Agostini: Plenty of fight left in these A's

ragostini@modbee.comOctober 5, 2013 

— OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics resemble the strong-muscled serf who's the talk of the castle.

His armor is rusty, his clothes muddy, and he's rejected by the bluebloods. So why is the working class cheering while the fair princess makes eyes at him?

Because he's much better than his pedigree.

Here come the A's again, and even the lord of the manor wonders how this shaggy-haired underling does it. The Detroit Tigers again brought their superstars and, goodness, aren't they all? Miguel Cabrera. Prince Fielder. Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander, who muzzled the A's bats a year ago, takes the hill tonight.

The A's? They've got Josh Donaldson, an MVP-caliber third baseman known on the East Coast only to a few fantasy league gurus. They've got Yoenis Cespedes, still a phenom from the sandlots of the Dominican. They've even got a scientist from the horticulture lab (Eric Sogard).

Just kidding on Sogard, but he does fit the part with those glasses.

Yes, these A's are that upstart creating a fuss up and down the realm. Baseball still shakes its collective heads about this team. But make no mistake. The A's, all dull swords and worn boots, can go Braveheart on you on any pitch.

The Tigers understand. They scrambled to make three first-inning runs hold up for a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series. The exhale from the Tigers, seconds after Joaquin Benoit struck out the side in the ninth, nearly matched the sudden silence of a raucous 48,401, the Coliseum's biggest crowd in nine years.

The Tigers, who survived the divisional series in five over Oakland a year ago, out-hit the A's 10-3. They collected all the runs they needed in Bartolo Colon's first 15 pitches. Sixteen A's carried their bats back to the dugout. Scherzer, ramping up to 98 mph as early as the second inning to keep the A's off the scoreboard, looked every bit the part of a 21-game winner.

"They can get me and I can get them," Scherzer said. "With the A's, you have to bring your A-game. ... You go on your instincts. My fastball and changeup seemed pretty good. That's why I got in a groove and pitched deep into the game."

So why did the A's still draw flopsweat on the forehead of Detroit manager Jim Leyland?

It's tempting to think of the A's as those Moneyball darlings, the low-budget creation of General Manager Billy Beane. Once again, the numbers point to a mismatch. The A's payroll of $61.9 million, fourth-lowest in Major League Baseball, pales next to Detroit's $148.9 million, fifth-most.

Lew Wolff, the A's owner, has tried to transplant the franchise to every Bay Area address except Alcatraz. The A's reside in a falling-apart ballpark infamous for sewage spewing into dugouts and coaches' offices.

Disregard the venue, however, and focus on that odd collection of undervalued veterans and promising youngsters. They'll take pitch after pitch and then send a ball 420 feet. They pounded 186 home runs this season — 74 in their last 49 regular-season games — third-best in baseball. Cespedes' 2-run shot in the seventh nearly knocked down the underpinnings of Mt. Davis.

Such offense is why Oakland has swept past some fat bankrolls to win the AL West the last two years. The A's are overlooked on the baseball landscape because experts inspect their tawdry surroundings and tight budget and downplay the guys on the field and top-tier manager Bob Melvin.

"He (Scherzer) has a gap between his fastball and his two off-speed pitches," Melvin said. "If you don't see him that often, his fastball gets on you a little quicker because of his velocity."

The A's must set aside their Verlander memories of 2012 to respond tonight. Their ally is sunrise. Momentum changes swiftly, sometimes on a single pitch, in a five-game series. They might be the only people who think they're not the underdogs.

And how can you not like that green-wearing serf still beating on the castle gate?

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.

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