OAKLAND, Calif. — Third baseman Josh Donaldson sees plenty of similarities between this Oakland team and the one that stunned the Texas Rangers on the season’s final day last fall.
Going on a year after the Athletics made their remarkable turnaround and their push to a surprising AL West title, the defending division champions are on a roll again.
“It’s contagious, winning, you know? It’s about confidence,” closer Grant Balfour said. “You see a guy get a big hit and the next guy comes up and does his job. You’re going to have your battles some nights, but that little thing, whatever it is to get over the edge and win that ballgame, is what we’re doing right now. It’s been big.”
The A’s have had their share of struggles in the first half, too, not so different from all of those Oakland teams of the past that took off after the All-Star break.
While Oakland (38-27) dropped the final two games of its seven-game road trip in Chicago, the A’s have won seven of 10 and 18 of 23. They entered Monday’s off day a half-game back in the AL West race behind Texas (37-25).
Starting Tuesday night, the A’s will get another tough home test when the New York Yankees visit the Coliseum for a three-game series.
Less than three weeks ago, things didn’t look so good. The A’s returned from a rough 3-7 road trip and lost for the eighth time in 10 games in a 3-1 home defeat to the Rangers on May 22.
Oakland then rattled off a five-game winning streak that featured a three-game sweep at Houston and won the first three in a four-game Bay Bridge Series against the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Significant progress by the starting pitchers has been a big part of the run.
“There’s no doubt that’s been a key for us,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Earlier in the season, the offense was ruling the day, we were scoring a lot of runs and making up for the ERA as a team we’re not used to looking at. All of a sudden you come into closer games and we’re giving up some runs earlier in the game and it’s a little different story.”
In those tight games, Oakland is showing some of the late-game magic that helped define last year’s special season, when the A’s became the first team in major league history to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with less than 10 to play.
Adam Rosales hit a two-out homer in the 10th inning of a 5-4 win over the White Sox in Chicago on Thursday night — and he had already hit a go-ahead shot leading off the eighth inning of a 2-1 home victory over the Kansas City Royals on May 17.
Oakland has 10 wins in games decided in the final at-bat.
“This is kind of more of the recipe we did last year,” Donaldson said. “We know we have the guys here who can pitch. Early on they kind of got off to a little rough start and the bats were able to pick them up. But lately what’s been separating us from the other teams is our pitching by far — from the starter to every reliever that comes in and Balfour shutting the door. This is something we’re definitely going to have to do over the course of the year.”
Not that Balfour is interested in hearing about his run of saves, 15 in as many chances this year and 33 in a row going back to April 29, 2012, at Baltimore. He is the only closer in the American League without a blown save this season.
“I don’t know, man. Don’t ask me,” he said. “Don’t talk to me about that. I don’t talk about me, I’ll talk about the team.”
And this team has shown some serious resilience dating back to last summer.
The A’s — with the lowest payroll in baseball last year at $59.5 million — trailed Texas by 13 games on June 30, 2012. With the fourth-lowest payroll on opening day in the majors this season at nearly $65.5 million, Melvin’s blue-collar bunch is showing that the A’s aren’t content with last fall’s playoff run.
With a majors-best 14 walkoff wins in 2012, Oakland went 94-68 to end a five-year playoff drought.
As it has for so long with this club, the pitching is setting the tone again.
“I think it’s something where we’re feeding off each other,” Jarrod Parker said. “This team is built around pitching and defense. It’s something where we’re able to keep our team in the game and at any point we’ve got some big bats and we’re able to scratch runs across. I think for us to be solid is what we need, not to be spectacular. We know who we are and we don’t try to panic or press. For us to just stay within ourselves and do what we’re capable of and things will happen.”
Oakland’s starting pitchers have allowed one run or fewer in 11 of their last 23 games, going 13-3 during that stretch.
“You can’t say enough about these guys and the work they put in,” catcher Derek Norris said. “Sum it up to Oakland A’s baseball. This is what we do well — we have a good starting rotation, scratch a couple runs across and close the door with our bullpen. That’s what we strive to be, and we’re doing a great job of it.”
Balfour and his bullpen mates sure enjoy watching the starters, then backing them up in the late innings.
In three recent home games against the White Sox, Oakland held Chicago to three total runs with two shutouts.
“You couldn’t ask for any more than that,” Balfour said. “It’s awesome to watch.”