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Richard Justice

A's exceeding even Beane's expectations

Justice: A's exceeding even Beane's expectations

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When the A's had won another improbable game Sunday afternoon, there was Billy Beane and his baseball staff leaping with joy, exchanging high-fives and doing a really good imitation of the happiest men on earth.

"No matter how many years you've been doing this," Beane said Monday, "the little kid in you still comes out."

That's how a lot of people feel about the A's at a time when they've won 14 of 16 to sprint into contention in the American League.

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And the bottom line is just the beginning of their remarkable story.

They've got baseball's second-lowest payroll. They've used 17 rookies -- most in the Major Leagues -- including 10 rookie pitchers. Despite the kids, they've got the American League's best ERA, both in the rotation and bullpen.

Better than simply winning, the A's are winning in style. They're 20-10 in games decided in the seventh inning or later and lead the Majors with 11 walk-off victories. They've won five straight games by one run, including all four in a weekend sweep of the Yankees.

At 51-44, they've gotten within 5 1/2 games of the first-place Rangers in the American League West and are tied with the Orioles for the AL's second Wild Card berth.

They're dead last in the American League in runs, but are second in the Major Leagues in home runs since the All-Star break.

Still, the pitching is so good that the A's are feeling pretty good about their ability to make a run back to the postseason.

"It's a zero-sum game," Beane said. "You either give up fewer runs or score more. We're not a dynamic offense, but we'll take a walk and hit a home run. That's a pretty efficient way to score runs."

As the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches, the A's are very much in a buy mode, and who would have guessed that?

"Oh yeah," Beane said.

Part of Beane's genius as a general manager has been his ability to evaluate his team bluntly and to refuse to settle for mediocrity.

So during the last offseason, when he decided his team had little chance of passing the Rangers and Angels in the American League West, he made the decision to strip down the roster and pretty much start over.

His larger goal was to have the A's competitive in, say, 2014, when he hoped his club would be on the verge of moving to a new revenue-friendly ballpark in San Jose.

He dealt three All-Star pitchers -- Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey and Gio Gonzalez -- for a slew of prospects.

He was torched in the Bay Area for the moves, but he had a couple of things going for him. One is that his track record is terrific. Another is that he was completely honest about where he intended to take the franchise.

Before Spring Training, Beane's top assistant, David Forst, made a statement about the new talent that rings true today.

"We think we've got the foundation of a pitching staff that will be one of the best in baseball in a couple of years," he said at the time.

He became even more convinced of that once the A's got to Spring Training and got up-close looks at Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook and others.

"I thought we had a good group of players," Beane said. "We didn't know the maturity date. No one did. But we felt good about the talent we'd acquired. We felt at some point, they'd all have an impact on the season."

Milone, Parker and A.J. Griffin are all 25 and under. Together, they're 18-10. Cook, 25, has 10 saves. Setup man Sean Doolittle (1.86 ERA) is also 25. Outfielder Josh Reddick, 25, who came from the Red Sox in the Bailey deal, has 21 home runs.

Beane fortified the roster with the signing of 39-year-old Bartolo Colon, thinking his best young pitchers might need at least another year in the Minors. Colon has pitched 118 innings and run up an ERA of 3.97.

"I can't say enough for what he has done," Beane said. "He's unflappable. He does exactly what you want every young pitcher to do. You can't tell if he's having a good game or a bad game. He has the same demeanor no matter the situation. He also demonstrates how much success you can have if you throw strikes. He pounds the strike zone with his fastball. He's just not afraid. Nothing any of us can say is as impressive as watching the results he gets."

The kids are paying attention. The A's have walked 26 batters in the last 16 games.

So a season that was supposed to be about starting over has become something special, or at least appears to.

"When you have an opportunity like this, we're going to try and grab it and make the postseason," Beane said. "If it's there, don't turn your back on it. Embrace it."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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