Oakland's winning ways are typically most unusual
OAKLAND -- Just a shot away, in the walkway to the Tigers dugout behind home plate, it sounded like a truck misfiring. Josh Donaldson jolted a Jose Valverde pitch as hard as Donaldson said he could ever hit a ball, so squarely hard that Cliff Pennington said it couldn't get up in the air enough to get into the stands for a home run.
The ball caromed off the wall in left-center, and all of a sudden Josh Reddick was pulling into third, Donaldson was sliding into second and an "automatic" Valverde two-run save that would have advanced the Tigers into the American League Championship Series was back into the Haight-Ashbury world known as Oakland Athletics baseball. "This is," said Grant Balfour, "who we are."
Seth Smith doubled to right-center. 3-3. Two outs later, Coco Crisp pulled a single into right field and the Athletics were walking off this way, again.
"We've come to believe that we can do these things," said Crisp. "What's that, 14, 15 walk-offs?" We're a bunch of kids playing a kid's game. Humans do crazy things."
Translated: Computers don't. There are no ZiPS projections for the violent sound of Josh Donaldson crushing Jose Valverde.
The Tigers are one of the two top payrolls still playing and ask, "Who ... or what ... are these guys?"
OK, we know the A's were down 13 games at the end of June. We know they had the best record in the American League after June 2. We know they led the Majors in homers after the All-Star break. We know that four of their five starters -- including Jarrod Parker, who matches up with Justin Verlander to advance beyond this round -- are rookies.
And who is that left-handed reliever throwing 96 mph every night? Oh, yeah, Sean Doolittle, Oakland's first-round sandwich pick out of the University of Virginia in 2007 (the Cubs almost took him with the third pick overall before Josh Vitters changed his mind and agreed to a pre-Draft deal). Doolittle was a first baseman. A good one. But because of knee injuries, he was in the instructional league in Phoenix last year trying to convert to pitching -- he'd been a good one for two years at UVA but had thrown one inning in pro ball.
He got a Spring Training invite but "he didn't throw too well this spring," pitching coach Curt Young admits. Mid-80s. After stops at Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A, during which he allowed eight hits and struck out 48 in 25 innings innings, he got called up and now is throwing 95-96 mph in between Ryan Cook and Balfour.
Asked if he missed hitting, Doolittle says, "No, what I miss is defense. Infield practice, especially making the 3-6-3 double play."
So the A's have a first baseman as their primary left-handed reliever. Donaldson is a catcher playing third base. Cliff Pennington is a shortstop moved to second when Billy Beane acquired Stephen Drew.
Their most dynamic player, Yeonis Cespedes, one of the most skilled players in the sport, should be a Tiger. Cespedes and Detroit had a de facto deal last January when Scott Boras got Mike Ilitch to buy on Prince Fielder and back away from Cespedes. Cespedes eventually got a four-year, $36 million deal from the A's and gave them a 26-year-old star who arguably could be in the MVP voting after Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Adrian Beltre.
Their first baseman, Brandon Moss, was once one of Boston's best prospects, hitting .353 in A ball at age 20. He was an eighth-round Draft pick in the same year as his Georgia high school opponents Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann, hurt his knee, didn't develop, went to Pittsburgh for Jason Bay in the Manny Ramirez swap, and was spotted by Chili Davis when he was playing for the Phillies' farm club last September against Pawtucket, where Chili was coaching. Bob Melvin says Moss "might be our best hitter."
"This is all crazy," says Moss, "but this team is good." Indeed.
The starters all have plus stuff, geared for their ballpark. The bullpen is very good. They like to run -- especially Cespedes, whose hitting, defensive and baserunning instincts are those of a very wise, experienced man.
They come out of their cleats swinging.
"But what separates us is our defense," says one A's official. "We are a very good defensive team." Which makes Beane, a defensive stickler, very happy.
Donaldson has become an excellent third baseman; on Wednesday he slid across the foul line, skidded on his knees because of the wet grass, and threw from his knees across the diamond for the out. "That came from throwing from my knees as a catcher," says Donaldson, a high school infielder who moved behind the plate while in college.
Cespedes, Crisp and Reddick make for one of the best defensive outfields in the league. Cespedes and Reddick are rare corner outfielders who can throw. Crisp does not throw well, but freeing Pennington to play second allows him to take his strong arm and be Crisp's relay man.
"Does this make sense?" Balfour asked after the craziness of the ninth inning.
Some of us were here to see the A's win the World Series in 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1989. Some of us were here when Charles Oscar Finley sold Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi and Vida Blue. Some of us were here when Roger Clemens was thrown out of an ALCS game. Some of us were here when the A's started working out after the earthquake. Some of us were here when MC Hammer was on the phone to Finley doing play-by-play. Some of us were here when Finley tried to fire second baseman Mike Andrews after he made two errors in Game 2 of the '73 World Series.
Some of us were here for Scott Hatteberg's home run. Some of us were here when Billy North and Reggie Jackson were fighting in the clubhouse before the '74 Series opener. Some of us were here when Bill "Wild and Wonderful" Mooneyham was trying to warm up in the left-field bullpen and kept stopping the game because he kept throwing pitches past the bullpen catcher.
Just a shot away, shot away, shot away ...
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.