By Tom Verducci
July 24, 2012

On consecutive nights Oakland general manager Billy Beane, who is infamous for being unable to stay calm enough to actually watch his ballclub play, doled out his game tickets to Clem Burke, the drummer for the band Blondie, and then George Will, the buttoned-down conservative columnist. The disparity in profiles parked in the same seats on back-to-back nights says as much about the Athletics as it does Beane, the renaissance man at their helm. Oakland is nothing but unpredictable, a team that zigs when others zag and zags when others zig.

And in a head-snapping span of 16 games -- 14 of them wins and more than half of those by just one run -- the Athletics transformed from a team five games under .500 and in sell mode to a team sitting in playoff position and hitting the trade market looking to buy. Yes, that's right: Oakland, which ranks 28th in attendance with a $55 million payroll and last in the league in runs with the worst hitting team in franchise history but for the 1908 outfit, is a playoff contender looking to add players and payroll.

"I think you're a fool if you don't," Beane said. "I've always felt like if there's an opportunity, you have to grasp it. We have had a good feel for what we are most of the time. We made the [Johnny] Damon deal and the [Jermaine] Dye deal when we felt like we were good. So my short answer is that when you sit here in July and playing for the playoffs, it isn't where you're team is, it's where you're headed. And we've gotten better and better and better and we're very deep in pitching -- and we're going to get more soon."

Beane mentioned that pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are expected to return from injuries "in the next couple of weeks." He also is excited about strikeout machine Daniel Straily, who leads all of baseball in strikeouts (171 in his 132 1/3 minor league innings) and also will be a second half addition. Straily, 23, a 24th-round pick out of Marshall in 2009, has chewed up Triple A in seven starts: 4-2 with a 0.96 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 47 innings -- while allowing the preposterously low total of 20 hits.

Beane, who watched Straily's latest gem Monday, is one of the few contenders who can trade pitching (Bartolo Colon anyone?) to find a bat, or even think real big and package some of his young talent for Justin Upton.

Truthfully, the Athletics aren't quite as horrific at the plate as that .228 batting average implies. (Connie Mack's 1908 Philadelphia A's hit .223 in the dead ball era.) They came out of May hitting .210 and have looked slightly dangerous lately. The Athletics rank third in stolen bases, have legit power threats from both sides of the plate in Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes and put up such a fight at the plate that they lead the league in pitches per plate appearance.

It wasn't supposed to go this way for Oakland, which may be outperforming Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore among the crowded field of auditions for baseball's 2012 Cinderella. After last season Beane traded six pitchers who provided 48 percent of his team's innings and 53 percent of its wins (Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Guillermo Moscoso, Andrew Bailey, Craig Breslow and Josh Outman). Somehow he wound up with a better staff and better team.

"The balance we always have to play with is we are not a team that can put all our chips on the table," Beane said. "The trick is to grasp the opportunity this year and preserve the same position next year. We basically just turned over our entire roster in the offseason, and we wanted to be in this position for a couple of years.

"Our trend line is good. We are young and have payroll flexibility because of what we did in the offseason. Shame on us if we don't try. When the opportunity is there you have got to take it.

"That's why I say it's about where you are headed, not where you are. And I like where we're headed. This is the time of year when there are a lot of wins in the second half. Playing a team in April is a lot different than in August, depending on what direction they're headed. I learned that in [2000]. When a lot of guys leave the table [teams in sell mode] there are a lot of wins out there."

The 2000 A's were just 69-64 on Sept. 2. But they finished on a 22-6 run to win the AL West, including a 15-4 record against Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Minnesota, Texas and Anaheim -- teams that had folded their cards by the time Oakland ran into them late in the year.

Some baseball people have remarked that chasing a wild card under the new postseason format is panning for fool's gold -- under the theory that you might take on rental players and extra salary all for the possibility of being one-and-done in the postseason. And you might not even have played a home playoff game. I believe the foolishness is in thinking that way. Punting a chance at the postseason by adhering to the worst case possibility? Silly. As the GM of a small revenue team, Beane agreed.

"I think you're like me in that you subscribe to the idea that there is some randomness to the playoffs," he said. "That randomness is more pronounced the smaller the sample. The beauty for a team with a $55 million payroll playing a $170 million payroll is our risk is a lot less and our reward is a lot greater. A one-game playoff is going to help the weakest team and the lowest payroll."

The Athletics have become one of the most fascinating teams in the baseball. They're not supposed to be this good, but they play as if nobody told them that. Their four-game sweep of the Yankees confirmed their swagger -- and their luck. Let's face it: Oakland is living a charmed month. You know that 14-2 run? Their run differential was just +21 in that run. In the history of the franchise, no Athletics team won as many games by so slim a margin over 16 games. (The 2006 team also was +21 over a 14-2 run.) They are 8-0 in their last eight one-run games.

But there is no substitute for the confidence they have gained, and if Beane can fortify the offense, just maybe the slim margin for error in which they play becomes their strength, not their weakness. (Remember the Torture version of baseball across the Bay in 2010?) Hey, it would be interesting just to see Oakland take this brand of baseball into September. Awaiting them in that final month is a brutally difficult trip: 10 games in 10 days against the Tigers, Yankees and Rangers -- all powerhouse teams that don't leave the table. It may be difficult for Beane to watch, but it's fun for the rest of us.

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