OAKLAND -- Some clubhouse prankster recently plastered a few signs around the A's clubhouse. The one-page printout warns young players: "Please limit your AAA stories to '1' per day per person. Not all of us have been lucky enough to be there this year."
It seems the A's veterans -- yes, the A's have veterans -- have had it up to here with tales about the Salt Lake Bees and Reno Aces.
After all, a real-live pennant race awaits.
The A's open a seven-game trip Friday in position for an American League wild-card spot. Even after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels, the team bursting with recent Sacramento River Cats has only one victory fewer than the New York Yankees and their $200 million payroll.
Raise your hand if you saw this coming.
Let's see, that would be . . . just you, Jonny Gomes.
"We can shock the world," he said in January shortly after signing with the A's.
Reminded this week about his preseason prognostication, Gomes smiled and nodded. The outfielder (and, ahem, veteran clubhouse prankster) said he recognized from the moment he signed that the A's had the same ingredients as his 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, a team that rebounded from a 96-loss season to reach the World Series.
"That Tampa Bay experience changed me forever, and what I saw here is the same thing I saw then," Gomes said. "We were picked for last. We weren't supposed to be able to keep up with the $200 million payrolls. Crappy
Instead, the A's (as well as this year's Orioles) have a chance to rank among the most surprising playoff teams since the start of divisional play, a short list that includes the '69 Mets, '91 Twins, '91 Braves and '08 Rays.
Even for a franchise known as a plucky underdog, this season is a shocker: The A's had a major-league low $52.8 million opening-day payroll after trading away All-Star pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey.
Raise your hand if you saw last place coming.
Let's see, that would be . . . just about everyone. Here's how some major publications predicted the A's would finish in the American League West.
Baseball America: Last.
The Sporting News: Last.
Baseball Prospectus: Last.
Athlon Sports: Last
The Washington Post: "A warm, comfy spot in the cellar."
In fairness, the A's place among baseball's 2012 elite still eludes logic. It's not as if everything has gone right. In fact, much has gone wrong.
With a .236 batting average, the A's currently match the worst mark in Oakland history, set in 1982. The A's also strike out more than any team in the majors. Their 1,139 whiffs rank as the fourth-worst total in franchise history -- with about three weeks to play.
Oakland's opening day infield featured three players who would be demoted to Triple-A -- first baseman Brandon Allen, second baseman Jemile Weeks and third baseman Eric Sogard -- and a shortstop who has since switched positions (Cliff Pennington, now at second).
Their opening day catcher Kurt Suzuki hit only .218 with one home run before being traded. Their spinning dial at first base landed on Allen, Daric Barton and Kila Ka'aihue before settling on a platoon of Brandon Moss and Chris Carter -- two players who opened the season collecting their once-a-day stories at Triple A.
Still, the A's somehow have a major-league leading 75 home runs since the All-Star break. They recently outscored opponents 60-16 during a six-game span, matching a feat they had accomplished before -- in 1902.
This isn't "Moneyball." This is "Fantasia."
"The chemistry here is great. These guys play hard and they play for each other," said Stephen Drew, the shortstop acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 20. "To be honest, I didn't pay much attention to the A's, aside from what I'd see on ESPN highlights, but this is a fun team be a part of."
The A's pitching, of course, is keeping them afloat, but the numbers are a surprise even by Oakland standards. The 3.45 ERA is lower than anything during The Big Three era of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson.
To find the last time the A's finished with a lower ERA, you have to reach back all the way to the 1990 staff led by Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley (a 3.18 ERA and an A.L. pennant.)
The A's are doing this with an improbably youthful rotation. If Dan Straily replaces the injured Brandon McCarthy, the A's starter with the most career wins becomes Brett Anderson (24). Still, each new arm looks polished: The A's have allowed the fewest home runs in the league and rank second in opponent batting average (.243), on-base percentage (.304) and slugging percentage (.372).
Asked about the A's surprising dominance on the mound, rookie A.J. Griffin answered with a tone of annoyance.
—'Surprising?' '' he said, repeating the question and letting the word linger like an expletive. "We come to the park every day expecting to win. You don't come to the ballpark expecting to lose."
Griffin fiddled with a few items in his locker.
"Maybe that's why we win so much."
It sounds as if Gomes is teaching these kids well.
Contact Daniel Brown at email@example.com