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September 22, 2013
A's headed back to postseason a year older, more experienced

OAKLAND -- One thing about the A's clinching celebrations last year -- both when they qualified for the postseason and then won the division two days later -- was that each felt, and for the most part was, totally spontaneous. They had to be. The September run was numerically highly improbable, and in the case of the West title, everything was up in the air heading into the final day of the season. There was no time to plan.

This year? A little different. The A's won the West on Sunday for the second consecutive season, and well before the day began, there was a sense of inevitability. It wasn't if they would clinch, but when, with the mystery mostly coming from whether they could do it at home. And even when it did become official, it wasn't with the A's nailing down the last out of their game, but with the Rangers losing in Kansas City.

Maybe for that reason, the A's celebration after their 11-7 win over the Twins on Sunday seemed just a little more controlled than last year's. They still streamed out of the dugout after Evan Scribner struck out Josmil Pinto for the final out, still formed a jumping mob on the infield, and still soaked their clubhouse afterward in Champagne and beer. But the giddiness of 2012 seemed to be replaced by something else. What was different?

"I don't think anybody can be surprised this year," first baseman and outfielder Brandon Moss said.

"Last year was a surprise because we had guys coming in that had never done things and doing things. But this year I think the way they put the team together, they knew we were going to be better than last year.

"They put the team together with certain roles in mind, and we filled those roles, and everybody's done what they're supposed to do."

The A's are headed back to the postseason as A.L. West champions, a fact made official Sunday by the Rangers' 4-0 loss in Kansas City, then driven home emphatically with the A's finishing a four-game sweep of the Twins in which they scored 39 runs, tying an Oakland-era record. Unlike last year, when they clinched on the final day of the season, they took care of it this season with a week to spare.

"It's the same," right fielder Josh Reddick said, wearing ski goggles as the A's clubhouse grew heavy with the smell of Champagne. "Doesn't matter what day it is, it's going to be the exact amount of fun it always is.

"It's like getting called up for the first time. You can't prepare for getting called up, and that's what this feels like."

The A's trailed the Rangers by three games on Aug. 29. Since then, they have gone 18-5, while Texas has gone 6-16.

"Last year we were just trying to get to the finish line," manager Bob Melvin said. "It was more about the wild card than it was the division last year, then all of a sudden we won the division. ... This year in spring training, we felt like we had a chance to win from the very beginning -- and a little bit of a target on our back."

That's something the A's hadn't felt since the middle of last decade, having last defended a division title during the 2007 season.

"It was a little bit different early in the season -- we knew we weren't going to sneak up on any teams, so the margin for error was a little bit less," said reliever Sean Doolittle. "But that was the biggest thing was we came together as a team and kind of found our identity, and then from there on out we played really, really good baseball."

The A's raced out to an early lead behind the majors' best offense in April, slipped a season-high 7 ½ games behind the Rangers on May 16 and overtook Texas again by a half-game on June 7. The most they trailed after that was 3 ½ games at the end of play Aug. 23. From there, they have gone 22-7.

"It's a little bit less emotionally draining because last year we played so great down the stretch but we were chasing the whole time," Moss said. "This year we controlled our own destiny, and it feels good to be able to take a hold of that and really clamp down."

Does the relative lack of drama make this year any less meaningful?

"It's actually probably more meaningful because everybody was looking for us to fail," Moss said. "Everybody was trying to discredit what we did last year as we just got hot at the right time and we went on that roller-coaster. But this year I don't think there's been many teams that have been as consistent as we have.

"Last year we were chasing the whole time and it wasn't our division to lose. This year it was our division to lose. And we kept it."

As a result, much of the A's roster is returning to the postseason a year more experienced. They'll also be able to use the next week to rest their regulars as needed and line up their rotation for the postseason, though several players were quick to point out they are still playing for playoff seeding. They had the league's second-best record as of Sunday, two games better than the Detroit Tigers, and 1 ½ games behind the Boston Red Sox.

"We want to continue to play good baseball going into the playoffs," Donaldson said. "Baseball's not one of those things you can just turn on and off. We want to continue to fine-tune things we're not necessarily doing as well, and continue to go out on a daily basis and win games."

They weren't going to have a lot of time to drag out the celebration. They begin a three-game series against the Angels in Anaheim on Monday night. Still, as the celebration carried on around him in the clubhouse Sunday afternoon, and he was asked how long he would allow himself to enjoy it, Melvin didn't pause a beat before answering: "All day."

"All day," he said. "We'll figure out tomorrow, tomorrow."

* The A's and Twins were in the top of the third when Justin Maxwell's 10th-inning grand slam gave the Royals a 4-0 win over the Rangers. The out-of-town scoreboard didn't update the score, though, until the A's had gotten the final out in the third and video of Maxwell's homer played over the video monitors.

By then, though, news was already spreading through the stands and -- by extension -- the A's.

"I heard the crowd first," Reddick said. "(Section) 149 held up all their phones and told me it was over."

Melvin said everyone on the bench had gotten word the Royals had the bases loaded with no outs in the 10th, "so there was an expectation. But it wasn't until the fans let us know in full force" that it really hit home they'd won the division.

"It was a weird feeling, because it wasn't a sense of relief even though you know you won the division," Melvin said. "We wanted to win this game desperately and do it the right way in front of our fans. So there were some quick handshakes, some quick hugs, but the focus went immediately back to the game and winning."

The A's led 6-4 at that point and added single runs in each of the next five innings. So they avoided the potentially awkward situation of holding a Champagne celebration after a loss.

"We wanted to take care of business and kind of do it on our terms as much as we possibly could," Doolittle said. "It feels much better to celebrate after a win."

