This is the team they should have made the "Moneyball" movie about. The 2002 Oakland's A's were actually a star-studded team with Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye.
But the 2012 A's? Who are these guys?
Put it this way. The Los Angeles Angels have the best player in the league in Mike Trout. Mark Trumbo is putting up monster power numbers. Albert Pujols, despite a homerless April, is tied for second in the American League in extra-base hits. Jered Weaver seems to win every time out, C.J. Wilson ranks 10th in the league in ERA and they just traded for Zack Greinke. The Angels are the team of stars and highlight-reel home runs.
The A's? The last time through the rotation they used four rookie starters. Bartolo Colon, who seemed washed up five years ago, is the fifth starter. They're hitting .229, last in the league. They just traded their veteran catcher to give a rookie more playing time. They started three different shortstops and three different center fielders last week. "Moneyball"? This is more like Desperateball.
And yet ... the Angels and A's meet for a crucial three-game series in Oakland beginning Monday and it's the A's who lead the Angels by a half-game, tied with the Tigers for the wild-card lead. How have the A's done this? How can they be ahead of the Angels, a team with a payroll $100 million higher? As Ron Washington might say, "It's incredibly hard."
There are the 13 walk-off victories, the 7-0 record in games lasting 12 innings or longer (including two 15-inning victories last week), and a pitching staff that has allowed the fewest runs in the league. On paper, the Angels should pull away from the A's. But maybe the A's have their scissors on hand. As they get ready for their biggest series since making the postseason in 2006, here are five things to look for.
1. Monday's matchup: Jered Weaver versus Jarrod Parker
Since returning from the DL on June 20, Weaver has won all eight of his starts, allowing just 11 runs and posting a 1.87 ERA. The rookie Parker has been Oakland's best starter, but has been inconsistent of late, with a 6.07 ERA over his past five starts. The A's aren't likely to score many runs off Weaver, so Parker will need to bring his best stuff. Parker threw just 136 innings last season in the Diamondbacks organization, as he returned from Tommy John surgery. He's already at 130 this season, between 110 with the A's and 20 in Triple-A, so watch his fatigue moving forward.
2. Ryan Cook struggling of late
All-Star reliever Ryan Cook -- one of 11 rookie pitchers the A's have used -- has discovered a dose of reality, having been scored upon in six of his past seven appearances, a string that included four blown saves and his first four home runs allowed. For now, he's still the closer, but manager Bob Melvin indicated Cook may be on a tight leash. "We'll take all the variables into consideration like we do with anything," Melvin told MLB.com before Sunday's game. "You have to support younger guys going through difficult times, [but] there are times that hypothetically you feel like you need to give somebody a break from a role."
3. No more Kurt Suzuki
The A's went against conventional wisdom when they shipped veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to the Nationals. Hitting just .218 with one home run, the A's will seek more offense from rookie Derek Norris and recently acquired George Kottaras, who fits the old-school "Moneyball" mindset as a player with good on-base skills (he had a .409 OBP with the Brewers despite a .209 batting average). Was Suzuki's leadership important to the young Oakland staff? Billy Beane is betting that it wasn't.
4. Wednesday's matchup: Zack Greinke versus Dan Straily
The Angels bolstered their roster at the trade deadline by trading for a former AL Cy Young winner. The A's bolstered their roster by calling up another rookie pitcher -- one who wasn't even ranked as one of the team's top 30 prospects before the season. But Straily earned the call with huge numbers at Double-A and Triple-A, and impressed in his major-league debut against Toronto, allowing one run in six inning with five strikeouts and one walk. The A's ended up winning that game in 15 innings; the Angels, meanwhile, have lost both of Greinke's starts for them.
5. Who plays shortstop?
A contender is supposed to be strong up the middle, right? Well, second baseman Jemile Weeks is hitting .219, the starting catcher was just traded and it's been a revolving door at shortstop since Cliff Pennington landed on the DL. There was Brandon Hicks and then Eric Sogard and now, the last four games, Adam Rosales. Pennington may be back soon as he's played two rehab games with Sacramento, although considering he's hitting .197, we're not exactly talking about Tejada circa 2002 here. Pennington won't be the only returning starter, as Brandon McCarthy could return Friday (replacing A.J. Griffin, who landed just landed on the DL with shoulder tightness).