Rounding Third: A's don't appear to be going anywhere

The American League West figured to be a two-team race this season. But, just like last year, nobody figured the Oakland Athletics would be the team crashing the party.

After being .500 or worse for five straight seasons, the Athletics stunned the baseball world last year by winning their final six games to unseat the Texas Rangers as division champions.

Yet, nobody really gave them much of a chance to do it again. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who picked the A's to return to the playoffs, let alone capture another division title.

With the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signing Josh Hamilton and Texas again figuring to be in the mix, most people overlooked the A's. And who could blame them? Go ahead and try to name three people in Oakland's lineup.

A lineup, by the way, that hit a whopping .238 last season with more strikeouts than any other team in the American League.

If there was one playoff team from a year ago that could have been lumped into the fluke pile, it was the A's. But here we are on June 14 and Bob Melvin's cast of bearded misfits are sitting atop the AL West standings.

With wins in 21 of their last 26 games, including a remarkable 11 in a row at home, the A's hold a two-game edge on the Rangers, while the team everyone thought would be at the top - the Angels - sit 12 games back.

The knock on the A's has been that they feast on the lesser teams and struggle against the better teams in the AL. But as Fangraphs pointed out on Thursday, they are at least 10 games better than the likes of the Rangers, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the last calendar year.

And the Angels? Well, their 84 victories are only 25 games back of the 109 Oakland has racked up.

It may not have been the statement series Oakland would have liked considering the lineup the Yankees ran out there, but the A's were rather impressive in sweeping the New York Yankees this week. Yes, Thursday's 3-2, 18-inning win wasn't exactly an offensive showcase, but it highlighted some of the team's other strengths.

Take the pitching staff, for example, which held New York off the scoreboard for the final 17 innings, specifically reliever Jesse Chavez, who picked up the win on Thursday after giving up just one hit in 5 2/3 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts.

Actually, he was the first reliever to have that stat line since 2001.

"I knew I was going to be in it for the long haul," Chavez said. "I was going to tell Bob I wanted to go until we scored. I knew we didn't have anyone else. I didn't want to burn one of our starters."

Oakland's 2.89 bullpen ERA is the third-best in baseball and second in the AL only to Kansas City, whose relievers are throwing to a 2.73 clip. The pitching staff in general has been terrific, especially of late, as evident of the starters' 2.52 ERA in the last 26 games.

The A's still struggle at the plate. It may not be as pronounced as it was a year ago, as they are only hitting .246, but their .328 on-base-percentage is among the league leaders.

So for all of you who had the A's as a one-hit wonder ... think again. They appear to be here to stay.