Athletics chasing another West title

OAKLAND, Calif. — 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."

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