After entering August with several factors pointing to a clear-path division title, a second consecutive postseason appearance and utter proof that they belong among baseball's elite, the A's suddenly appear to be lost in a trance.

Oakland is good, yes, but not nearly good enough to spend the dog days whimpering like depressed mutts.

Now, right now, is the time for manager Bob Melvin to pull flame from his pocket.

The final third of any season, the last 54 games, is the toughest for any team and the A's begin that stretch 1-4 after Reds closer Aroldis Chapman fired a 103 mph fastball past Jed Lowrie to record the last out Wednesday in Cincinnati, leaving the A's to digest a 6-5 defeat.

That was Oakland's third loss in a row and its sixth in the past seven games -- and the first time in 12 weeks the defending A.L. West champs have lost three consecutive series.

Meanwhile, Texas, which was six games back on July 30, has moved into a virtual tie with the A's atop the A.L. West.

The most discouraging individual development for the A's and their fans, though, would have to be Bartolo Colon's short stint on the mound. The undisputed ace, the rock of the pitching staff, was pounded out of the game after 22/3 innings. The best control pitcher on the staff had so little command he walked Reds starter Homer Bailey.

It was Colon's third consecutive unimpressive start, a troubling trend for a portly 40-year-old with a rebuilt pitching arm -- and at least some history of using performance-enhancing drugs -- trying to battle midsummer heat.

Moreover, Colon's abbreviated day continued the recent trend of sub-mediocre starting pitching for the A's. A.J. Griffin is giving up more homers than anybody not assigned to throw batting practice. Dan Straily of late has been a coin flip. Tommy Milone has been lit up with such regularity he was sent to Sacramento for some soul searching with the River Cats. Only Jarrod Parker has been somewhat reliable since the All-Star break.

Cincinnati Reds catcher Corky Miller tags out Oakland Athletics’ Alberto Callaspo (18) at home plate in the fourth inning of a baseball game,
Cincinnati Reds catcher Corky Miller tags out Oakland Athletics' Alberto Callaspo (18) at home plate in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, in Cincinnati. Callaspo was trying to score on a hit by Stephen Vogt. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Put another way, talented lefty Brett Anderson, out since May, is needed immediately -- but likely won't return before the end of Oakland's next homestand Aug. 21.

For a rotation in need of a jolt of energy, young Sonny Gray looks like fresh batteries. General manager Billy Beane has been hinting for weeks that Gray will play a role down the stretch, and the right-hander reportedly could rejoin the team as soon as Saturday against the Blue Jays.

The presumptive availability of Anderson and Gray over the final weeks explains why Oakland felt no urgency to find a starter before the nonwaiver trade deadline last week. It was a sensible, fiscally responsible, approach that only works if Anderson and Gray can make an impact.

Another reason Beane and his lieutenants felt comfortable with most of their roster was the anticipation of better days from a lineup that underwhelmed through the first half, particularly Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Young.

That faith has not yet been justified through the first week of the month, and at this rate such paltry offense will wreck any chance of Oakland staying atop the division over these final decisive weeks of the season.

Reddick, who hit 31 homers last season, has shown no sign of recapturing that stroke. He has five homers this season and his average hovers around .200. Cespedes surged for two games last week but has settled back into ordinary when his team craves greatness. Young remains the epitome of futility, unable to push his average to .200.

Any of those three players are capable of carrying the A's, but none has stepped forward to do so. Nor has Brandon Moss or even Josh Donaldson, easily Oakland's most productive hitter in the first half.

We don't mean to ignore Eric Sogard and his 13-game hit streak, but any contender is in trouble if its hottest hitter is Sogard, an earnest little player for whom superior run production is an abstract concept.

So we have what we have, a solid team suddenly wheezing at a critical point of the season -- exactly when Detroit rises to expectation and Texas starts rolling despite one of its crucial players, slugger Nelson Cruz, being hit with a 50-game suspension.

The final weeks of the season are indeed a sprint. Reward awaits only those who earn it. The A's are scratching and groaning and snoozing. If they continue, their season will end much earlier than they could have imagined.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.

facing another loss

Bartolo Colon, left, is off his game as the A's drop their third straight in falling 6-5 to the Reds. Page 5