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12 Great things about the underdog 2012 Oakland A’s

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The ultimate underdog team

OAKLAND ATHLETICS VS. TEXAS RANGERS
AL West Division Champs!
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

This past week’s theme on SB Nation was underdogs, and the Oakland A’s are as familiar with that role as just about any team in sports. With their low payrolls and aging ballpark, they operate at a perpetual disadvantage compared with their rivals, and even in their own home market they’re only the second-most popular team. The literal book about them is a story of overcoming long odds to achieve unexpected success.

Perhaps no A’s season better illustrates this underdog mentality than 2012. Sure, the 2002 squad is immortalized in a Hollywood movie about this exact topic, but the dirty secret about that team was that they were still loaded with stars even after losing a few to free agency. The 2012 A’s were supposed to be terrible, and instead they won their division.

Entering the season, the 2012 A’s were a popular pick to finish in last place. Even our own AN staff predicted they’d lose 90 games. They’d just done one of their periodic sell-offs, trading away three All-Star pitchers in Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey from a team that lost 88 games the previous year, and their biggest offseason addition was an international free agent who had never played in the majors or minors before. They seemed like they were gearing up for the future more than trying to win in the present.

But then, everything went right. And even when stuff did go wrong, other stuff went unimaginably right to make up for it. Our own Billy Frijoles wrote a thorough summary if you want to relive the whole season, one that he said he remembers “truly starting with no expectations.” For now, here are 12 things that made that summer great, in no particular order.

1. Trades pan out immediately

As mentioned, the A’s traded away three All-Star pitchers before 2012, in exchange for a bunch of new young players. Normally you’d expect to wait while the new group develops, but this time they all panned out immediately, arguably turning out better that very year than the stars they’d been acquired for.

In the Cahill deal, Oakland got starter Jarrod Parker and reliever Ryan Cook. Parker put up a better 2012 than Cahill did in Arizona, and Cook had such a great season in the bullpen that he made the All-Star team.

In the Gonzalez deal, they got starter Tommy Milone, who led the A’s in innings in 2012, and catcher Derek Norris, who played well enough to replace long-time incumbent Kurt Suzuki. Gonzalez nearly won the Cy Young in Washington, but the A’s got back two immediate contributors.

In the Bailey deal, they got outfielder Josh Reddick, who broke out immediately. He hit 32 homers and won the Gold Glove that year, serving as one of the new stars of the upstart team.

Add it all up, and the A’s replaced their two departed starters with two new ones with little to no dropoff in production, and they replaced their star closer with a star setup man, all while picking up a 4-WAR outfielder and a new catcher who chipped in some big highlights.

2. Veteran jackpots

It wasn’t just the young players who broke out, though. The A’s also filled a bunch of roles with nondescript veterans and reclamation projects, with an astounding success rate.

Oakland had already resurrected the career of Brandon McCarthy in 2011, but this year he was joined by a 39-year-old Bartolo Colon. The big righty had made a comeback with the Yankees the previous year, and the A’s bet on him to keep it rolling. They were right, and he gave them over 150 innings of quality ball, setting a record along the way for his relentless pounding of the strike zone.

In the lineup, they brought in two hitters to platoon in the DH spot — lefty Seth Smith, and righty Jonny Gomes. They both batted well above league average, combining for 32 homers and a .352 OBP. Smith went on to have a big playoff moment in Game 4 of the ALDS, lining a two-run double in the 9th to tie it and then coming around to score the walk-off run, and the local product Gomes proved to be a huge fan favorite as the Pride of Petaluma.

The A’s struck gold with an in-season pickup, too. They’d lost expected third baseman Scott Sizemore to injury during the spring, and none of their in-house options had stepped up to seize the job by the end of April. They went out and got Brandon Inge, and he delivered one of those runs of play where it seemed like every at-bat resulted in a clutch RBI. In one August game in particular, he dislocated his shoulder, set it back into place, and then drove in the go-ahead run in the 8th to seal the victory.

Inge didn’t make it to the end of the season (due to the aforementioned shoulder), and his overall numbers don’t look like much, but he was a huge part of the 2012 squad — and his replacement, Josh Donaldson, was a converted catcher just like he’d been.

3. Brandon Moss

In addition to the hot prospect acquisitions, and the veteran flyers, another player the A’s took a chance on was Brandon Moss. He’d once been a top prospect for the Red Sox, but was now in his late-20s and was yet to stick in the bigs. Oakland picked him up as a minor league free agent, and his subsequent breakout in Triple-A caught the attention of Farhan Zaidi, the A’s Director of Baseball Ops, leading him to write the now-famous Moss Manifesto.

