No surprises: A's, O's right back in playoff hunt
Clubs continue to make strides after amazing runs to 2012 postseason
No one predicted them to do anything last year, and by the beginning of October, no one could take their eyes off of them.
That was the story of baseball's 2012 darlings, the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles, two clubs that defied expectations, won hearts and lost in the American League Division Series.
They were supposed to be flukes that couldn't possibly contend again in 2013. Pundits saw what the Angels did in the offseason and penciled them in over Texas, ignoring Oakland entirely. Experts saw what the Blue Jays did over the winter and anointed them the team to beat in the tough AL East. The Orioles were once again a preseason afterthought.
Now look at both teams in early September 2013 -- back in the thick of things again, turning heads again. And the question everyone wants answered is: How do they keep doing this?
For the A's, who beat the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon to move into a tie for the lead in the AL West, it's been another example of what good young pitching, emerging core offensive players and a typical Billy Beane and Bob Melvin collaboration can accomplish.
After last year, the cost-conscious A's said goodbye to several components of the club that battled the eventual AL champion Detroit Tigers to a decisive fifth game in the ALDS, only to bow out when Justin Verlander shut them down.
Outfielder Jonny Gomes, starter Brandon McCarthy, infielders Stephen Drew, Cliff Pennington, Brandon Inge and Chris Carter departed. Outfielder Chris Young, catcher John Jaso and shortstop Jed Lowrie were brought in. More recent acquisitions included infielder Alberto Callaspo and catcher Kurt Suzuki. And the A's keep winning.
One of the main reasons is the pitching. Young starter Jarrod Parker has not lost a decision since late May. He won again Wednesday. A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily have matured. Tommy Milone was excellent in 2012 and has been good at times this year, although he's spent some time in the Minors. Young Sonny Gray looks good. Veteran Bartolo Colon was outstanding in the first half of the season and has been a revelation for the A's overall. The bullpen has been terrific for a second straight year.
Offensively, third baseman Josh Donaldson has broken out as a burgeoning star, which has helped make up for Josh Reddick's banged-up year and Yoenis Cespedes' down season statistically. Lowrie has been everything the A's needed and then some. Coco Crisp has been on a tear of late, with eight home runs since Aug. 21.
But there's more than production with the A's. There's attitude and togetherness and belief that the team can accomplish great things. It was on display last year and hasn't gone away, and a lot of it comes from Melvin.
"We went on that road trip that was supposed to knock us out last year -- Detroit, New York, Texas -- and we had some very dramatic games that we lost, very dramatic games that we won," Melvin said. "And then we got home for six days at the end and we ran the table. You have to remain confident that we can get on the kind of run that we've seen this team make several times over the last two years.
"The experience of having that success should remain with us."
In Baltimore, experience is everything. Manager Buck Showalter knows that his team gained so much of it last year while making an incredible run before losing a tough ALDS to the Yankees.
This year, Baltimore's starting pitching has been wildly inconsistent, a good reason that the Orioles are fourth in the AL East, though still contenders for an AL Wild Card berth.
Still, outfielder Adam Jones has been splendid, and first baseman Chris Davis is a legitimate AL MVP Award threat who's on pace to hit more than 50 homers and drive in more than 130 runs. Baltimore has a serious core in place for sustained success, and it will be up to executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter to keep building on this foundation.
In the meantime, the Orioles haven't punted on 2013.
"It's going to be a ride, because you've got to keep your emotions and sense of reality, because the season's not going to end on one night," Showalter said recently. "If you let yourself get on a roller coaster here, you will. But it's part of it. It's why we do these things, it's why we started in Spring Training -- to have the chance to do this, to play meaningful games the last month or so.
"It's something we should be looking forward to, not some sense of negativity at all. Believe me, our guys aren't [negative] at all. We have a lot of respect for the competition."
The newest member of the Orioles, slugger Michael Morse, seems to fit right in during the midst of a playoff race.
"I love it," Morse said. "This is what we play for. This is a great team, a great organization, and there's so much upside to this organization and this team. And I think these guys are just starting to touch what they are capable of doing."
The same could be said for Oakland, which, like Baltimore, is no longer considered a fluke and refuses to act like one.
"There are great teams out there, but if we don't feel like we're the best, someone else is going to feel like they are," A's closer Grant Balfour said.
"Sometimes that's what it takes, that little bit of an edge, to get you on top."