TORONTO -- The A's are the majors' hottest team thanks to a revolving cast of players sparking victories, but there's no doubt left fielder Yoenis Cespedes holds the biggest individual key for them down the stretch.
As Cespedes goes, so go the A's. They are 39-24 when their rookie cleanup man is healthy enough to be in the lineup, and 12-20 when he isn't.
The team's amazing stretch of walk-off victories has overshadowed Cespedes' torrid streak at the plate, but consider the numbers. He's hitting .500 (18 for 36) since the All-Star break, tops among major league regulars entering Monday's play.
He has four homers and nine RBIs in nine games during that stretch -- during which the A's are 8-1 -- and has lifted his season average to .299.
Cespedes' 13 homers rank second on the A's, and his 45 RBIs are one behind team leader Josh Reddick, despite Cespedes playing in 29 fewer games because of injuries.
The Cuban had a reputation for power when he signed a four-year, $36 million contract in spring training. But as the season progresses, Cespedes is becoming a more well-rounded hitter.
He still swings so violently that your back hurts just watching him on TV. But Cespedes also is spraying the ball to all fields. No longer does a two-strike count automatically mean a 'K' in the score book.
"The recent streak has been pretty sensational," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "He's hitting the ball up the middle, hitting the ball
His on-field adjustment is only part of the story. Cespedes, 26, defected from Cuba with family members last summer and established residency in the Dominican Republic before coming to the United States.
He is acclimating to American culture while simultaneously adjusting to the major leagues. Teammates have been impressed with his determination to learn English, and Cespedes wants to conduct a full interview in English before the season ends.
He has benefited from having a full-time interpreter in Ariel Prieto, a former A's pitcher who defected from Cuba in 1994. They share a place in Point Richmond.
"It was more important for him to make adjustments outside the clubhouse, because (in) here, he feels it's family," Prieto said. "He's made adjustments with being on time, coming early to work in the cage before the game starts, and to prepare mentally and physically."
The A's entered Monday tied with the Orioles for the A.L.'s second wild-card spot. As the A's take aim at their first postseason berth since 2006, a key is whether Cespedes can stay in the lineup.
He missed 22 games in May with a strained muscle in his left hand, and a strained left hamstring in mid-June sidelined him for nine more. He was relegated to D.H. duty recently when he sprained his right thumb.
There's also the question of how Cespedes will hold up over 162 games, considering he played a 90-game regular season in the Cuban National Series.
Cespedes indicated how much he needed the All-Star break to let his body recuperate.
"It was important for me to get those three or four days of rest," Cespedes said through Prieto. "I feel a lot better right now because I got that layoff."
He's the most dangerous power hitter in a lineup that relies greatly on the long ball. The A's are hitting a major-league-worst .228, but they have compensated with 101 homers in 95 games. They had just 51 at the same point last season.
Although Cespedes' impact is obvious on the field, he recently provided some comic relief off it. Teammate Dallas Braden uncovered a video of Cespedes dancing in the clubhouse while he was with the Cuban national team, and that footage was displayed on the Oakland Coliseum Jumbotron as the A's took batting practice on their last homestand.
Players howled in delight, and such moments help Cespedes fit in.
"It's tough to have a conversation, but it's fun figuring out what we're trying to say," A's outfielder Seth Smith said. "It's not like he's on an island. We let him in. He lets us in."
The A's are 39-24 with Yoenis Cespedes in the lineup and only 12-20 in his absence. And since the All-Star break, Cespedes has gotten only better:
Before break After break
.263 Batting average .500
9 Home runs 4
36 RBIs 9
19 Runs 9
16 Walks 2
48 Strikeouts 5
54 Games 9
Source: MLB.com	 Photo: Getty Images