Moss got his chance in June, and within his first nine games he’d swatted six homers. He finished with 21 dingers in 84 games, serving as a centerpiece in a powerful lineup that no one saw coming.

4. Yoenis Cespedes

It’s not often that the A’s win a bidding war to sign a hot free agent, but it happened with Yoenis Cespedes. The Cuban had no experience in U.S. ball, but he was a physical marvel who had played well in his home country, and a viral marketing campaign further added to his legend. The A’s, facing no expectations and with every reason to gamble on upside, rolled the dice with a hefty four-year contract.

It paid off. Cespedes was an instant star at the plate, and after the season the AN staff voted him as the Team MVP. His insane athleticism was on constant display, making him worth the price of admission all on his own. If you had the game on TV in the background of the room, you stopped what you were doing to watch his at-bats. He was electric.

By the end of the year, the heart of the A’s fearsome lineup looked like this: the untested international free agent in Cespedes, the minor league free agent in Moss, and the nondescript trade acquisition in Reddick, all followed by the emergency third-string plan at third base (Donaldson) and the scrap-heap DH platoon of Smith/Gomes. That’s an underdog success story if ever there was one.

5. Rookie rotation

McCarthy and Colon did a lot of heavy lifting for the rotation early in the season, but neither one made it to the end of the year. McCarthy was knocked out by a terrifying injury when he was hit in the head by a line drive, and Colon was suspended for PED use.

Without their veteran leaders, and with Brett Anderson a perpetual question mark due to injury, Oakland’s depth was tested to its limits. By late September, they were running out a rotation of five rookie pitchers: Parker, Milone, homegrown sleeper prospects Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin, and 29-year-old waiver claim Travis Blackley. The all-rookie rotation held serve, pitching well enough to make the playoffs and giving them a fighting chance in the ALDS.

6. Sean Doolittle

In a season full of fun stories and bizarre twists, perhaps none was more incredible than Sean Doolittle. He’d been drafted as a first baseman and put together a promising career as a top prospect in the minors, but injuries were threatening to derail it all. So, he converted to pitching, which he’d also excelled at in college, and became a star there instead.

Doolittle isn’t unique in his journey from pro hitter to MLB pitcher, but it was amazing to watch nonetheless, especially because of how quickly it all happened. He pitched one game in Rookie Ball at the end of 2011, then in 2012 he needed only six games at High-A, eight games at Double-A, and two games at Triple-A, striking out over half of the batters he faced in the minors. By June he was in the majors, striking out Nelson Cruz in his MLB debut and ultimately serving as a setup man on a playoff team.

7. Walk-offs

Before you read this section, go try your hand at our Trivia Quiz to see how many of the walk-offs you can name!

The 2012 A’s weren’t just exciting for the fact that they won a bunch, but also for how they won. They made a habit of late-inning comebacks and dramatic finishes, and in particular they were masters of the walk-off victory.

On 14 occasions in the regular season, and once more in the playoffs, the A’s won the game in their final at-bat. Here’s the list:

  • 4/11: Jonny Gomes, HBP (vs. KC, off Jonathan Broxton, 12 inning)
  • 4/25: Kila Ka’aihue, single (vs. CHW, off Hector Santiago, 14th inning)
  • 5/08: Brandon Inge, grand slam (vs. TOR, off Francisco Cordero)
  • 6/21: Yoenis Cespedes, home run (vs. LAD, off Josh Lindblom)
  • 6/24: Derek Norris, home run (vs. SF, off Santiago Casilla)
  • 7/03: Coco Crisp, sac fly (vs. BOS, off Alfredo Aceves)
  • 7/06: Chris Carter, home run (vs. SEA, off Steve Delabar, 11th inning)
  • 7/08: Josh Reddick, double (vs. SEA, off Oliver Perez, 13th inning)
  • 7/18: Brandon Hicks, home run (vs. TEX, off Michael Kirkman)
  • 7/20: Brandon Moss, single (vs. NYY, off Cody Eppley)
  • 7/22: Coco Crisp, single (vs. NYY, off Cody Eppley, 12th inning)
  • 7/30: Jemile Weeks, sac fly (vs. TB, off Kyle Farnsworth, 15th inning)
  • 8/03: Coco Crisp, sac fly (vs. TOR, off Aaron Loup, 15th inning)
  • 9/29: Brandon Moss, home run (vs. SEA, off Stephen Pryor, 10th inning)
  • 10/10: Coco Crisp, single (vs. DET, off Jose Valverde, ALDS Game 4)

This list has everything. Marathons stretching into the 14th and 15th innings, mercifully ending with sac flies or bloop singles. Six walk-off homers, including a grand slam. A walk-off hit by pitch. Two winning singles against the Yankees in a three-day span, both off the same pitcher. A dinger to shock the Giants, after being one strike away from defeat. Here’s a quick look at all of the regular season walk-offs:

“What is happening in Oakland, Ray Fosse?”
“I have no idea, Glen Kuiper!”

