OAKLAND

Well of course it was fun for Mark Ellis. Walk-off grand slams usually are.

Likewise, Sunday was a good day for Eric Chavez, who had three hits for the second time in nine days. And for Rich Harden, who struck out the side on nine pitches in the first inning (tying a record held by not as many as you might think), en route to a six-inning, nine-strikeout effort.

It was all good in the A's clubhouse after their 7-3, 12-inning win over the Angels. They averted a sweep, displayed heart and mettle. Did we mention Mark Ellis' game-ending four-run homer?

But if you're emotionally invested in the future of the Athletics, the best days were experienced by their youngest players. A double sprinkled in among five rough at-bats for Daric Barton. An RBI single by Carlos Gonzalez, whose average slipped to .229.

Some defensive wizardry by shortstop Gregorio Petit, not to mention a single that ignited the winning rally. And some high-wire work by reliever Brad Ziegler, who earned his first major league victory.

"I've never seen a walk-off grand slam in my life," a grinning Ziegler said. "I saw it hit the (foul pole). Then I don't remember anything until I was at the plate." As he spoke, Zeigler stood in front of a three-locker subdivision in the A's clubhouse, a spot generally reserved for two of the team's senior players. Two men, three lockers — it's considered something of a perk.

Now Ziegler, called up from Triple-A on May 30, finds himself wedged between Huston Street and Harden. "They were probably upset that someone was put in this (middle) locker," he said. Grinning.

It was a pulsating end to an interesting series. Not critical, given that the division-leading Angels blew into town 31/2 games ahead of the second-place A's, and left with a 41/2-game lead. That's a comfortable cushion. And it's only June.

But the day may come when the A's meet the Angels with something truly meaningful at stake. The A's are convinced the day will come when guys like Barton, Gonzalez, Petit and Ziegler will have to be difference-makers. After this weekend, they're a couple baby steps closer to understanding how to live up to that responsibility.

"The experience these young guys are getting is invaluable, going back to the season-opening series in Japan playing the Red Sox," manager Bob Geren said. "These are talented players who are getting experience here and they've held their own. You look down the road, and when they get up in these situations again it will be with an I've-been-here-before attitude."

Ziegler, for example. The A's sixth pitcher of the day, he got out of a two-on, one-out jam in the 11th inning, and shut down the Angels in the 12th.

"Hopefully they see something in me that tells them I can pitch in these situations," he said.

They do now.

"I saw him in spring training," Geren said. "I liked what he did at Triple-A."

But while Ziegler is a nice story, the preferred method of on-the-job training at the major league level remains, as ever, learning the hard way. Which is why the biggest moments of the weekend may have come in Saturday's ninth inning. Both Barton and Gonzalez came up in game-deciding situations against Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez. Both had extended, tense at-bats.

Barton's ended when Rodriguez bit off a fraction of a fraction of the outside corner with a 200-mph fastball. Gonzalez swung and missed at a nose-diving 3-2 curve that would have driven itself into the ground had catcher Jeff Mathis' glove not been in the way.

Those are the kinds of lessons you don't get on PlayStation.

"They have to see that breaking ball for the first time," Geren said. "It's bigger than it looks. Faster, too." Whereas the learning curve can't be rushed. It can merely be endured. No one knows how good the A's kiddie corps can be. After this weekend, it is three games closer to understanding what the heck is going on out there.

"A win like that you're going to remember," Ziegler said.

Mark Ellis had a good time, too.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.