Oakland A's: 2006 AL West Division Champs!

The Oakland A's took three days to do it, but they finally got over the hump and clinched their first AL West Division Championship since 2003 with a definitive 12-3 win over the Mariners. The Angels helped the A's finish off their division title by losing to the Rangers, 5-2. The A's will now have five games to rest their starters before starting the ALDS next Tuesday.

It definitely didn't go by the script. When the Oakland A's started the 2006 season, there were a number of factors that seemed like they would have to go right for the A's win the division crown:

-- Rich Harden would have to stay healthy and give the A's 25 or more ace-quality starts.
-- Bobby Crosby would have to stay healthy and improve on his numbers from last season.
-- Eric Chavez would have to have a big offensive season with Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley flanking him in the order.
-- Nick Swisher, Dan Johnson, Huston Street and Joe Blanton would have to duplicate their fine rookie campaigns.
-- New acquisitions Frank Thomas, Esteban Loaiza and Milton Bradley would have be healthy and productive.
-- The A's bullpen would have to stay healthy, especially Street, Kiko Calero, Joe Kennedy and Justin Duchscherer.

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Of all of those factors, only Swisher and Thomas exceeded expectations. Harden, Crosby , Loaiza, Bradley, Street, Kennedy and Duchscherer all spent significant time on the DL. Chavez was limited by injuries all season, although he played most of the year, and he had his worst offensive season since his rookie campaign. Johnson, Blanton and Street all struggled to maintain their rookie levels, although Blanton did contribute 16 wins and Street had 36 saves. Other A's players found themselves on a crowded disabled list, including Jay Witasick and Mark Ellis and Mark Kotsay had to be a part-time player at times because of a bad back.

Because of all of these injuries, the A's had to rely on a number of unfamiliar names throughout the season. Brad Halsey and Chad Gaudin were expected to be big parts of the AAA-Sacramento River Cats' rotation before the season. They ended up being big contributors to the A's pitching staff instead, with Halsey splitting time in the rotation and the bullpen and Gaudin pitching exclusively in relief.

Left-handed reliever Ron Flores also had a significant amount of time in the A's bullpen, despite starting the year in Sacramento . The A's also had to recall players such as Randy Keisler, Matt Roney, Mike Rouse, Doug Clark, Santiago Casilla, Shane Komine, Jason Windsor, Hiram Bocachica and Jeremy Brown from Sacramento . They even brought back former A's 1994 phenom Steve Karsay to assist the bullpen for a short period of time before he retired.

Despite all of those obstacles, the underdog A's – with their $62 million payroll and their crowded injury list – managed to defy expectations all season. After losing by two touchdowns on Opening Night against the New York Yankees, the A's came back and took the next two games from the mighty Yanks. On June 8, the A's began a 10-game winning streak that included a three-game sweep of the Yankees in New York and a three-game sweep of the LA Dodgers at home.

Perhaps the turning point in the A's season may have come after the All-Star break in Boston . Boston has been a house of horrors for the A's since the 2003 playoffs and Oakland entered the second half of the season riding a three-game losing streak and a mediocre 45-43 record. Oakland stormed into Fenway Park and took three of four games. Two of the wins were blow-outs, and the A's never looked back the rest of the season.

In August, the A's won 21 games and grew their record from 56-51 to 77-56. They ended August with a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in Oakland . The A's slowed a bit at the start of September. They went 4-5 through the first nine games and they saw their lead over the Angels shrink to 4.5 games. The fifth loss was a particularly demoralizing one, as the A's lost a two-run lead to the Minnesota Twins late in the game.

The next game was another defining moment for the A's. Faced with the possibility of being swept in Minnesota , the A's scraped out a thrilling 1-0 win with Dan Haren throwing eight shut-out innings and Street saving the game on the day he came off of the disabled list. Oakland scored the only run of the game due, in large part, to a stolen base by Bradley. In that game, and through much of the season, the A's relied on good pitching and a little bit of small ball to patch together the win.

The 1-0 win over the Twins was the start of a run of eight wins in nine games that all-but wrapped up the division title for the A's. During that run, the A's used some good pitching, a little bit of small ball and a lot of long ball, specifically from Thomas.

Thomas, who was signed in the off-season on a bargain basement contract after two injury-riddled seasons, carried the A's offensively in September, hitting 10 homeruns. The future Hall of Famer is in the midst of an amazing season. He is hitting .271 with 38 homers, 109 RBI and a .380 on-base percentage. He has also played in 135 games, which may be his most amazing stat this season.

Swisher is also having a remarkable season. After an up-and-down rookie campaign, Swisher has put together an outstanding sophomore season. Although the average isn't high (.255), Swisher has compiled star numbers in the other offensive categories. He has hit 34 homers, driven-in 91 runs, walked 94 times, all while playing two different positions.

Jason Kendall, too, is having a solid campaign after a disappointing first year with the A's. He has hit better than .340 in the second half and has brought his average close to his Pittsburgh Pirate levels. Jay Payton's .297 average and 57 RBIs in a sometimes part-time role has also been invaluable to the A's this season.

On the pitching-side, the A's have had to rely on a patch-work staff all season. With Harden out for much of the year and Loaiza out or ineffective for half of the season, starters Barry Zito and Dan Haren had to shoulder much of the load for the A's starting rotation. In the bullpen, Gaudin, Street, Duchscherer, Kennedy, Halsey and Calero all had to take turns shouldering the load while other members of the bullpen were injured.

With Rich Harden back on the hill with eight outstanding innings and another win under his belt, the A's rotation looks ready for the playoffs. And with 16-game winner Joe Blanton likely to join the bullpen for the playoffs, the bullpen looks ready to go, as well.

The A's will take the next five days to try to nurse their banged up roster back to health. For now, they can enjoy the fruits of a hard-fought battle for the division title.

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