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First-place A's far more confident than recent years

Diverse offense allowing Oakland to attack teams in different ways than past clubs

OAKLAND -- The A's were a .500 club at the break last year, and just barely, after squeezing out an extra-inning victory on the final day of the first half.

Another walk-off win, this time against the Red Sox, ushered the A's into the break again this season. Not as a .500 team, but as a 17-games-over-.500 team.

And as a first-place team with a two-game advantage over the Rangers in the American League West.

"Last year, they were in the lead for the entire year," catcher Derek Norris said of Texas, "until that last day. We're looking to keep pressing forward and make it to where we don't have to wait until the last day of the season to celebrate the AL West."

Oakland's miraculous capture of the division title on the final day of the season last year, despite trailing Texas by 8 1/2 games at the break, was no fluke it turns out. The A's are still winning, and in that regard, 2013 is simply a continuation of 2012. Yet in many ways, as evidenced by first-half play, it's not.

That's something every member of this ballclub seems to agree on, including its manager.

"I think we got some confidence in the second half of last year going forward, and now we just kind of feel like this is who we are," manager Bob Melvin said. "That's a good thing. To an extent, we do play in the same fashion, but it is a different season and we do have some different personnel here."

It's a lineup that's offering a more balanced attack, rather than one that waits on the long ball. No doubt the home run numbers are still there -- the A's entered the break with 98 through 95 games, after tallying 83 through 86 games in the first half last year -- but this is a team that's also finding other ways to produce. They're drawing walks, getting on base and manufacturing runs with situational hitting.

First-half awards
MVP: Josh Donaldson Donaldson leads the team with a .310 average, and he racked up 16 home runs and 61 RBIs in a breakout first half.  
Cy Young: Bartolo Colon The ageless Colon, who turned 40 in May, picked up 12 wins and only three losses with a 2.70 ERA, third best in the AL.  
Rookie: Dan Straily The A's won 10 of the 14 games Straily started in place of the injured Brett Anderson.
Top reliever: Grant Balfour Balfour is the only AL reliever without a blown save. He has 25 saves on the season, and 43 straight dating back to 2012.

"It means we're a little bit more diverse, and I still think our running game is going to come around," Melvin said. "We started off real hot in that area, and it's slowed here recently. We've been picked off some and haven't been as precise with our running, and I think that we'll get better. At least offensively, there are a lot of things we can do better in the second half than we did in the first half, but we know it can be done because we've already proven it."

"Last year, I feel like we lived and died on the home run," Norris said. "This year, we're piecing the offense together a little differently. Whenever we hit home runs, it's either to get us back into the game or put us at a distance from a team. We have a lot of guys that contribute at any given time, that are stepping up and filling holes, which is the story of our team."

There's newcomer Jed Lowrie providing just as much offensive consistency, and platoon players like Seth Smith and Nate Freiman providing significant performances on any given day. But leading the way is an unlikely source in third baseman Josh Donaldson, who is enjoying quite the breakout season to the tune of a .310 average to go along with his 16 home runs, tied with Brandon Moss for the team lead.

"It's not like we didn't expect him to do some good things based on what he did last year, but he's probably taken that to a level that I don't think anybody expected to this point, the numbers he's put up," Melvin said. "That's a really confident player that's played well and has a lot of athletic ability, and he's finally getting to show it at the big league level for the first time on a consistent basis.

"He has nailed down the position, no doubt about that. It's always nice to write the lineup out every day knowing Josh Donaldson is going to be at third base and he's going to hit in the middle of the order somewhere."

Players to watch in second half
Yoenis Cespedes Despite totaling 15 home runs, Cespedes never really got going offensively in the first half. His ability to do so in the second half could provide the boost the A's need to separate themselves from the Rangers.
Josh Reddick An early-season wrist injury plagued Reddick's at-bats, ultimately putting him on the DL for some time. Since returning, Reddick looks like his old self, and it should be interesting to see what he can do in the final months with health on his side.
Grant Green Perhaps the biggest question mark on the field remains at second base, where Green is now platooning with Eric Sogard. Can this former first-round pick live up to his offensive hype and claim everyday duties?

Particularly when names like Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, who combined for 55 home runs last year, aren't putting up the type of numbers they did last year. Through Sunday, Cespedes was hitting .225, Reddick .218. Only 19 home runs are shared between the two of them, with Cespedes accounting for 15, as Reddick was slowed by a wrist injury for much of the first half.

As for Oakland's pitching staff, which uncharacteristically struggled at season's start, its 3.62 ERA is now best in the AL. Consider All-Star Bartolo Colon's 2.70 ERA a large part of that. Fellow All-Star Grant Balfour is perfect in 25 save opportunities -- 43 dating back to last year.

"I think we certainly pitched well in this half," Lowrie said. "During our stretches of prolonged winning, we pitched really well, and I think our offense has been really consistent. I think we've kind of had that to fall back on."

Perhaps it's hard to see flaws in a first-place team. Oakland, like most any other club, though, does have them, and Melvin would like to see improvement in these areas in the second half, one that's sure to bring about an intriguing division race.

"I think just our defense needs to get better at times," he said. "We're a little sporadic, so we probably need to be a little more consistent, and I do think we will swing the bats better in the second half.

"At this point, even though there are some similarities to the way it ended last year with the Rangers, I don't think you get caught up in that until you get into the last month of the season. There's a lot of baseball yet to be played, and I think the Angels will have something to say, too."

Said Lowrie: "That's a good team, a really good team over in Texas. A lot can happen between now and then, and we know what that team is capable of, but we also know what we're capable of. So we just have to worry about what we can do and then see who's on top at the end."

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