A's need health, consistency down the stretch

A's need health, consistency down the stretch

A's need health, consistency down the stretch
The A's have made a hobby out of defying expectations this year.

Baseball's second-half darlings, winners of 32 of 47 since the start of July, aren't slowing down, what with a series win over the Rays in Tampa over the weekend that propelled them to within a half-game of the top Wild Card spot with 36 left to play.

Following seven games against the sub-.500 Indians and Red Sox this week, the A's will play 17 of their final 23 against playoff contenders, with the other six coming against the red-hot Mariners.

Strength of schedule aside, the underdog A's have shown a propensity to not pay too close attention to the uniform of their opponents, instead choosing to go about their days with a "Let's have fun" mindset that has served them well to this point.

It should continue to do so, but several other key factors will greatly contribute to Oakland's ability to capture a playoff spot, something the club hasn't done since 2006. Here's a look at some of them:

Stay on the field: It's been Yoenis Cespedes' lone weakness in his rookie season, and his ability to do so will be significant for the A's, whose lineup proves much more of a threat with him than without him. Sidelined by an array of minor injuries this season, Cespedes must remain healthy for this reason. His presence changes the dynamic of Oakland's lineup, his power a true treat that the nation deserves to see on a national stage come October.

Anderson's arm: Given the wide success of Oakland's pitching staff this season, lefty Brett Anderson wasn't exactly missed. Yet his mid-August return came at a perfect time, and the club's freshest arm could be pivotal to September success against some of the league's best offenses. Anderson's season is, in essence, just starting, and his ability to rack up innings will provide a big boost to an already talented rotation that will also need to see Brandon McCarthy stay healthy and Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone stay consistent.

Bench bums: These guys are anything but, what with the likes of Jonny Gomes and Brandon Moss proving multiple times this season that Oakland's bench has been a big asset. A bat like Gomes', very much underrated, has potential to provide a late-inning spark at any time. Moreover, the strong Gomes offers the team something very few have in the clubhouse -- a veteran mentality and playoff experience.

A cup of Coco: It's integral to the A's winning recipe. Coco Crisp's continued production -- and health -- are key for Oakland, since its surprising power-hitting ways of late can't be counted on every day. No, the A's still need that running-game element to manufacture runs, and Crisp represents the biggest contributor to that part of the game.

Steady relief: Oakland's bullpen has quietly been lights-out for much of the season, and that very characteristic will be essential down the stretch, particularly given the club's knack for engaging in close games. Ryan Cook, it seems, has found his confidence again outside of the closer role, which Grant Balfour has assumed and showcased dominance in. Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle need also to continue boasting that reliability asset.

Drew at No. 2: By acquiring shortstop Stephen Drew, in whom they get an experienced postseason vet, the A's acknowledged and bettered their chances of earning a playoff spot. Drew, who can be a free agent at season's end, is a low-risk investment who could end up paying off significantly, should he continue to give the A's the kind of offensive performance he displayed in the weekend's series against the Rays. Oakland has been hurting in the No. 2 spot, but Drew's presence provides a fresh bat that, though mostly quiet this season, is likely to trump that of Cliff Pennington or Jemile Weeks.

Right the ship, Reddick: No other player has proven to be as valuable to the A's this year as Josh Reddick, whose consistency -- outside of some rare struggles this month -- has fueled their lineup day in and day out. Consistency is what needs to be had by Reddick in September, in order for Oakland's offense to keep up with the pitching.

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.