A's streaking back into contention

Late in spring training, Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez said the 2005 A's were so talented, so young and so inexperienced, they could be really good or they could be really bad. Halfway though the season, Chavez has been absolutely right. The A's have been both.

Right now, they're really good. After a 17-32 start that dumped them 12½ games behind in the American League West on May 29, the A's have since gone 24-9. They recently became the first AL team since the 1985 Blue Jays to win nine straight home games, and allowed three or fewer runs in all nine. The A's are still 9½ games behind the Angels, and they're not likely to go to the playoffs, but they're now at the .500 mark for the first time since May 2 and, more important, they are building for the 2006 season with good, young pitching.

The comeback of the A's is due mainly to health. "In May, we had so many injuries, we were just trying to field a team, let alone a competitive team,'' said A's general manager Billy Beane. "We were literally calling up guys who hadn't pitched the night before at Triple-A.''

The turnaround began on May 30. The A's were on the verge of losing their ninth straight game, but they rallied from a 4-1 deficit after seven innings, and beat the Devil Rays in the 11th, 5-4. The bullpen pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings; rookie closer Huston Street got the win, striking out three of the six batters he faced. Even more appropriately, it was shortstop Bobby Crosby's first game back since cracking a rib in the first game of the season.

It has been the young pitching, the return to health of the young players and Chavez's usual comeback from a slow start that has rallied the A's. Through Tuesday, they lead the major leagues with the lowest batting average against (.243), a number that has steadily decreased the last month. In the 24-9 stretch, the A's have allowed three or fewer runs 19 times.

That has coincided with the return of ace Rich Harden, who spent five weeks on the disabled list; since coming off the DL, Harden has allowed only one earned run in 19 2/3 innings. He has been almost as good as Danny Haren, 24, who was the primary acquisition in the deal with St. Louis for Mark Mulder last winter. After an uneven start, Haren has raised his record to 7-7 and lowered his ERA to 3.96. He is throwing 96 mph with a great splitter.

"He's one of the best young pitchers I've seen this season,'' one scout said of Haren. And, after a terrible start, rookie Joe Blanton has allowed fewer hits than innings pitched this year.

The bullpen has great arms, also, led by Street, who has a 1.40 ERA, has allowed 24 hits and has 40 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings. He wasn't supposed to become the closer until perhaps midseason, but an injury to Octavio Dotel left the A's no choice, and Street has emerged already, partly with great stuff, but also because he's fearless and has the makeup of a closer. All-Star Justin Duchscherer has a 1.41 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings. Chad Bradford, who has been out all year after back surgery, is also due back after the All-Star break.

"We're getting close to recreating a very good pitching staff,'' Beane said. "In our market, once you do that, you can do some things, like the Twins have. It's absolutely imperative.''

Offensively, the A's have started to hit after an awful start. Chavez, who batted .194 in April, has raised his average to .282. His career numbers by month increase steadily, peaking in August, meaning his best should be yet to come. Crosby, who is batting .341 and was the AL Rookie of the Year last season, has been terrific since returning. And, after a poor start, rookie right fielder Nick Swisher was up to .241 with 10 homers and 36 RBI through Tuesday.

The A's numbers offensively are not impressive, but, led by catcher/leadoff batter Jason Kendall, they put the ball in play: the A's have, by a wide margin, struck out fewer times (382) than any other team in the big leagues. They're seventh in most walks drawn (292) -- the Moneyball influence -- whack left-handed pitching (15-8) and they're really good (27-16) at home.

The second half appears bright. Barry Zito, who has never missed a start due to injury, likely won't be traded before the end of the season. Designated hitter Erubiel Durazo, who has an elbow injury, could be back in a month. And the young pitchers should keep getting better.

"If you're sitting around watching your team struggle and decide that you have to rebuild, it's too late, you have to be preemptive,'' Beane said. "It's possible that this year we've clipped off a year or two in our rebuilding.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.