadelphia that adopted an elephant as its mascot because old New York Giants manager John McGraw called the team "a white elephant."

It moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City to Oakland, in 1968, and were known mostly for its eccentric owner Charlie Finley -- he changed the elephant mascot into a mule that paraded around the stadium -- until it emerged as a dynasty in the 1970s.

Reggie Jackson. Catfish Hunter. Vida Blue. Those A's won the World Series from 1972-74, and after Finley sold the team, again in 1989 with the "Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. That remains the franchise's last championship, but it wasn't the end of its relevance.

Savvy general manager Billy Beane, knowing he had less money to pay players than other franchises, created a radical system for building his teams that relied less on traditional scouting and more on statistical analysis. That formula led to five postseason appearances in the early 2000s and was documented by the bestselling book "Moneyball" and later a movie by the same name.

Beane is still the GM, making the A's perhaps the first franchise in sports history where the GM is more well known that any of the players -- Brad Pitt, after all, did play him in the movie. But Hollywood might soon wish it had waited, because this team might end up a better story.

"It's the perfect storm with so many things coming together," Eckersley said. "I'd like to see this thing go all the way to the World Series, you know, to do more than just get into the playoffs."

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Eckersley is most amazed by the young pitching staff. This is a staff entirely of rookie starters and none of them household names. Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone won 13 games. Even the team leader in saves -- Grant Balfour -- has a name that suggests something other than pitching acumen.

You won't find stars in the lineup, either. Josh Reddick led the team with 32 home runs and 85 RBI. Yoenis Cespedes led the way with a .292 batting average. Coco Crisp stole 39 bases. Jonny Gomes is the designated hitter and one of the few veterans in the clubhouse.

"It's surreal," first baseman Brandon Moss said on the A's broadcast after they won the division. "We've enjoyed every step of the way. There was never any pressure on us. We were supposed to lose 100 games."

Maybe that's part of it. Eckersley thinks so. "It's totally different when you're a position when nobody expects you to win," he said. "I've never been on a team like that in my life."

He might not have picked them before the season or during it, but Eckersley has had a change of heart. Pitching, he believes, is the key to any team winning the World Series and the Hall of Fame closer thinks the A's have the arms to compete with anybody in the postseason.

They'll open in Detroit on Saturday in the division series, where once again they'll face a team with twice its payroll and star power.

But for once, at least, everyone will see them coming.

TBS will have exclusive coverage of the first-ever Wild Card games on Friday, October 5. The network will also be the exclusive home of up to 18 Division Series games and the entire American League Championship Series

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