Of course, every walk-off was celebrated with a traditional pie to the face. The A’s didn’t invent that custom by any means, but this was the year it became a legendary part of team lore.

8. Pie-derman

Reddick was the ringleader of the walk-off pie celebrations, but he took it to another level after Coco Crisp’s 15th-inning sac fly against the Blue Jays. When he came out to deliver Coco’s pie, he did so dressed in a full Spiderman costume, earning the nickname Pie-derman. This video sums up the whole story remarkably well in under a minute:

With great home run power comes great responsibility.

9. Bernie lean

The pies weren’t the only celebration practiced by the 2012 A’s. They ended up with their own signature dance — the Bernie Lean, based on the 1993 comedy movie Weekend at Bernie’s 2.

The dance move already existed thanks to a 2010 rap song, and reliever Jerry Blevins introduced the track to the A’s clubhouse. Inge made it his walkup song, and Coco and other players started doing the dance on the field after big plays. Before long, it was a full-on craze among the Oakland players and fans alike. There was a Coco Bernie Lean bobblehead giveaway, and a visit from actor Terry Kiser, who played the Bernie character in the movies. There was even a music video, set to a new rap song.

It was silly and random and had nothing to do with baseball or Oakland, but the A’s made it their own for a summer and now it’s an all-time great memory.

10. Balfour rage

One fun thing about the Bernie Lean was how it spilled out into the stands, where the fans could join in too. But that was only one way in which the fans became part of the story in 2012.

Grant Balfour had joined the A’s in 2011, but it was in 2012 that he seized the job of closer. The Australian hurler was famous for his fiery demeanor, and for yelling at himself on the mound during games, so Will MacNeil and the right-field bleacher crew created a dance in his honor. Whenever he entered the game, accompanied by his walkup song “One” by Metallica, they would furiously punch the air with their arms in a move dubbed the Balfour Rage.

Like Balfour’s tenure on the team, Balfour Rage didn’t originate in 2012, but rather in 2011. But it was in ‘12 that he became a central figure on the team, and the raging was among the many antics that helped highlight the dedicated group of fans in the RF bleachers. Their presence as rowdy cheerleaders livened up the sparsely populated Coliseum during this thrilling season, and they became high-profile enough to earn national recognition on several occasions.

11. Hamilton play

No, not the play Hamilton. The Hamilton play, as in the error by Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.

The A’s final series of the year was against the Rangers, who were two-time defending AL champions at the time and had once again led the division all year. The teams were set to play three games, and Oakland trailed Texas by two in the standings. Anything less than a sweep would mean settling for a Wild Card and playing in the brand-new one-game play-in contest.

The A’s won the first two games, but quickly dug a 5-1 deficit in the finale. However, they battled back in the 4th inning to tie the score. It appeared they would settle for that game-tying rally when Cespedes popped a fly to shallow center for the third out, but Hamilton clanked the catch to let two more runs cross the plate and give Oakland the lead (video link). Texas never scored again, and the A’s went on to win 12-5, completing the unlikely sweep and earning the unexpected division title.

Oakland held sole possession of the AL West division lead for exactly one day in 2012, but it was the only day that mattered — the last one. They’d been tied for first place on two occasions, the second day of the season and the second-to-last day. But it took until the end of Game 162 to finally get over the top and complete their meteoric rise.

12. Pulling off the ultimate underdog story

Nobody expected the A’s to do anything in 2012, not even their own fans. They were just a small-budget team in the middle of a rebuild, searching for their next winning core, and their 22-30 start to the season was right in line with that perception.

But then that winning core developed right in front of our eyes. By the All-Star break they’d picked up steam and reached the .500 mark, and then in the second half of the season they went 51-25 to stampede their way up the standings, culminating in that decisive victory over the Rangers on the final day. It was a lineup full of nobodies, a rotation full of rookies, and a setup man one year removed from being a first baseman, but they joined together into a special group and surprised the whole league.

Many A’s fans will cite 2012 as their favorite season. There have been better Oakland clubs with more talented rosters, and there have been more successful years in which they won championships rather than suffering first-round playoff exits. But there was a certain magic to this squad, the kind that can only come from a ragtag team that captures your attention precisely because of the long odds they overcame. It was so delightfully unexpected, so endlessly exciting and dramatic, so organically fun and weird and quirky, so completely Oakland. It was the ultimate underdog summer.