MIAMI -- In the wake of the Oakland A's 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins on Sunday completing a weekend sweep, it's both a time to look ahead and to look back.
Ahead, because on the immediate horizon are the Tigers, awaiting in Detroit for a three-game series that pits Oakland against the team that knocked it out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons.
Behind, because Sunday was the 81st game of the season for the A's, the statistical halfway point of the 162-game regular season.
"This team is fun; it's fun to be in this clubhouse; it's fun to contribute every day," reliever Ryan Cook said after saving Game 81. "It's a great group, we get along well, it's now halfway through the year, and I feel like we've had a great time already. We have to keep putting it together one day at a time."
Catcher Stephen Vogt hasn't been with the club all season, just since June 1. The A's are 17-8 since that time, without a winning streak of more than five games. He said that's what makes Oakland the team it is.
"What this team has done from beginning of the year to now is impressive," he said. "We feel we can continue to do it. We haven't gone off and won 20 in a row. It hasn't been real streaky. It's just been consistent. It's just who we are as a team."
And they do most things as a team. On Wednesday a small group of the A's picked up on Coco Crisp's habit of dabbing a bit of nuclear hot sauce on his index finger, then rubbing that finger on his gums. Eric Sogard dubbed it "going to the jungle," and by Sunday most of the A's did it.
One of those was Nate Freiman, who got indoctrinated before the game after an all-night flight from Sacramento. As the blaring strains of Guns 'n Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" faded in the clubhouse, Freiman said he wouldn't have dreamed of missing out.
"That was an experience I look forward to having again," he said.
Peer pressure may insist. It was Freiman, called up to fill the vacancy when right fielder Josh Reddick went on the disabled list, who hit the three-run home run that snapped a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning. It was the last hit the A's got. It was the last hit they'd need with Tommy Milone en route to his career-best sixth consecutive win.
Milone, who has a 2.87 ERA over that stretch, would soldier through seven innings, then manager Bob Melvin turned to the only two short relievers who were even marginally available after Saturday's 14-inning win. Fernando Abad got two outs, and after an infield hit ended Abad's night, Cook finished up. He'd thrown 26 pitches the previous two games, but no matter.
"In a perfect world I could have used the day off," Cook said. "But so could everyone else. Somebody had to go do it."
Cook will get Monday off after his first save since July 24, 2013. But there will be others to step up because, if the first half of 2014 has proved anything, "that's who we are," Cook said.
The second half is, as Crisp pointed out, just as important, maybe more so, and it starts with three games in Detroit.
The Tigers have taken the A's out in five-game playoff series the past two season. The A's don't always talk about it that way, but the Tigers are gatekeepers on the road the A's want to travel through the postseason.
The teams split four games in Oakland the last week of May. This time the Tigers have three of their best starters--Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander--lined up for Oakland. The A's lost to Porcello, beat Sanchez and didn't face Verlander in the first series. Oakland will counter with Scott Kazmir, Brad Mills and Jesse Chavez.
The Oakland team that heads into Motown owns the best record in the major leagues at 51-30 and stands as the most impressive team in the American League. That's what happens when you score more runs than anyone else (418) and allow fewer runs than anyone else (283) in the league. They've been in first place every day since April 24 and alone in first in the A.L. West every day since April 28.
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