Challenging path awaits A’s

Would you bet against the hottest team in baseball down the stretch?

With 28 games left to play, the A’s are tied with the New York Yankees for the second-best record in the American League (76-58) despite an 8-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at the Oakland Coliseum on Monday. They’ve won 15 of their past 18 games and hold onto one of the two wild-card spots, with Tampa Bay lurking close behind. But can this team of misfits and castoffs keep it rolling into October?

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Under normal circumstances, the A’s would be considered favorites to make the playoffs. They’re on a tear, and teams that can string together wins the way the A’s have this season usually snag wild cards in September, too.  

But the A’s have a couple of things working against them: a grueling schedule and, of course, the experience factor.

Of all the teams vying for an AL playoff spot, the A’s have the fewest number of games (six) against sub-.500 ballclubs. The Angels and Rays will each play nine games against losing teams, the Texas Rangers get 12, the Baltimore Orioles get 14 and the Yankees get 16. The Detroit Tigers and the Chicago White Sox should both benefit from a whopping 17 games against AL Central runts Cleveland, Kansas City and Minnesota.

But every year, a couple of bottomfeeders wreak havoc with nothing to lose in September, so you can’t base your entire wager on strength of schedule. And unfortunately, the best candidate to play spoiler this year might be the Seattle Mariners (15 wins in 22 games), the only last-place squad left on the A’s slate.

With nine of their next 12 games against the red-hot Angels and Orioles, the A’s can’t afford to cool off anytime soon. And that isn’t even the most daunting stretch on the schedule. In mid-September, the team will head to Detroit, New York and Texas for a brutal 10-game road trip.

Up to this point, the A’s have scoffed at the notion that they’re too young to compete. But how will the club’s 15 rookies — three of whom are in the starting rotation — react to facing Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano in a raucous Yankee Stadium with the season on the line?  

If there’s one rule to the 2012 A’s season, though, it’s that the usual rules don’t apply. When you trade your three best pitchers in the offseason, lose your veteran horse to a performance-enhancing drug suspension and your players have missed a combined 872 games because of injuries, you really have no business contending for a playoff spot.  

“We’re young and dumb,” rookie catcher Derek Norris said. “We’re young enough that people might underestimate us and we’re dumb enough to not really realize the whole situation. We just keep playing.”

It might seem like the deck is stacked against the A’s, but that isn’t new. So why not roll the dice a little bit and bet on green? It’s hardly a lock, but it’s bound to be a fun ride.

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.

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