Two hours before a game in Baltimore, one day before the start of the biggest week of the season, the Oakland A's could not have been more relaxed.
"These guys I can't find the right word for what it's like around here,'' catcher Jason Kendall said. "This is the most fun I've ever had in my life. I've never been on a team like this. Everyone in the room is a good guy, 25 of them. They talk about iPods and fantasy football. We had our fantasy draft last night. Some guys were so into it, they almost got into a fight. It was great.''
Everything is great these days for the A's. They are young and talented and they know it. They're in first place by one game over the Angels in the American League West as they open a three-game series Tuesday night in Anaheim, then play three at home against another contender, the Yankees. The A's enter this stretch with a six-game winning streak during which they've outscored their opponents 56-15.
The winning has been so enjoyable because they were on the other side of it this year. They are the only team in AL history (and the third in the majors, joining the 1914 Boston Braves and 1965 Pittsburgh Pirates) to go from 15 games under .500 to 15 over in one season.
"It has been a bizarre year,'' third baseman Eric Chavez said.
And Chavez has been right in the middle of it, good and bad, which is appropriate given he is the A's best all-around player, and has been with the team the longest. Chavez always has been a slow starter, but this season, he hit .190 with two home runs and 11 RBI in the first 37 games as the A's, injured and inept, stumbled to a 14-23 record.
"I took the brunt of it, [GM Billy Beane] and I,'' Chavez said. "I'm in the first year of a six-year contract and I felt terrible for the fans, the team, everyone. I mean, we didn't have a chance. We got spanked all over the place. It was not a lot of fun playing the game of baseball.''
It got so desperate, Chavez said, he spoke to Kendall and center fielder Mark Kotsay.
"I told them, 'I don't want to sound spoiled, but I don't know how to deal with this,''' Chavez said. "I didn't know how to act. They just told me to keep on playing. I mean, if you're a basketball player and your outside shot isn't dropping, you can take it to the hole, or make a few free throws unless you're Shaq. But this game will roll right over you.''
Now it's Chavez who is rolling. In the last 92 games, he has hit .312 with 20 home runs and 67 RBI. The A's are 18-2 in games in which he hits a home run. And his brilliant play at third base has helped move the A's from second-to-last in the AL in defense to second best.
But it also has been the play of the kids that has put the A's in the race for the division and the wild card. Shortstop Bobby Crosby is an emerging star. Closer Huston Street might win what Crosby won last season: the AL Rookie of the Year. Outfielder Nick Swisher also has a shot at it, with 17 homers and 63 RBI. Rookie first baseman Dan Johnson has 12 home runs, 43 RBI and 30 walks in 264 at-bats. Rookie Joe Blanton, who has taken over one of the spots in a rotation that lost Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, has the lowest ERA of any AL pitcher in August. Beane has always said he'll take talent over experience.
"These guys have been amazing,'' Chavez said. "I compare them to myself and [Miguel] Tejada when we came up. But with us, there were no expectations. We weren't winning. We got our 300-400 at-bats, we just played. But these guys are supposed to win, we've been winning for six years. And Crosby is hitting third. Dan Johnson acts like he has seen 300,000 pitches, his plate discipline is ridiculously good. And Swisher and Street have been so good. Swisher might have the best numbers of all of them. When Huston comes in the game, I think we're going to win. At age 22, you don't see that very often in a closer.''
Indeed. Since the All-Star break, Street is 12-for-12 in save opportunities, allowing one earned run with 19 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings, lowering his ERA to 1.25. His stuff is as remarkable as his poise and competitive fire, which is not evident when he's away from the field, where he's unfailingly polite and well spoken. He is small for a pitcher, and he looks about 16.
"I was shagging balls in the outfield before a game,'' Street said, "I don't know who the player was, but as I went to pick up a ball, he yelled, 'Hey, bat boy.' Then he said it again, 'Hey, bat boy.' I looked around and said to the guy, 'I'm not the bat boy,' even though most of the bat boys are older than me. He apologized. I know I'm not 6 feet tall, as listed. But I heard a broadcaster say I was 180 pounds. I weigh 195. I don't look it, but I am.''
The A's didn't look like contenders earlier this season, but they do now. The next six days will tell a lot about where they're headed. One thing is for certain: They don't seem worried.
"I am not,'' Kendall said to a fellow fantasy football GM, "going to trade you Marvin Harrison!''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.