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A's bullpen setting high standard for excellence

Closer Balfour, setup men Doolittle, Cook locking down the late innings

HOUSTON -- Boasting a low payroll and enjoying continued success, the A's certainly have reason to be the object of other teams' envy.

This season, you can add the A's pitching staff to the list. More specifically, it's Oakland's sensational bullpen that warrants jealousy, especially by teams who are floundering because of their inability to put together the right relief pieces.

A's relievers played a significant role in last year's playoff run, and after mostly staying intact since then -- save for a couple of new additions -- they're a big reason why the club appears to again be gaining steam, following a rough 26-game stretch that resulted in 18 losses.

Oakland has now won five of its last six, four of which resulted in one-run games, which just so happened to be its specialty last year. The A's were 25-18 in those tight affairs.

"All of a sudden, when you have a few of those in a row, you're tested," said manager Bob Melvin. "And when you have a bullpen like we do, you're that much more confident that you can finish off those games."

It's hard not to be confident when the likes of Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle and 2012 All-Star Ryan Cook are on call at any time. Together, they carry around a 1.37 ERA, having allowed just nine combined earned runs spanning 59 innings. In that time, they've also struck out 67 against just 18 walks.

Doolittle is a marvel all by himself, considering the converted first baseman has fewer than two years of pitching experience in professional baseball. Yet somehow he's good enough to be a closer, a role he could be destined for since Balfour is a free agent at season's end. Doolittle hasn't allowed a run in his last 11 games, over 10 1/3 innings, and he has only given one up in two of his 21 appearances.

Opponents are hitting just .132 off the electric southpaw. And as for his ERA, well, that's barely visible at 0.90. His WHIP is 0.60.

The Rangers know Doolittle all too well, despite meeting him for the first time just last June, when the lefty made his debut against them and retired all four batters he faced, casually fanning three along the way. He has still yet to give up a run to Texas over 11 1/3 innings, including the eighth inning of a one-run game on Tuesday that included two strikeouts.

Asked the next day by a Texas reporter if that was indicative of a typical Doolittle performance, Melvin smiled.

"Well," Melvin said, "he didn't strike everyone out. That's what he usually does."

"It sounds weird, but you live for that situation as an eighth-inning reliever," said Doolittle. "A one-run game, on the road, it really gets your adrenaline going, and I think on some level, I thrive on it."

It goes without saying that the fiery Balfour does, too. Oakland's closer has converted each of his last 27 save chances dating back to April 2012 -- including nine this season -- and no one has scored off him in his last 9 1/3 innings.

Then there's Cook, whose 1.74 ERA slightly hangs over Balfour's 1.47. The righty setup man leads all A's relievers with 26 strikeouts, those over a 20 2/3-inning span, and eight of his last nine appearances have been scoreless.

These numbers tell us that this dynamic trio has been every bit as good as it was last year -- perhaps better -- though with a smaller sample size. So it's no surprise, then, that the A's bullpen leads the American League with a 2.79 ERA.

Its cumulative clutch rating -- a measure of how much better the relievers have done in situations that are most important for winning games -- is 3.39, tops in the Majors. Texas is the next closest, at 3.00. For greater perspective, consider the third-highest mark, which is Cleveland's 2.08. Everyone else falls below 2.00, and 14 teams are even in the red.

That portrays just how vital Oakland's relief arms have been to its success.

"That was a key last year, and continues to be one of our strengths this year," said Melvin. "As far as the psychology factor goes, when you have a lead late in the game, you feel like you have a great chance to win."

"I definitely feel like we've been good down this stretch, and hopefully that means we're hitting a stride to continue on and put up zeroes," Cook said. "That was kind of our identity last year. Those one-run games, we pitched, played defense and won them.

"This year, we hadn't done that early on. Hopefully, that's kind of given us our identity back, makes everyone in here realize, 'OK, let's just play the game and keep us close, and then somehow we'll find a way.' More times than not, when we have the lead, we're going to be pretty safe."

Cook is quick to note that their success extends prior to the seventh inning, with arms like Jerry Blevins, Pat Neshek and now veteran Hideki Okajima around to bridge the gap.

The unheralded Blevins, Oakland's longest-tenured player on the active roster, whose impressive work perhaps goes the least noticed, is integral to this. And the lefty has excelled this season, allowing just five earned runs over 21 2/3 innings, walking just one for an AL-leading average of 0.42 walks per nine innings.

"I feel like we're balanced as a bullpen, and I feel like that is pretty crucial," said Cook. "Me, Doolittle, Balfour, we're maybe more in your face, high energy, that kind of attack mode, I guess you could say. But I think we all feed off of each other from top to bottom. Starters have the confidence to turn the ball over to us, and we have confidence in one another, to where no matter who is out there in any situation, the results are going to happen."

"It feels like it's nice that they're on my team," said catcher John Jaso, grinning. "I hit off Cook last year, and it wasn't a fun at-bat. They've been doing great for us all year."

And others are taking notice, too.

"Oakland has a tough team," the Rangers' Lance Berkman said. "They're going to be around because of their pitching."

Jane Lee is a reporter for Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB.

Oakland Athletics, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle