OAKLAND -- In examining what makes the A's go round, Miguel Cabrera spoke candidly from an interview room tucked away in the confines of O.co Coliseum on Thursday afternoon.
"They always fight, they never give up," offered the Tigers' slugger. "They are very special because they take walks, they work counts. They don't take anything for granted, you know?"
If that sounds a lot like the 2012 A's, it's because the 2013 version of the American League West champs is very similar.
Yet different, too.
And it's these disparities that could make this A's team harder to beat in the AL Division Series that starts on Friday (watch at 6:30 p.m. PT on TBS). Just ask Cabrera.
"I think they're better," he said. "They know what they need to do to win games."
"Last year," said A's reliever Sean Doolittle, "we were wide-eyed, and this year, the mentality in here has been much more business-like. Getting in wasn't the goal. There's a bigger goal that we're working toward."
Last year, the A's essentially lived and died by the long ball, unable to consistently manufacture runs any other way. For some time, it worked, much thanks to Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, who combined for 55 of them. This year, the duo struggled for much of the first half, and by the end of the season they had accounted for only 38 homers, including 26 from Cespedes.
But Cespedes' inconsistencies and Reddick's decline didn't even matter. Josh Donaldson's monster season did. Ditto the presence of newbie Jed Lowrie.
"A guy like Coco Crisp leading everything off, he tends to ignite things, and he starts the inning," said hitting coach Chili Davis. "He comes in and does what he does, and Lowrie is such a real disciplined, professional hitter, spraying singles and doubles all over the place, then you get into the guys with more pop. Donaldson can do a bit of everything."
"I think it's deeper, I think it's more complete, I think it's a little more versatile to where we don't just rely on a two- or three-run homer to score runs," added Doolittle. "We have more ways that we can score, and I think that makes us deeper and a little more dangerous."
The A's tallied 14 walk-off victories last year, and as magical as it all was, the formula became almost emotionally draining. Too many times they waited until their final at-bats to do damage, compiling 206 runs in innings 7-9 last year, compared to 192 this year. But last year's team only managed 233 runs from the fourth to the sixth inning, whereas Oakland scored 312 times in that same span this year.
"I think last year we were more reliant on home runs and the walk-offs, and this year we attack a little earlier, especially on the road when we have the first at-bat," Davis said. "We're in attack-mode right away, and we're adding on runs on a more regular basis."
The A's rattled off winning records in every month of the season, all the while utilizing the same platoon system set in place since the start of last year. But that same structure has greatly improved, with an even bigger emphasis on flexibility. The bench is deeper, too.
"We complement each other a little bit better," said Brandon Moss. "We're able to score in more ways than one. This year we have Bartolo Colon, and we didn't have him last year. We've got guys in the bullpen that have a full year under their belt.
"I don't think we're just happy to be here this year. We expect to play well. This year, it's more of a let's-get-this-done type of attitude."
Colon may prove to be the biggest added weapon for an A's team that was without a veteran starter entering a 2012 ALDS it ultimately lost in five games to the Tigers. Moreover, this year's rotation used only seven starters. Last year's utilized 10, in part because of Colon's absence after he was slapped with a 50-game suspension after testing positive for testosterone, a performance-enhancing substance in violation of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
"Bartolo being the anchor right now, I think that's huge for us," said reliever Jerry Blevins. "That could make or break this first round, and I feel like we have just a better overall team. There's no glaring holes, and like last year, we're not relying on anybody, but we have more guys, it seems, who can step up at any time, and do it consistently."
"I think it's one of the strengths of this team, is that we have that balanced lineup," said Lowrie. "We have guys who get on base. We have guys who have that power potential. We have guys that bring professional at-bats every single time."
Despite these improvements, the A's understand outside perception has them pegged as the underdogs once again. That's OK.
"We get it," said Doolittle. "They have the names, they have the accolades, the Triple Crown winner, the Cy Young candidates, the MVPs. We're aware of that, and I think in a little bit of a way, we're going to continue to find a way to use it, as we have all year, being the quote, unquote underdogs, even though we were the defending division champions."
Said Tigers manager Jim Leyland: "I just think they're a lot tougher. I think the way they reacted to what they did last year, they could have come back and had a bad year, but they didn't. They were really good and they built on that and fed off that.
"This is a very, very good club, a very tough club. You know, they play the game right, they're not really fancy, and neither are we, but they're just tough baseball players. Believe me when I tell you we have the utmost respect for them, and hopefully they feel the same way about us."