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With a healthy Coco, A's offense looking Crisp again

Oakland's success starts with the veteran catalyst who is locked up through 2016

SEATTLE -- Coco Crisp was back at the top of the Oakland lineup on Saturday night, doing what he's expected to do. And doing it well.

"It all starts with him," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "He's a very important guy with us."

He's the gnat that won't go away.

He's the guy who -- after missing four games while allowing an achy left wrist to heal -- stepped into the batter's box to start Saturday night's game against Seattle and takes a first-pitch ball one. And then, he claims, he mistakenly swung at a pitch that he bounced up the first-base line for what became an infield single because of a bit of confusion on the Mariners' part.

"I was lucky that first at-bat," he said. "I was taking on that pitch, and you saw how I swung."

What's that they say about it being better to be lucky than good?

Two batters later, Josh Donaldson unloads a two-run home run, and before Sonny Gray takes the mound for the A's in bottom of the first, he's spotted a 2-0 lead.

And then, leading off the third inning, Crisp draws a four-pitch walk, eventually scoring the final run in the 3-1 victory that lifted the A's back atop the American League West, a half-game ahead of Seattle.

"That's supposed to be what the leadoff does," said Crisp. "He gets on, and the next couple of guys drive him in. ... Ideally, you drive yourself in, but it's a team game. You need the lineup 1-through-9 to do what they are supposed to do. It's not about one guy."

No, this isn't golf or rodeo, where it's an athlete on his own, trying to beat the odds.

But some players are a little more equal than others in terms of what they mean to a team.

There are the big bombers in the middle of the lineup, who are expected to drive in the runs. And then there are the guys like Crisp, at the top of the lineup, who cause confusion and create the opportunities for the big guys to get big numbers.

There's no underplaying what Crisp means to the A's. Yes, they swept Minnesota in three games earlier in the week without him. No, Melvin doesn't want to try and make a run at a third consecutive AL West title having to do that on a regular basis.

That's why he figures to coddle Crisp for a while now. It might be an at-bat or two that he gives to someone else -- like in the ninth inning on Saturday when Craig Gentry hit in place of Crisp in the top of the inning and then played center field in the bottom.

A wrist injury can be one of those nagging problems that haunts a player all season if he keeps aggravating it. A shot, like the one Crisp was given after last Sunday's game, can help ease the pain, but there's no miracle cure.

"I'm cognizant of what I need to do with him," said Melvin. "He's just coming back. I'm not going to have him out there five days in a row. I'm going to be careful with Coco. I want to make sure he's healthy."

In winning back-to-back AL West titles, the A's are a combined 190-134 the last two regular seasons. They were 146-92 -- a .613 winning percentage -- with Crisp in the lineup, and 44-42 -- a .512 winning percentage -- without him.

That's why general manager Billy Beane, in putting together an offseason plan to ensure the nucleus of the A's will stay together for the next three seasons, offered Crisp a two-year $22.75 million extension. Toss in his $7.5 million for this year, and it assures Crisp of making $30.25 million by the end of the 2016 season, when he will have a vesting option for '17 based on plate appearances.

With the impact Crisp has had on Oakland's lineup, he most likely could have demanded a better package if he waited to test free agency, but Crisp likes being with the A's as much as the A's like being with him.

That's nothing against his previous teams.

"I've been blessed," said Crisp.

He broke in with Cleveland, learning the big league game from a veteran nucleus of players. Then he went to Boston and was part of the 2004 team that erased the "Curse of the Bambino" by giving the Red Sox their first championship since 1918. There was a forgettable 2009 in Kansas City, "which was not because of the people there -- I was injured," Crisp said.

Then he arrived in Oakland in 2010.

He is in no hurry to leave.

"I like it here," said Crisp. "I enjoy it. There are a lot of positive things in my decision [to sign the extension]."

And the A's like having Crisp around, too.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for
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