OAKLAND (AP) — The Oakland Athletics are hardly accustomed to playing in first place at the All-Star break.
Yet the top spot seems to fit them just fine at the moment — even if it’s quite a change for the low-budget club long known for those second-half surges that make for a dramatic September.
The A’s are all alone atop the AL West at the break for the first time since 1990. And that’s saying something for the defending division champions, who last June 30 trailed the Texas Rangers by 13 games before rallying to capture the West crown on the season’s final day.
It didn’t hurt for momentum that outfielder Yoenis Cespedes won the Home Run Derby during All-Star festivities Monday in New York.
At 56-39, the A’s are making another statement after surprising everybody with a stunning sweep of the Rangers to end the 2012 regular season and steal away the AL West title from Texas.
“I really believe that the guys in this clubhouse really believe that we have one of the best teams in baseball,” third baseman Josh Donaldson said.
“It’s just one of those things, where when we get an opportunity to play a good team like the Red Sox or the Pirates or the Cardinals, we’re out there sending a message that we are a good team, that we’re for real.”
Cespedes has continued to make strides in his second major league season, and perhaps winning the Derby will help propel him into the second half.
The second-year slugger from Cuba has 15 home runs and 43 RBIs. And Oakland announced Wednesday it would open the gates an hour earlier to fans for remaining Friday home games so they can watch Cespedes and others take batting practice.
“He’s not happy about his average right now but his production’s still there for a guy who’s hitting (.225),” manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s always on the verge of a hot streak.”
Oakland has seven wins in 10 extra-inning games, and six walkoff victories already after 14 last season led the majors. The A’s also have their first winning first half since 2008 — with plans on making another run at an underdog division title.
“Everything’s rolling pretty well,” Donaldson said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in the lineup that can do some damage, not only just hitting home runs but getting on base. ... From 1 to 25, we feel like we can put anybody in the game and they’re going to be successful.”
Who would have thought Angels stars Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Co. would sit a surprising 11 games back at this stage?
The A’s lead Texas by two games.
“They’ve got a pretty good team to work with, too,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said. “It was very impressive what they did last year, because I don’t think they envisioned they’d make the playoffs. At the beginning it was kind of like, ‘Do the best you can and we’ll worry about the future later.’ I don’t think BoMel (Melvin) got into that, because you can’t have that attitude as a manager, because that transfers to your players.”
General manager Billy Beane did acknowledge his club was in rebuilding mode, so the A’s overachieved. They lost in the deciding Game 5 of the AL division series to the Tigers, who went on to be swept by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.
Melvin has done an admirable job mixing and matching to cope with injuries to key players such as center fielder Coco Crisp. Oakland’s substitutes have done their share.
“It shows that there are 25 guys in this room that, when used properly, can compete and win games,” said Nate Freiman, who singled home the winning run against Mariano Rivera in an 18-inning win over the Yankees last month.
“And it shows that the guys making the decisions are good at making the decisions and they know how best to use guys.”
Donaldson’s steady bat is a key reason the A’s are in the lead. He is hitting a team-best .310 with 16 home runs and 61 RBIs and 107 hits, most in the first half by an A’s player since Carney Lansford’s 118 in 1988.
Donaldson is the first A’s player to bat at least .300 with 15 or more home runs before the break since Jason Giambi in 2001.
Donaldson didn’t make the AL All-Star team, with closer Grant Balfour the lone representative in place of 40-year-old, 12-game winner Bartolo Colon.
These young, unselfish A’s are accustomed to being snubbed, and certainly don’t mind the role of overlooked opponent. Though that image might be wearing off in a hurry if they keep this good thing going.
Along with Donaldson, Brandon Moss also has 16 home runs.
“It’s fun to watch our lineup hit,” lefty starter Tommy Milone said. “There’s no easy out. That makes it tough, especially for other pitchers. It’s good for us because we go out there and feel comfortable with any lineup that we put out there.”