OAKLAND -- In one corner of the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse, outfielder Jonny Gomes was standing in front of his locker attempting to put it all into words. "We're going to play loose," he said, referring to a crucial Wednesday showdown on the season's final day, "and we're going to have fun." Gomes said nothing about this being a team of destiny or being on a magical ride or any of that stuff. He'd been in the middle of a wild clubhouse celebration a night earlier as the A's clinched their first playoff berth in six years.
On Tuesday, it was back to business. The A's knocked off the Texas Rangers again, 3-1, in front of a raucous crowd of 30,660. And now, after 161 games, Texas and Oakland are tied atop the American League West at 93-68. The Rangers had been alone atop the division for 176 days and led the A's by 13 games on June 30. The Rangers are gasping, having lost six of eight. They've scored three runs or fewer in eight of their last 13 games, and their starting pitchers have been kicked around some. As general manager Jon Daniels said, "We're not playing our best right now. But I like our ballclub." Meanwhile, the A's are rolling, winners of seven of eight. So on Wednesday afternoon, these teams that have come from such different places will finish the regular season by deciding their division championship. Both have clinched playoff berths, but they're also hoping not to be playing in the one-game AL Wild Card tilt on Friday. Here's the crazy little secret about these A's: They are not surprised by any of this. If others are, that's their problem. The A's convinced themselves during the spring that they were good enough to play with anybody. They had an assortment of gifted young pitchers. (Their 53 victories by rookies is a Major League record.) They had a bunch of guys capable of hitting home runs. (They lead the Majors in home runs since the All-Star break.) The A's had an interesting mix of youth and experience, especially guys like Gomes and Chris Carter and Brandon Moss, who've had to work relentlessly for every cup of coffee they've gotten in the Major Leagues. Players like that can tie a clubhouse together and can teach kids about basic things like poise, resilience and work ethic. Together, the A's have done something no one thought possible. On the threshold of a dream, they don't seem likely to blink. "It's the most fun I've ever had in the game of baseball," outfielder Josh Reddick said. "It's a great team to be part of. It's every little kid's dream." Reddick is one of the talented kids general manager Billy Beane acquired last winter as he retooled the A's roster. Given a chance to play regularly for the first time, Reddick has hit 32 home runs. "I think it's the perfect clubhouse," reliever Grant Balfour said. Balfour pitched for a fourth straight day, the first time this season he'd gone that many days in a row. But he's going on adrenalin and feeding off the crowd. "I can feel the energy," Balfour said. "You can tell it's all positive, and it's coming from in this clubhouse, the fans, everywhere. Know what I mean? We've got young guys blowing it out there having unbelievable years. You got veteran guys. You got guys who've had a few years in the big leagues. I think it's a great mix. Our clubhouse has jelled together, and I think it's a club that can go a long way." Gomes would understand. He's one of the poster boys for these A's. He's with his fifth organization in 10 years and signed on last winter when Beane sold him on a steady role against left-handed pitching. The A's were leading, 2-1, in the bottom of the sixth on Tuesday when Gomes' 18th home run opened up a bit of breathing room. "It's interesting to look back now," Gomes said. "You keep your eyes on the prize and follow the leader." Down the hallway in the visitors' clubhouse, there was an appreciation for the A's. There was also no panic. The Rangers have played so many huge games the past three years that one more is nothing special. "It's kind of like the World Series last year," Josh Hamilton said. "We had a tough Game 6 and had to come right back and play Game 7. Hamilton smiled when asked about the A's. Two seasons ago, it was the Rangers going through it all for the first time. "Those guys are just playing ball," he said. "They're having fun and getting after it. It's fun to watch. Ultimately, you want to be on that side of the scorecard, but they've battled back. It's a good story. They're getting some key hits, and their pitchers are doing a good job shutting us down. That's it, man. They're just executing. They're getting it done."
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.