Surprising A's hope to carry late season magic into ALDS vs. Tigers

Raise your hand if you had the Oakland Athletics reaching the postseason this year, let alone entering the playoffs as American League West champions.

But after one of the great comebacks of all time, that is exactly how they will enter these playoffs on Saturday when the A's play Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the AL Central-champion Detroit Tigers.

Although the A's finished six games better than the Tigers, given the new format, they will play the first two games of this best-of-five set at Comerica Park, then return for the final three at the Coliseum.

Nobody seems to be complaining in Oakland at the moment.

After a three-game sweep at the hands of Texas from June 28-30, the A's found themselves 13 games back in the division and five games under .500. Oakland went an MLB-best 57-27 after that series and capped the turnaround with a thrilling three-game sweep of the Rangers to secure their first division title and playoff berth since 2006 on the final day of the regular season.

"We're in the postseason now and the slate is clean," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "We have to go out there and play with the same intensity. Just because we're in this position right now doesn't mean you deem this a complete success. We have a lot more work to do."

Despite being shut out 16 times, the A's won 11 of 16 extra-inning games, posted 43 come-from-behind victories, and were the only team to post more walk-off wins (14) than the Tigers.

"I don't think anybody would want to play us," outfielder Josh Reddick said. "I don't think we're going to be underestimated as much as we have all year now, that's for sure."

Offensively, the A's batted just .238 on the year, but belted 194 home runs, including a major league-best 112 after the All-Star break. Reddick led the team with 32 home runs and 85 RBI, while Cuban rookie Yoenis Cespedes paced the club with a .292 average.

The team also got contributions from Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss and Seth Smith, as well as late-season addition Stephen Drew. Smith could be a factor in this series, as he hit .417 with two home runs against the Tigers this year.

As many home runs as the A's hit, though, what really drives them is their pitching staff, most notably right-hander Jarrod Parker, one of the players acquired last winter for former ace Trevor Cahill.

Parker, who will start on Saturday, flashed ace stuff throughout the season, as he went 13-8 and led the team with a 3.47 ERA and 140 strikeouts. He also closed the season strong, winning his last four and six of his last seven decisions.

Lefty Tom Milone, also picked up this winter from Washington for lefty Gio Gonzalez, was tremendous for the team as well and went 13-10 with a 3.74 ERA.

Both he and Parker set an Oakland record for most victories by a rookie.

"We've had big games as a group and we've had huge situations as a group, and it's something where you just try to slow it down," Parker said. "And we lean on each other to do that ... just be able to come together, and we know we have each other's back and we've done it all year. So I think just settling in and trying to slow the situation down is about the only way I can really describe it."

The wild card here for the A's could be lefty Brett Anderson, who missed most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, he returned and finished 4-2 with a 2.57 ERA in six starts before suffering an oblique injury. He is expected to be ready for this series, though, and should give the A's a huge lift.

Grant Balfour, 35, is the team's closer and saved 24 games and pitched to a 2.53 ERA this season. The veteran righty is backed up by a pair of youngsters in Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle and collectively the trio might be the best relieving corps in the American League at the moment.

Balfour has gone 10 straight appearances without giving up a run, while Cook hasn't allowed someone to score in his last 14 trips to the mound.

But Doolittle, who was a first baseman just five years ago and had one inning of game experience entering this season, might be the best of the bunch. The hard-throwing lefty heads into the postseason with a 60/11 K/BB ratio and a 3.04 ERA in 47 1/3 innings.

"I mean, I can't explain it. How can you explain it? I tell you what, though, Bob Melvin, 17 rookies, Yoenis Cespedes coming over, first time on U.S. soil. Josh Reddick getting an opportunity. Sean Doolittle pitching his first season of professional ball. ... Where do we start?" A's outfielder Johnny Gomes said on XM Radio's "Home Plate" show. "There's one thing that we all have in common, and that's camaraderie. You take fun away from this team, and I don't know what we got. We're playing for fun, we're playing for stuff like this. It's unbelievable."

While Oakland is one of the surprise teams to join this year's postseason party, Detroit was picked by almost everyone at the start of the season to repeat as AL Central champions. In the end the Tigers proved those predictions right, but it was far from easy for Jim Leyland's crew, despite the amazing heroics of Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers, who own the worst record of any AL postseason team at 88-74, underachieved for the first half of the season and spent most of the second half trying to catch the Chicago White Sox, which they finally did on Sept. 25 thanks in part to a monster month from Cabrera, who became baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.

With a batting average of .330 along with 44 home runs and 139 RBI, he led the American League in all three categories and finished tops in both leagues in homers and RBI. It's the 14th time in major league history that a player has accomplished the feat.

The 29-year-old Cabrera set career highs in homers and RBI and had the second- best batting average of his career, trailing his .344 mark from the 2011 season.

"It's great for the game of baseball," teammate Justin Verlander said. "It's something extremely special, something you haven't seen in a long time. Most people here weren't alive when it happened last time and probably won't be alive next time it happens.

"Unless it's him again."

He was at his best down the stretch and capped his terrific campaign by hitting .333 with 11 HRs and 30 RBI since the start of September.

Cabrera isn't the only masher in the Tigers' lineup. He moved over to third base this year to accommodate free agent signee Prince Fielder, who enjoyed his first year in Motown by hitting .313 with 30 home runs and 108 RBI.

Even with those two, though, the Tigers still hit 32 less home runs than the unheralded A's.

While Detroit's Dynamic Duo steals most of the headlines, the reason the Tigers could go far this postseason will be their starting pitching.

Verlander, who will get the start on Saturday, had another Cy Young Award- caliber season, going 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and an AL-best 239 strikeouts.

"I want to win a World Series. I don't care what I do," Verlander recently said. "I think, obviously, I want to be a big part if we do win the World Series, but I don't care if I give up five if we score six and win. Who cares? If we score two, I'd like to give up zero."

Verlander gave up two earned runs over 28 innings in his final four starts to the regular season, including six scoreless innings on five hits with five strikeouts on Sept. 19 against these same A's at Comerica Park. He's 7-5 lifetime versus the A's with a 2.38 ERA.

Detroit won four of its seven matchups with the A's, most recently taking two of three from them in mid-September, and outscored them 18-4 in winning the first two games.

In that series, the A's couldn't contain Cabrera, who had five hits in 11 at- bats against them, including three home runs. Overall, the Tigers' third baseman is batting .483 against the A's this season, his best mark vs. any club not named the Orioles (.500).

These teams have met twice in the postseason, but this will be the first meeting since the Tigers defeated Oakland in the 2006 ALCS. The A's beat the Tigers in five games of the 1972 ALCS which started a run of three consecutive world titles.