* All the offense made a winner Sunday out of Sonny Gray, who allowed four runs in five innings but, according to a Tweet from A's radio broadcaster Vince Cotroneo, at age 23 became the youngest pitcher in Oakland history to win a division-clinching game. Gray started Sunday a little more than three months removed from his big-league debut.

"It was special," Gray said. "It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking starts that I've had, just knowing what's at stake. You want to do so much for the team and so much for the fans. ... They picked me up today."

Gray was on the mound in the third when the fans started applauding in reaction to the Rangers' loss. At the time, he had just allowed a single to Brian Dozier, which he followed by walking Trevor Plouffe and giving up a three-run homer to Oswaldo Arcia.

Gray said it wasn't an issue of trying to stay focused amid the mini-celebration. "Hearing the fans, you obviously knew something had happened," he said. "But the offense picked me up today. That's what good teams do when the starter goes out there and gives up some runs. And we've got a really good team."

* Coco Crisp, after getting a day off in what was a potential clincher Saturday, made his presence felt with a three-run homer for the major blow in the A's six-run second inning. It was Crisp's 22nd of the season and seventh in September.

Then, in the seventh inning, Crisp was on the back end of a double steal for his 20th steal of the year. He's the 10th player in A's history with 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season, and the first since Ruben Sierra did it in the 1993.

"I'm grateful, I'm happy," Crisp said. "It is quite shocking for myself, but I am grateful I was able to accomplish something like that."

Daric Barton and Jed Lowrie also homered, giving the A's 68 in 43 games since Aug. 9. Prior to Sunday, no other team in the majors had more than 49 in that span. As mentioned above, the 39 runs tied an Oakland record for a four-game series, and the A's totaled 49 hits in the sweep.

"These guys are swinging the bats," closer Grant Balfour said. "I don't care who you throw out there right now. I just hope we can keep that going."

* Barton went 3-for-3 with a walk, finished a triple short of the cycle and is batting .319 (23-for-72) in 24 games since being called up from Triple-A Sacramento on Aug. 26. He has played more regularly against left-handers recently with Nate Freiman injured and is arguably the A's best defensive first baseman, no knock against Moss.

Barton, once lauded the A's first baseman of the future, has been up and down between Oakland and Sacramento the past few seasons due to injuries and performing below expectations, and Melvin lauded Barton for how he has seized this latest opportunity.

"He's right in the middle of everything," Melvin said. "You really have to tip your cap to the determination that he has. He's instrumental to the club right now."

As a result, it's tough to see Barton at this point being left off the postseason roster. One big factor could be if the A's do end up playing the Tigers in the ALDS. Detroit does not have any left-handed starters, meaning there might be little opportunity even for a healthy Freiman.

* The A's now have almost two weeks before the ALDS opens Oct. 6 in a city still to be determined. That's a long wait for general manager Billy Beane.

"So I was trying to figure out, 'What can I get intense about over the next two weeks?" Beane said. "And we decided it would be my struggling fantasy football club."

Still, Beane said, "this is the preferred route," over the stress and quick turnaround of last season. Beane was also asked to compare this year's team to last year's, and said that while last year's 94-win team had depth, this year's is "probably a little deeper."

"You don't win 94 games and it's luck," Beane said. "We weren't really concerned with what people thought we were going to do (this season) because we felt we were a good club if we stayed healthy. And as it turned out, that was the case."

The A's still need one more win to match last season's total. They have six games left, three each against the Angels and the Seattle Mariners. After that -- and after the A's postseason run is over, however far it goes -- it'll be a better time to compare this year's team with that of 2012, Beane said.

* The consensus among an admittedly heady A's clubhouse Sunday, though, was that this year's team is better equipped for a playoff run. That's partly because of the extra year of experience, and partly because the A's do feel they're deeper across the board.

Their platoons are producing, thanks to contributions from role players like Barton and Alberto Callaspo. Unlike last season, they won't be starting rookies in the first two games of the ALDS. Bartolo Colon is available to them this time after sitting out the postseason last year due to his PED suspension.

Donaldson said the A's this year "feel that we're better, we feel that we're a little more accomplished, and we feel like we have all the pieces to the puzzle to go out and win it."

Beyond that, many of them have another kind of experience from last season -- that of reaching the playoffs and falling short.

"I think it's one of those things where sometimes you've got to lose one to go out and win one," said Balfour. "We know what it's like to lose, we know how tough it is. I think it makes you work that much harder."

So who knows? Everything said Sunday afternoon came through a haze of Champagne bubbles and cigar smoke, so a sense of optimism shouldn't be surprising. At the same time, the A's record-wise are the hottest team in baseball over the past few weeks, and they're confident in themselves along with being a year wiser. What does it add up to? That will play out beginning Oct. 6.

Here are the pitching probables for the Angels series:

Monday: RHP Garrett Richards (7-6, 3.77) vs. RHP A.J. Griffin (14-9, 3.78)
Tuesday: LHP Jason Vargas (8-7, 4.28) vs. RHP Dan Straily (10-7, 4.08)
Wednesday: RHP Jered Weaver (10-8, 3.36) vs. RHP Bartolo Colon (17-6, 2.64)

We'll be reconnecting with the A's when they get back to Oakland, after the season ends. For now, it's back to Sacramento -- with a possible stop at a laundromat to get the booze out of my shirt. Thanks, as always, for following along.

-- Matt Kawahara

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About Bay Area Baseball

Matt KawaharaMatt Kawahara was born in Sacramento and attended McClatchy High School and UC Berkeley, where he wrote for the independent student paper The Daily Californian. He graduated from Cal in 2010 and started at The Sacramento Bee as a summer intern. He joined The Bee’s sports staff in fall 2011.
Phone: (916) 321-1015.
On Twitter: @matthewkawahara.

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