You want a fun fact on the Oakland A's, who have the lowest payroll in baseball and have still managed to change the way people are looking at the American League pennant race? When the A's entered play on Thursday, they were as close to the Yankees for the top
You want a fun fact on the Oakland A's, who have the lowest payroll in baseball and have still managed to change the way people are looking at the American League pennant race? When the A's entered play on Thursday, they were as close to the Yankees for the top AL Wild Card spot -- trailing by 5 1/2 games -- as the Yankees are to the Red Sox in the AL East standings.
On Thursday morning, I asked Oakland executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane if he was aware that his team really was that close to the Yankees.
"Well aware," he said.
The A's came from eight runs down to win on Tuesday night in Arlington. Then they came from four runs down to win on Wednesday night, again against the Rangers, when Khris Davis hit a two-out, two-strike home run in the ninth. And in a week when the big bullpen news in baseball was the Yankees adding Zach Britton to an already elite bullpen, consider this about the A's:
They are 25-7 since June 16, the best record in baseball. They're 40-0 this season when leading after seven innings, and are the only team in the Majors that is undefeated when leading after seven. They are 48-0 when leading after eight. Their closer, Blake Treinen, has 1.04 ERA, which ranks first among all relievers, and Lou Trivino's 1.33 ERA is fourth. On Saturday, Beane traded for Jeurys Familia, who used to close for the Mets. And Beane made it quite clear on Thursday that Familia might not be the last acquistion he makes before Tuesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"Hey, I hope I'm not done," he said. "We're going to make every effort to do everything we can. It's my belief that it is your responsibility to respond to your team when it's playing the way our team is."
Then he said: "This team reminds me a lot of 2012 when, you might remember, we never spent a day in first place until we won the division on the last day of the season."
The A's were 12 games out of first place on July 1, 2012. This was an Oakland team that some thought might lose as many as 110 games before the season started. Beane admits that while the predictions about this year's A's weren't quite as bleak, there wasn't much of a spit-shine to them, either.
"We're sort of operating in the same space as always," Beane said. "It's the space where people are conditioned to overlooking us and disregarding us and now finding a way to succeed again. We're kind of a stealth team that way. Just not lately. Maybe the biggest difference, at least for now, between this team and the '12 team is that we've made our move earlier."
Beane paused, then said: "You know the corny expression, especially at this time of year, the one about how you want to be playing meaningful games in September? Well, we're playing meaningful games now."
Beane has seen his manager, Bob Melvin, use 12 different starting pitchers this season; has watched the world start to take notice of not just the power hitter that Davis is right now, but also the one he's become, with an MLB-high 112 home runs since '16; has seen the back-end of his bullpen, now enhanced by Familia, shut down teams better than the Yankees or anybody else.
Beane says that his payroll at the start of the season was at $66 or $67 million, and is probably at $69 million now. It is, of course, less than a third of what the Red Sox, who have MLB's best record this season, are spending.
When I pointed that out, Beane laughed.
"Our payroll," he said, "is their tax."
So there you have it. Third in the AL Wild Card standings. Third in the AL West, behind the Astros and Mariners (the A's still have 10 games left against Seattle). Still dead last in payroll. I've said this before about Beane -- one of the transformative front-office figures in baseball history, even without a World Series title -- and said it with all due respect to all the other smart general managers and presidents of baseball operations out there:
Let all of them try to spend what he spends and win.
I asked him if it's starting to be cool again in the Bay Area to root for the A's.
"Very," he said. "Our series with the Giants last weekend, I think we averaged 50,000 a game and had the biggest crowd in baseball this season."
They did. The crowd was 56,310 -- not just the largest crowd of the season, but also the biggest baseball crowd in the history of the Oakland Coliseum -- and the A's won in extra innings. In a summer that has the Red Sox and Yankees each on pace to exceed 100 wins, in a season that the Astros are trying to repeat, a season in which Manny Machado was just traded to the Dodgers, there is no bigger or better story right now than the A's.
"When you're in the position we're in, I really do believe you gotta jump on it," Beane said. "You can't think, 'Oh, let's not get ahead of ourselves.' No. You know why? Because the teams you're playing don't care about some kind of five-year rebuilding plan you might have going. That's why we're gonna try to add to this group of we can."
The last time we spoke, Beane, a rock-and-roll music fan, compared himself and his team to The Ramones. He reminded me of that reference Thursday.
"The Ramones didn't sell as many records as some of the other groups, but they were still pretty cool," Beane said.
His A's are selling some records now. Cool.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.