Surprising squads harken back to the '70s
Orioles, Athletics, Pirates make bold runs seemingly out of nowhere
In Baltimore, Oakland and Pittsburgh, they might as well have worn throwback uniforms all season.
For much of 2012, it felt like the 1970s all over again, with the colorful Orioles, Athletics and Pirates making bold moves out of nowhere.
The bubble eventually burst in the Steel City, where Willie Stargell and the "We Are Family" Pirates used to rock. But the music kept playing -- disco, anyone? -- in Baltimore and Oakland, where the O's and A's have kept the beat alive.
If the postseason started today, it would be Baltimore and Oakland facing off in the first Wild Card playoff in the American League.
Jim Palmer and Vida Blue would love it.
The Orioles, of course, have bigger game in their sights. The Yankees are very much within reach in the AL East, one game ahead of the Birds. The A's could track down the Rangers in the AL West -- they have seven games left head-to-head and finish the season in Oakland -- but the greater likelihood is a Wild Card ticket for manager Bob Melvin's athletic troupe.
The A's were built for the future, carefully sculpted during a busy offseason by general manager Billy Beane. Nobody figured the future would be now, given how the Rangers and Angels continued to stockpile high-profile, high-salaried talent.
But here stand the A's, very much alive and kicking, absorbing one personnel setback after another and soldiering on without complaint.
The most recent loss is Brett Anderson, who'd come back from Tommy John surgery to establish himself as the ace of a rotation that features four rookies. OK, make that five rookies now, Anderson having gone on the shelf again with a strained oblique. Why not? Let's go all the way with this implausible script.
"They have some young guys who have come up and done the job," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "They're playing well. Oakland has always had good arms, going back to the [Tim] Hudson, [Barry] Zito and [Mark] Mulder days.
"They had some terrific arms in the rotation last year and reloaded. They've got a great staff, with a bullpen that's starting to come together and do a job."
Those early-2000s A's identified by Scioscia reached the postseason in four consecutive years but couldn't get out of the AL Division Series. The 2006 A's swept the Twins in the ALDS but were then swept by the Tigers in the AL Championship Series.
Nick Swisher and Mark Ellis would have to tell these A's all about those '06 A's.
Melvin has platoons at four positions. He has one regular who consistently has hit above .260 -- Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes, one of the game's rising stars. Hitting .293 with 19 homers and 73 RBIs, Cespedes would be an AL Rookie of the Year favorite if not for the presence of the Angels' Mike Trout.
Right fielder Josh Reddick hasn't hit for average, but he has done everything else, supplying power and Gold Glove defense while playing with a burning passion that set a tone from the start.
Between Cespedes and Reddick in the outfield is veteran Coco Crisp, still running down everything in the gaps and coming up with clutch hits.
The infield has been completely reconstructed, with Stephen Drew acquired from the D-backs to bring a veteran presence to shortstop. Brandon Moss and Chris Carter have delivered power in a first-base platoon.
"We feel like we have good, young depth," Melvin said. "You look at us right now with Anderson out, and everybody's a rookie in the rotation, and everybody's under 25 years old, and everybody's good."
Even moves that seemed to make little sense -- such as dealing veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki to the Nationals and leaving the job in young, relatively unproven hands -- have worked out.
Melvin has managed brilliantly, drawing on the assistance of pitching coach Curt Young and the rest of a superb staff that consists of Chili Davis, Chip Hale, Mike Gallego, Tye Waller and Rick Rodriguez.
Young, Melvin maintains, has managed to take the pressure off the young catchers -- Derek Norris and George Kottaras -- by coming up with creative game plans for the collection of young arms.
Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone have been consistently solid, rising on the depth chart as Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and, now, Anderson have fallen off, leaving voids.
But if Melvin doesn't claim the AL Manager of the Year Award, it might belong to Baltimore's Buck Showalter.
This generation's answer to Gene Mauch, Showalter has pulled all the right levers, enabling the Orioles to revive a fan base that hasn't been this excited since Cal Ripken Jr. was dancing around at shortstop.
Like the A's, the Orioles don't have any superstars or obvious MVP candidates. They're doing it by playing the game the right way and by winning the close games -- including an astonishing 15 straight wins in extra-inning affairs, the most since the 1949 Indians claimed 19 in a row.
"You just get that feeling of never-say-die attitude," said southpaw Joe Saunders, who understands a winning mentality from his days with the Angels. "It's crazy. It gets to the point where you get comfortable in those situations, and I think this team is."
That speaks to the club's resilience, and the depth and quality of a bullpen that is perhaps its greatest single asset.
These Orioles have ended a run of 14 consecutive losing seasons dating back to a 1997 campaign that ended with the Indians claiming the AL Championship Series in six games. The previous season, the Yankees had taken out the Orioles in five games in the ALCS, Baltimore having snapped a 12-year postseason drought.
You have to go back to 1983 and the prime of Ripken and Eddie Murray to find an Orioles outfit that went all the way, beating the Phillies in the World Series.
Center fielder Adam Jones, arguably the most valuable of the Orioles' position players, calls it a "mission" his team is carrying out.
And the Orioles have been as good on the road (43-32) as they are at home (42-32).
"One common denominator of all teams that get a chance to play when the season is over is [that] they are competitive on the road," Showalter said. "That's something we talked about this spring. We attacked that. It's been a good road team because of the mentality that they have. They travel well.
"It's not always a friendly venue, but they kind of stay together on that, and one thing I constantly told them since Day 1 is, 'You've got to stay together. You can't let anything drive you away from your goal here.' And if something rears its head, they have nipped it in the bud quickly."
The Pirates were bound and determined to make it a threesome in this season of great surprise stories, but something happened along the way, and their wonderful start was not sustained.
Into August, Pittsburgh was 60-44, with the distinct look and feel of the good old days of "Pops" and his friends. The great Andrew McCutchen, with his multiple talents, was showing the way in center field. But it all gradually came apart, the Reds pulling away as the Bucs drifted out of contention.
To put together the franchise's first winning record since 1992 -- Barry Bonds' final season in Pittsburgh -- the Pirates, at 74-75, need to go 8-5 in their remaining games.
The Pirates haven't won a postseason series since the 1979 Family rocked the Orioles in the Fall Classic. Bonds and friends fell in the NLCS three consecutive years before Barry took flight for San Francisco in 1993.
Wait until next year, Bucs fans.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.