Mix-master Melvin has A's in AL race again

Major League Baseball began handing out the Manager of the Year award in 1983, and Bobby Cox of the 2004-05 Atlanta Braves is the only man to win it in consecutive seasons. If the lineup the Oakland Athletics fielded Wednesday night is a snapshot of the tools at Bob Melvin’s disposal, he should be a strong candidate to replicate that feat.

Yes, John Farrell has changed the mindset in Boston a year after that 69-win Bobby Valentine-led debacle. Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays deserves to win the award every year, and Terry Francona has done a wonderful job keeping the Cleveland Indians in postseason contention despite the team’s flaws. But have any of them done a noticeably better job than Melvin, who has taken a star-free team with the 26th-highest payroll in baseball and put it in the mix for a wild-card spot and possibly a second straight American League West title?

With a 14-4 laugher in Detroit on Wednesday that featured six RBIs from Brandon Moss, the A’s raised their record to 75-57. They’re 2 ½ games behind Texas in the division and four games ahead of Cleveland in the race for the second wild-card spot, and they’re starting to get some important pitching reinforcements. Bartolo Colon returns from the disabled list to face Max Scherzer in a Thursday matinee at Comerica Park, and Brett Anderson is back and pitching in the bullpen for now after missing four months with a foot injury.

The lineup requires some cobbling together on a lot of nights. Coco Crisp has contributed some monster moments this season, but he brings a .330 career on-base percentage in the leadoff spot. Eric Sogard, the second baseman, looks like the kid selling you an iPad at Best Buy. Daric Barton continues to hang around at first base despite being on the Russ Canzler-Eli Whiteside designated-for-assignment plan. And the A’s recently had to scramble to reacquire old friend Kurt Suzuki from Washington when injuries to Derek Norris and John Jaso put a serious crimp in their catching contingent.

When the season began, the outfield looked like Oakland’s strong suit. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Chris Young and Seth Smith are both having disappointing seasons. Worse yet, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes haven’t come close to their performances in 2012, when they combined for 55 home runs in the three and four spots in the order. Reddick has a .658 OPS and just went on the DL with a wrist injury. Cespedes has been too pull-happy and prone to chasing breaking balls out of the strike zone, and it’s reflected in his .289 OBP and increased strikeout total.

As Athletics beat writer John Hickey pointed out earlier this week, Jason Kubel might be a good fit in Oakland after getting designated for assignment by Arizona. For late-August trade buffs, Justin Morneau is also still out there and readily available.

Only three Oakland hitters -- Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie and Moss -- have performed to or beyond expectations this season, and they all project a certain dirtbag quality befitting the team persona. So why are the A’s so good? They grind out at-bats (they lead the majors with 476 walks and average a lofty 3.96 pitches per plate appearance). They’re 24-16 in one-run games, and they’re tied with Pittsburgh for the major league lead with 13 victories when trailing after six innings.

The A’s also pitch. A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker and the other starters have gone deep into games consistently enough that the bullpen has logged only the 11th-heaviest workload in the league. That means closer Grant Balfour and his relief-mates won’t be running on fumes in September.

Oddly enough, a few hours before Oakland took the field and banged out a season-high 21 hits against Doug Fister and the Detroit bullpen Wednesday, Donaldson was candid in his assessment of what the A’s have to do to survive the final month.

“We know how we’re built, and we’re built to pitch and play defense,” he said. “Anytime one of those gets out of whack is when we start faltering a little bit. I don’t feel like we’re going to bang with teams like the Tigers and Rangers every day.”

Even the departure of Jonny Gomes to Boston through free agency hasn’t put a crimp in the esprit de corps in Oakland. That’s largely a tribute to Melvin, a manager whose approach wears well over six months and 162 games. Players love him because of his even temperament, fairness and attention to detail -- but he can be tough when the situation warrants. After the A’s failed to show much spark against Houston and Seattle during their last homestand, Melvin let the players know things had to change in a hurry. It appears he got their attention.

When the Detroit series concludes, the A’s will head home for six games against Tampa Bay and Texas, at which point the schedule gets less taxing. Of Oakland’s final 23 games, 20 are against Houston, Minnesota, the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle.

The young A’s learned a lot about perseverance last year when they went on a 51-25 roll after the All-Star break to overtake Texas for the division title. Expectations were higher this year, but that doesn’t minimize the job that Melvin and his coaching staff have done squeezing the most out of the roster.

Melvin’s name should be in the middle of the Manager of the Year conversation again in November. But as long as he has the chance to keep making out lineup cards in October, the rest is gravy.