By Matt Kawahara, The Sacramento Bee –
OAKLAND, Calif. — By the eighth inning, the Athletics had all gathered along their dugout step, where they perched, waiting, until Michael Young’s lazy fly ball settled into Coco Crisp’s glove in center field.
Then they poured onto the field, suddenly occupying a standing that had eluded them until the final out of Game 162.
All alone at the top.
The A’s are the American League West champions after they beat the Texas Rangers, 12-5, on Wednesday afternoon to finish a three-game sweep and a furious late push that allowed them to overtake the Rangers in the division on the season’s final day.
On June 30, the Athletics were five games under .500 and 13 games behind the Rangers. They finished 94-68 to go into the playoffs as the No. 2 AL seed, and they will play the Detroit Tigers in the first round.
Game 1 is Saturday in Detroit.
“It’s where you finish, not where you start,” said first baseman Brandon Moss as the A’s popped champagne for the second time in three days. “We fought all season, different guys have been here and done good things, and you know what, we played to our ability.
“People say this is a miraculous season or a Cinderella season. I really feel like with the pitching we have and the type of hitters we have that all we’re doing is playing to our ability. I don’t believe that anybody’s having a magical season. I really don’t.”
Five games behind Texas on Sept. 24, the A’s won eight of their last nine to become the first team in major league history to win a division or pennant after facing a deficit of five or more games with fewer than 10 remaining.
They occupied first place in the West for all of one day – the last one.
“If ever there’s a good day to do that,” manager Bob Melvin quipped, “it’s today.”
The A’s turned away a Rangers team that needed just one win in Oakland to secure its third consecutive division title, and did so Wednesday by – what else – coming from behind.
After Texas batted around in the third inning to go ahead 5-1, the A’s followed suit in the fourth to take a 7-5 lead they would not relinquish.
“It’s kind of like the story of our whole season,” said Sean Doolittle, the converted first baseman who this year became the A’s top left-handed reliever. “We’ve had injuries, we’ve had young guys stepping up, we’ve had a lot of guys coming up and down and we were never out of it.
“It was that same feeling from all the walk-offs. It wasn’t if we were going to do it. It was how and when we were going to do it.”
For Oakland, the contributions were numerous.
After starter A.J. Griffin departed in the third inning having allowed five runs, reliever Evan Scribner applied a tourniquet for three scoreless innings while the A’s staged their rally. Melvin applauded while walking to the mound in the sixth to remove Scribner.
“There was no bigger contributor in that game today,” Melvin said.
Moss got the A’s on the board with a first-inning double, started the fourth-inning rally with a leadoff walk and drove in three runs. Crisp sliced a two-out, two-run double to right that tied the score 5-5 in the fourth.
Catcher Derek Norris, who was in Double A last year, replaced George Kottaras in the fourth and had an RBI single and solo home run. Josh Donaldson, the catcher-turned-third baseman, singled twice and scored twice and made a nifty sliding play to rob Geovany Soto of a hit in the fifth.
Doolittle blew a fastball past Josh Hamilton to finish a scoreless eighth and a rough series for Hamilton, who was 2 for 13 with six strikeouts and made a key error Wednesday, dropping a routine fly ball that allowed the A’s their final two runs in the fourth.
Grant Balfour, who Tuesday night had all but guaranteed a win, retired the Rangers in order in the ninth to seal it. Though he’d pitched in the past four games, Balfour ignored Melvin’s suggestion to stop warming up with the A’s padding their lead in the eighth.
“I wanted the ball,” Balfour explained. “I went to bed last night and dreamed about being on the mound and jumping up and down and watching everyone run out of that dugout.”
An announced sellout crowd of 36,067 whooped as the A’s mobbed each other near second base, maybe 100 feet from where Monday they celebrated their first playoff berth in six years.
“All you’ve got to do is get in,” said outfielder Jonny Gomes. “That’s it. You don’t have to be the best team. You have to be the hottest team.”
The A’s made up ground in the second half with the best record in baseball after the All-Star break (51-25) and after June 2 (72-38), the day they snapped a season-long nine-game losing streak. And when the marathon became a sprint to the finish, they swept their last six-game homestand.