OAKLAND — The small-budget Oakland Athletics are baseball's best team at the break in a division featuring some of the sport's highest-paid stars. The San Francisco Giants are right in the chase for the NL West title despite recent stumbles.
Bay Area baseball has delivered a stellar first half. It's only mid-July and there is already talk of a special October and, perhaps, the first Bay Bridge Series since 1989.
California could have four teams still playing into October. The two organizations in Northern California have set the tone.
"It'd be hard to find two teams in the same city doing as well as we are," said Giants right-hander Tim Hudson, who began his career with the A's. "It's really exciting for all of the fans from both sides of the bay. They've had the opportunity over the years to have some really fun teams to watch, World Series-caliber teams every year. New York can't say that, L.A. can't really say that. It's been fun."
Oakland, a major league-best 59-36 and the two-time defending AL West champion, produced a pair of six-game winning streaks behind its reliable starting pitching. And general manager Billy Beane pulled off a July 4 trade with the Cubs that brought Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to a deep rotation that lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to season-ending elbow injuries that required surgery.
"We could probably go seven deep," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "Tommy Milone's in Triple-A right now and with the numbers he's put up, it means we're creating a lot of depth to withstand whatever could potentially happen coming up in the second half."
Several offseasons ago, Beane committed to building from the bottom of the minor league system on up to make sure his club had the depth to withstand injuries, and that philosophy is working — even in a talented division that includes Robinson Cano in Seattle and power hitters Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols of the Angels.
Oakland had its most wins ever before the All-Star break, and its six All-Stars were most for the A's since 1975.
"They've done a great job of stacking this team and this organization with guys who can get the job done at this level," Oakland right fielder Josh Reddick said. "With the last two and now a third year, we're proving that we're here to be a true competitor and we're showing that with the best record in baseball right now. It gives us confidence to know that he (Beane) is wanting to go for the whole thing just as much as we are."
In each of the past two Octobers, the Tigers have eliminated Oakland in division series that went the five-game maximum.
The Giants, winners of the 2010 and '12 World Series, missed the playoffs last year and hope they can get back on a roll like the team across the bay. At 52-43, they are one game behind the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, and Tim Lincecum has won four straight starts for the first time since April 2010.
"No question, the Giants have really established something here for a long period of time," Melvin said. "It's difficult to not only win a World Series, win two out of four, and be in the position they're in right now. It could be really exciting for the Bay Area."
The Giants are counting on some reinforcements in the second half. Center fielder Angel Pagan and second baseman Marco Scutaro come back from injuries to give San Francisco the roster it envisioned.
It led the NL West by 9 1/2 games when it was 42-21 on June 8, but has struggled since then. The Giants were outscored 19-7 in losing three out of four in their recent interleague series with the A's.
"Their boat's just kind of been going in a steady direction and we're just trying to get ours on that path as well," said Lincecum, who pitched his second no-hitter in 11 months against San Diego on June 25. "You get into those ruts and you try to look for how to get out of them and I think it's just doing what you did beforehand, not necessarily putting so much emphasis on getting out of it."
Despite injuries, small crowds and even sewage problems in their home stadium, the A's have found a way to win.
"We've had contributions everywhere," assistant general manager David Forst said. "It's certainly been not unlike any other year where we've had to tinker and turn over the roster as we go. ... The players are unfazed by any changes we make. They just go out and play for three hours a day, and they've played great."