A’s chase another division title

The Oakland Athletics know that few will give them a chance to

repeat in a division featuring sluggers Albert Pujols, Josh

Hamilton and Mike Trout making up a loaded lineup for the Los

Angeles Angels.

Even with almost the same A’s roster that pulled off an

improbable late-season rally to stun the Texas Rangers on the

season’s final day last fall.

No problem. They’re plenty used to being overlooked in the East

Bay, already second fiddle to the World Series champion San

Francisco Giants.

Yet the A’s showed last October there’s something special

happening in Oakland, in spite of a roster once made up of

little-known players built with the lowest payroll in baseball.

Despite a run-down, often-empty ballpark they share with the NFL’s

Raiders.

”This year is a little bit easier in the fact we have a lot of

guys that have played together,” manager Bob Melvin said. ”Last

year in camp we were trying to get guys just to know each other.

It’s a group that showed last year that they get along really well

and are comfortable around each other.”

So much so this scrappy group pulled off a majors-best 14

walkoff wins and celebrated with all those whipped-cream pie

celebrations. It made new catcher John Jaso want to be a part of

the fun when he was in the other dugout with the Mariners.

The A’s will get their first test Monday night against Seattle

and ace Felix Hernandez.

Oakland’s rotation had five rookies at the end of last season,

and they all have far more experience going into 2013.

”We’re all just confident in the type of pitchers we are. We

try to be our own person, but together we have the same goal,”

Tommy Milone said. ”We go out to compete. We have a friendly

competition among ourselves that we’re always trying to out do each

other. It works from start to start. It makes for a more fun

season.”

These A’s had all kinds of fun in 2012.

The club made major league history when it rallied to steal the

division title from the Rangers, becoming the first team to capture

a division or pennant after trailing by five games with fewer than

10 to play. Oakland then pushed Detroit to a deciding Game 5 in the

AL division series before losing to Justin Verlander for the second

time in the series.

Melvin earned AL Manager of the Year honors for what he

accomplished in his first full season as A’s skipper.

”We want to continue playing the caliber of baseball we played

last year,” pitcher A.J. Griffin said.

Gold Glove right fielder Josh Reddick is sporting a bushy,

overgrown beard that could serve as quite a distraction for those

in the visiting dugout.

”He looks like Rip Van Winkle,” quipped Jaso.

Whatever works around here.

”We’re the A’s, for crying out loud. We’ve got a little history

with that,” Melvin said of the facial hair tradition dating to the

days of Rollie Fingers. ”He worked hard on it.”

Oakland added center fielder Chris Young to join Reddick, Yoenis

Cespedes and Coco Crisp in a deep outfield.

The A’s re-signed closer Grant Balfour and even brought back

Bartolo Colon after his 50-game suspension last August for a

positive testosterone test. Colon still has five games remaining on

the penalty to be served at the start of this year.

Melvin expects no problems from Colon, who became a quiet

clubhouse leader last season before the suspension.

”He fit in very well here before and I see that being the same

case,” Melvin said. ”I don’t see any problems there.”

Melvin joked about his depth in the infield and outfield and the

challenges of getting everybody in the lineup.

”As far as formulas and so forth going into the season, it

could be as easy as who shows up first to the ballpark, who comes

bearing gifts,” the skipper joked. ”And along those lines. We’ll

figure it out. … I think it’s finding the formula during the

season to find everybody the proper amount of playing time will be

the trick.”

The A’s won 94 games last season with a payroll of just $59.5

million.

Oakland’s free-swinging lineup hit 195 home runs last year

before striking out 50 times against the Tigers.

Everybody is counting on continuity and added experience being

an advantage now.

That includes having Brett Anderson healthy from the start. He

is fully recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery and will take the

ball opening day. Pat Neshek is back on the mound for a new season

after his newborn son, Gehrig, died 23 hours after his birth just

before the playoffs.

With everything these A’s went through last year, Melvin knows

that has made this group tougher.

”We’ve had a lot of guys who have had success here, and they’ll

lead the way in how we go about our business out there on the

field,” Melvin said. ”We’ll just go about our business the same

way we did last year and prepare very hard.”

AP freelance writer Rick Eymer contributed to this report.