OAKLAND -- Their fans stood on their feet time and time again, waving bright yellow rally towels, flailing their arms, doing the Bernie Dance, willing their team along an improbable ride through the American League Division Series. As impressive and electric atmosphere as that was, it was only a prelude to the final cheer they delivered for the A's, the unlikely AL West champions who earned the respect of their peers and the undying love of their energetic fans with a season very few predicted would extend into October. As the Tigers jumped up and down with glee on the Coliseum infield Thursday night after having clinched a berth in the AL Championship Series with a 6-0 victory, A's fans stood and cheered their team, chanting "Let's go Oakland!"
For the A's, it was an uplifting experience, one shared with thousands of fans."It was tough watching them celebrate," said infielder Cliff Pennington, the longest tenured member of the club. "It kind of hit close to home, because we were wanting it to be us. But to hear the crowd kind of start back up for us and to go out there and give them a wave and a thank you for just how awesome they've been, it actually lifted it us back up. It changed the feeling we had." Said reliever Ryan Cook: "They appreciate what we've done, on this field and in this clubhouse, and that's a class act. It doesn't go unnoticed, and we appreciate that so much." It was the kind of display that caught the attention of Oakland's opponent. "As we were celebrating, they were applauding their players," Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. "It was a great gesture on the fans' part. It was a magical season for Oakland." Indeed it was. After what they did over the course of the 2012 season, the A's deserved every cheer, every clap, every tear shed with the conclusion of a season that no one possibly could have seen coming. This was a team that went through huge offseason changes, with veteran starters heading elsewhere and rookies coming in to take their place. This was a team that was given virtually no chance to contend for a playoff spot by so many experts, yet they did that and more. For Pennington, the whirlwind from the changes of the offseason to the thrills of September and beyond was something to behold. "I don't think anybody envisioned us winning the AL West with the moves that the Rangers and Angels made and seeing us unload some All-Star quality pitchers," Pennington said. "But the guys we got back in some of those deals, I don't think if you asked those teams if they'd do it again, I don't think they'd do it again. "That's a credit to the front office. We have some good, young pieces that are going to be here for a while that could make this a fun team to watch for a while." Tommy Milone, acquired from the Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez deal, and Jarrod Parker, brought from the D-backs in the Trevor Cahill trade, each won 13 games and became rocks in the rotation. Josh Reddick, acquired from the Red Sox in the Andrew Bailey trade, had 31 homers. And there's also Yoenis Cespedes, the Cuban national the A's signed just before Spring Training began. He delivered a five-tool performance that gives the A's reason to believe they have a star on their hands. In the end, the A's had a 20-win improvement over 2011 with 94 victories, thanks to a surge of going 72-38 (.655) after June 2 and a Major League-high 14 walk-off wins. They posted a 3.48 ERA, the second-best in the AL, and finished with five rookies in the rotation, first-year players starting 22 of their last 24 games and 76 of the last 104. Adversity struck this team in unimaginable ways, particularly at the end of the season. First, veteran starter Brandon McCarthy was struck in the head by a line drive and needed emergency brain surgery, the scar from which remains evident when he isn't wearing his cap. And then on the most joyous day of their year, when they closed out the Rangers on the final day of the regular season, they received the tragic news that reliever Pat Neshek's newborn son had died suddenly and inexplicably. In less poignant ways, the team battled through other issues that altered the course of their season as well, from the suspension of veteran starter Bartolo Colon to several players shifting to different positions along the way. By the end of the season, they had an outfielder at first base in Brandon Moss, a shortstop at second base in Pennington and a catcher at third base in Josh Donaldson. They had 19 rookies play for them and had 12 on their ALDS roster, becoming the first team in Major League history to have three rookies pitch for them in a postseason series. They also had veterans like Coco Crisp, Grant Balfour, Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith contributing on and off the field. They banded together to become the first team to win a division crown after being down 13 games, finishing off their pursuit of the two-time defending AL champion Rangers with a three-game sweep to finish the regular season. Ultimately, this is a "Wait till next year" that really resonates. All those rookies, they won't be rookies anymore. And they'll all have the experience of climbing to the top of the division and into the playoffs. For now, the A's have to absorb the reality that this special season has come to an end, knowing they have a legion of fans who feel it as deeply as they do yet remain appreciative of the experience. "We have such a good group of young guys," Donaldson said. "We have some experience now we didn't have coming into the season. This season hurts right now. It's definitely tough on us. "How many times have you seen a bunch of guys come out and hug each other? Every single guy in here cares for one another. That's what makes this so tough. It's a pretty emotional time right now."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.