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Bottom's Up!

Mired in last place two months ago, the youthful A's have turned up their intensity, gone on a 40-14 tear and moved into the playoff picture

It's two hours until baseball's nonwaiver trade deadline, and Billy Beane sits in the manager's office at Oakland's McAfee Coliseum, sipping a cup of coffee. Dressed in a yellow flowered shirt, khaki shorts and sandals on this cloudless Sunday morning, the famously high-strung A's general manager wears the serene look of a man on vacation.

"It's been a quiet week for us, which is very unusual around here this time of year," says Beane, who would let the deadline pass without orchestrating the sort of bold deal for which he has become known. "It's not a particularly fertile market for buyers. But you know what? I'm very happy with this team as it is."

Two months ago the A's, who over the winter jettisoned aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder in controversial trades, were owners of baseball's third-worst record (17-32). Since June 1, though, Oakland has the best mark in the majors (40--14 through Sunday), and the A's are bidding to become the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to reach the postseason after being 15 games below .500. With a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers last weekend, Oakland opened a 1 1/2-game lead in the American League wild-card race and inched to within 1 1/2 games of the AL West--leading Los Angeles Angels.

Beane's rebuilt team is young, with three regulars and three starters age 25 or under and a clubhouse as loose as a frat house. Ace pitcher Rich Harden, 23, can be seen playing Street Fighter on a full-sized arcade machine an hour before each of his starts. But some of the young A's were not bearing down enough early in the season. Oakland's players say the team bottomed out in early June, when the A's dropped three straight in Washington and fell to 23-36. As the team bus pulled away from RFK Stadium after the series finale, normally mellow third baseman Eric Chavez, who broke in with Oakland in 1998 and is the team's longest-tenured player, stood and unleashed a 15-minute tirade. "I was sick of getting our butts kicked," Chavez says. "There are a lot of young guys who just seemed happy to be here, and the losing didn't sting them as much as it should. I told them that how we were playing was unacceptable."

Says rookie righthander Joe Blanton, "Chavy's speech opened our eyes. We started to feel a real sense of urgency, and a bunch of us younger guys were like, 'O.K., let's pick it up.'"

At week's end it had been a quartet of rookies--Blanton (5-1 with a 2.06 ERA in June), closer Huston Street (nine saves in 11 chances and an 0.77 ERA since June 1), rightfielder Nick Swisher (12 homers and 40 RBIs since June 1) and first baseman Dan Johnson (.364 average and a .438 on-base percentage in July)--who had fueled the A's resurrection. "We've all gotten more comfortable as the season has gone on," says Swisher, 24, "but I think some of us are still a little in awe that we're here." No kidding. When Swisher singled against the Orioles in an April game, he stared at the Baltimore first baseman and whispered to coach Brad Fischer, "Hey, that's Rafael Palmeiro."

Though the Big Three of Hudson (to Atlanta), Mulder (to St. Louis) and Barry Zito was disbanded this winter, pitching is still king in the East Bay. The lefty Zito, 27, and righty Harden make Oakland a potential playoff force. Thanks to a slider that he added to his repertoire in early April, Zito (10-8, 3.72 ERA) is approaching the form that won him a Cy Young Award in 2002. Harden (9-4, 2.53), who missed a month with a strained left oblique muscle, has become one of the game's most intimidating starters in just his second full big league season.

Two weeks ago the pair, whose lockers are next to each other, offered a devastating preview of how they could take over a postseason series: On July 14 against the Rangers, Harden took a perfect game into the eighth inning and finished with a two-hit shutout; the following night Zito took a no-hitter into the eighth of another win over Texas. Says one AL team executive, "I wouldn't want to face those two in a short series. Right now that's the scariest pair [of starters] of all the playoff contenders in this league."

In Beane's assessment, Harden has "reached a level where I consider him to be among the best [in baseball]." Since coming off the disabled list on June 21, he had gone 7--1 with a 2.29 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 51 innings. A native of Victoria, B.C., who played hockey growing up--he unwinds in the clubhouse after starts by slapping around a tape ball with a hockey stick--Harden says he's throwing with better command after strengthening his legs in the off-season by running sprints three days a week. "I feel stronger than ever," says Harden, who was 11--7 with a 3.99 ERA last season. "My legs are pushing off the mound more consistently, and that's improved my mechanics, which have always been my main problem."

Last season Harden was clocked above 95 mph more often than any other pitcher in the majors, and the movement on his pitches is scary. "He's got that 99-mph fastball, but he's also got three other pitches [slider, splitter and changeup] that he can locate so well," says Oakland catcher Jason Kendall. "Watching him pitch, you have to remind yourself that he's still just a baby."

That these young A's are within striking distance of first place is a surprise even to the players themselves. Chavez says that before the season he thought that without Hudson and Mulder, Oakland "would probably be around a .500 team."

After Sunday's win he revised his expectations. "We're not even thinking about the wild card right now," Chavez said. "We know we can catch the Angels. It's going to be a fun couple of months."


Photograph by Robert Beck


 Stronger legs and improved mechanics have helped the 23-year-old Harden get the most out of his electric repertoire.




One teammate lit into young A's like Harden (left) and Bobby Crosby for being too laid back in the early going.