ARLINGTON, Texas – A rotating cast of heroes has defined the A’s this season. On Sunday, the spotlight found left-hander Tommy Milone.
All he did in Oakland's 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers was pitch five innings of one-run ball, and that came with about 45 minutes of notice that he would even be starting.
But that, in a nutshell, is the 2013 edition of the Oakland A’s. On any given day it’s bound to be someone different stepping up to fill a big need.
The only thing that stays the same is the winning.
The A’s capped off a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers, pushing their American League West lead to 6 ½ games with 13 left to play.
If the A’s haven’t wrapped up the division title at this point, they can at least get a pretty strong whiff of the champagne. Not only are they firing on all cylinders, but the second-place Rangers have lost six straight and don’t exactly have the look of a team equipped to make a charge.
Not that A’s manager Bob Melvin would have any of that. Asked how he viewed the final two weeks of the regular season that lay ahead, he refused to entertain the notion that his team has a stronghold on another division crown.
“I don’t look at ‘em at all except for tomorrow,” Melvin said somewhat sternly. “We were five back with nine to play last year” and still won the division.
Then someone pointed out that, unlike the 2012 A’s, the Rangers don’t have the luxury of playing Oakland in the closing days of the regular season to try to catch them.
“Well, I don’t look at it that way,” Melvin countered. “You don’t count anybody out until they’re out.”
That viewpoint doesn’t always make for fantastic quotes, but his players seem to be buying into it. Rather than take their foot off the pedal, they’ve kept accelerating to the tune of 16 victories in their past 20 games.
Not that there isn’t any reason for worry.
Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes was a late scratch Sunday with a sore right shoulder, and he’s scheduled to have an MRI on Monday in the Bay Area. This potential setback comes at a horrible time considering that Cespedes has found an offensive groove, hitting .373 with 13 RBI in 13 games this month.
Melvin was asked whether he was worried this injury might sideline Cespedes long-term.
“I cross my fingers. I hope not,” Melvin said. “Hopefully we can use him in the DH role, even if we have to minimize that. He’s a pretty important guy to us.”
Shortstop Jed Lowrie, the team’s No. 3 hitter, left the game in the eighth inning with tightness in his hamstring. Melvin sounded less concerned about that, but everyone knows how important Lowrie has been to this club also.
But that brings us back to players such as Milone.
The A’s have found people to step in and fill holes when needed. Jarrod Parker, the scheduled starter Sunday, fell ill Sunday morning and couldn’t pitch. Milone, who had made just one appearance (in relief) since coming back from the minors, stepped in and made good use of the early lead the A’s gave him.
The lefty struck out five and walked one over five innings, stranding six runners and notching his first career victory against Texas in six starts.
Milone (11-9) got confirmation he would be starting less than an hour before first pitch.
“I wanted to step up and help the team out,” Milone said. “I felt like I was able to do that today.”
“It’s quite a luxury to have a guy that’s proven he can do it in the past,” Lowrie said.
Lefty reliever Sean Doolittle is another example of the right player stepping up at the right time. Right-handed setup man Ryan Cook has hit a rough patch, and when he put two runners aboard in the seventh with two out, Melvin quickly went for Doolittle to protect what was then a 3-1 lead.
Doolittle coaxed A.J. Pierzynski into an inning-ending pop out for what Melvin called the biggest out of the game.
The A’s are a team filled with many interchangeable parts, and they’ve all found a way to contribute. That approach has led Oakland to its 88-61 record. The A’s appear to have long since converted any doubters who didn’t think they could back up last season’s surprising division title.
But Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson was asked if he thought this weekend’s sweep of Texas was a statement series.
“You can call it whatever you wanna call it,” Donaldson said. “We came in and won the games.”