During this past offseason, the team lost its best hitter and three more everyday starters, four-fifths of its starting rotation and its All-Star closer. They were replaced with a group of rookies and unable-to-stick veterans, and the 2012 A's looked like a very good triple-A team.
However, after Friday night's win, the Athletics sit at 42-42. Despite having the MLB's youngest team and smallest payroll, the Oakland Athletics have won as many games as they have lost.
While this young, scrappy group of players deserves ample credit, no individual has been as instrumental to Oakland's success as Bob Melvin.
Friday night's win was a perfect example of why.
The Seattle Mariners came into town struggling. They had lost nine of their previous 14 games, and sat in last place in the AL West at 35-49. Meanwhile, the A's were coming off a sweep of Boston and had closed the gap on the .500 mark to just one game thanks to a 15-7 record during their last 22 contests.
In what may be baseball's best pitcher's park, this figured to be a low-scoring game—especially considering it also featured the AL's two lowest-scoring offenses. The A's also had baseball's best starting pitcher at home—rookie Tom Milone—on the hill, while Seattle sent out reliable veteran Kevin Millwood.
The Mariners strung together three first-inning singles to take a 1-0 lead, and Milone threw 24 pitches. After that, neither starter allowed another run.
Milone struck out the side in the top of the seventh inning, giving him nine for the game. Despite his dominant seven innings, 107 pitches meant the end of his night.
Millwood was breezing through the A's order as well, striking out seven while scattering three singles. Millwood's pitch count was at 95, and after an easy one-two-three seventh inning, it appeared that he'd be back out for the eighth.
Seattle skipper Eric Wedge instead went to the righty Shawn Kelley. He got Brandon Inge to pop up, and prepared to face Cliff Pennington.
Wedge had other plans. He brought in Charlie Furbush—a lefty—to face the switch-hitting Pennington. Melvin, knowing his club needed a run and aware of Pennington's struggles from the right side, sent up Brandon Hicks to pinch hit.
By doing so, Melvin countered Wedge's pitching change and got a more powerful hitter to the plate while maintaining a righty-lefty edge. Hicks doubled off the very top of the 16-foot wall in right center.
The switch-hitting Coco Crisp was next. He flew out, leaving it up to the struggling Jemile Weeks to get Hicks home. Again, Wedge headed towards the mound.
He went back to a righty—Tom Wilhelmsen—to force the switch-hitting Weeks to the left side; his weaker side of late. Of course Weeks, a switch-hitter who hit .310 from the left side a season ago, rendered the pitching change trivial.
He singled up the middle, tying the game at 1-1.
Ryan Cook replaced Sean Doolittle for Oakland after the lefty threw a scoreless eighth inning. Cook worked the entire ninth, and the game went into extra innings after Wilhelmson worked his way out of the ninth.
Oakland's Grant Balfour and Seattle's Brandon League each worked scoreless 10th innings for their respective teams, and after Jordan Norberto sent three Mariners down on strikes in the 11th, Oliver Perez took over for Seattle.
The lefty allowed two soft hits to his first three batters. With runners on first and second with one out, Bob Melvin sent up Chris Carter to face the lefty Perez. Wedge was unwilling to risk having a lefty throw to Carter, so he went to his bullpen one more time, sending in Steve Delabar.
Carter fouled back the first pitch, then crushed a 95 MPH fastball well over 400 feet and into the left field bleachers.
During his postgame TV interview, Chris Carter received a pie in the face from teammate Josh Reddick. The A's lead the major leagues with seven walk-off wins this season, so a Reddick delivering a face-full of shaving cream has become a well-known ritual, one that the hero of each walk-off win must be ready for.
Of course, the real star Friday night was Bob Melvin, but even Reddick's 19 homers wouldn't save him from countless sprints if he were to pie his skip.
Both teams engaged in an intense late-game righty-lefty battle, but only when Oakland was at the plate. Melvin relied on Doolittle and Norberto to retire righties in the eighth and eleventh, while he let Cook and Balfour get out lefties in the ninth and 10th.
Wedge figured he may as well play the percentages, and in the process used six relievers over the final four innings. Trouble was, Melvin had three consecutive switch-hitters in his lineup, and several dangerous pinch-hitting righties for when Wedge decided to go to his lefty specialists.
The other problem for Wedge was that this was only Game 1 of a three-game series. Even if Seattle had made it out of the 11th and gone on to win, using six (or, had the game continued, more) relievers puts pressure on Saturday and Sunday's starters to go long innings.
This means that if the A's can work counts in the early innings, they'll be rewarded by facing tired starters or over-worked relievers late in games.
Melvin's use of pinch-hitters was not as costly; position players don't exactly fatigue from playing on back-to-back days. He can go to the same bats tomorrow and the next day without hesitation.
Perhaps Melvin's best move of the day—and most exemplary of what kind of manager he is—was his decision to send Chris Carter to pinch hit in the 11th.
First of all, Melvin completely read Wedge's hand—he knew that Wedge would go to a righty if Carter came in. Many managers would simply not pinch hit in that case so as not to send a cold bat to the plate. But Melvin saw it as an opportunity to burn through another Seattle reliever.
Melvin also saw it as an opportunity to give a young player confidence and a feeling of belonging.
Carter has been heavily scrutinized over the last three seasons. The powerful prospect began his big league career going 0-for-33 in 2010, and hasn't handled the ensuing criticism well.
Now, in 12 at-bats so far this season, he's hit three homers and has five hits. Melvin showed trust in him on Friday night, and he delivered. Melvin also showed trust in his relievers, and they delivered.
The young A's could be an intimidated bunch of rookies, but instead they are a team of 25 guys who know and embrace their role. Melvin is making Carter—as well as every other A's player—feel like he belongs, and now, even at the .500 mark—the one that no one expected them to be at just two games before the All-Star break—it doesn't look like this team has many places to go besides up.