OAKLAND -- Anyone still surprised that the A's and Orioles are meeting this weekend in the kind of marquee series that makes the September stretch run so special apparently has missed out on two of the better baseball stories of the 2012 season. Both young and relatively inexperienced with this sort of September excitement but both completely unflappable and focused on the job at hand, the A's and O's have earned every bit of the right to control their own destiny heading toward October, both showing resilience and poise beyond their years in taking the American League by storm. Surprise? By now, the surprise might be that practically nobody saw it coming.
"Once you're part of it during the course of the season and you're in it day to day, certainly it's not a surprise right now," A's manager Bob Melvin said before the opener of a three-game series between the AL East-leading Orioles and his Wild Card-leading club. And Friday's opener didn't disappoint -- another one-run affair, this one won 3-2 by the A's -- providing more evidence that these two teams are right where they belong, in the thick of the race. As Melvin points out, the Orioles have played well all year and have been magical in close contests, on pace to set a Major League record with a 27-8 record in one-run games. They crush homers like they crush opposing bullpens in the late innings, and they have a 42-save closer on their side. Meanwhile, the A's picked up the pace in June and have found some magic themselves, collecting 13 walk-off wins to lead the Majors and have 20 victories settled in the last at-bat -- one shy of the Orioles' Major League lead. On top of that, their pitching staff rates No. 2 in the AL in ERA and is rife with rookies, several acquired in a flurry of moves last winter. "I don't see them as a surprise," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of the A's. "They probably had as good an offseason of acquisitions as anybody. I remember watching them in the offseason, and I felt like they made very shrewd moves. They're really paying off for them." OK, now that we're past the element of surprise -- or lack thereof -- with these teams, it's apparent there are some similar assets to these clubs that have gotten them to where they are today. The main similarity: They clearly don't care that they're young or inexperienced or not expected to be in the thick of things with the bigger boys of the AL. "I've been on a lot of teams, and every team is different," said Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds. "But I really do see a lot of similarities between us and the A's -- just a bunch of guys scrapping and clawing, just having fun and playing hard baseball." That has been a hallmark for the Orioles, to be sure. For a team to have a minus-21 run differential and stand at 18 games over .500 at this point is stunning, and a testament to a team-wide attitude that no game is over until the last out's recorded. "The biggest thing is if we get down early in the game, we don't panic," Reynolds said. "We know somebody's going to step up, and we know at the end of the game if we're winning, our bullpen's going to be there. That's been huge to our success." That's not a young thing or an old thing. That's a baseball thing. "That's just the way this team's made," Reynolds said. And that's how the A's are made, too, apparently. They have their own propensity for late-game dramatics, and they have even more talent that was unproven before 2012 in their stable. Not that you could tell from the results. "That's what is great about this game," said A's catcher Derek Norris, a rookie now sharing duties behind the plate with veteran George Kottaras. "You can have 10 years of experience here or not even one year and still put up the same numbers. It is really remarkable. "A lot of these guys have come in here and stepped in the shoes of guys that have logged several years in the Majors and really established themselves, and they've done it really well, and it's really nice to see." What both teams have going for them is that they're a bunch of old souls in young bodies. Young teams aren't supposed to be this savvy, this poised, this solid in September, but these teams qualify on all counts. Showalter's in his 14th season as a Major League manager, and these Birds top his personal list in terms of their makeup between the lines and in the clubhouse. "This is probably as good a team as I've ever had at staying in the moment," he said. "Let's play these nine innings. Good or bad, we'll move on to the next nine innings. This time of year with 19 or 20 games left, that's very important, because you've got to focus on those nine innings of competition and try to win those nine innings." Staying in the moment: It's a theme that courses through the veins of both clubs. Right now, the moment is one every team wants to live. Right now, the O's and the A's are contenders, with the playoffs in their sights. Any thoughts that they don't belong here were left behind in the fading days of summer. "We're going to continue to try and stay in the moment and put all our energies and focus on a particular day, which is today," said Melvin. "For a younger group, we'll just count them up at the end and see where we are on Oct. 3." Right now, there's a good chance both of them will be looking forward to the playoffs by then. And, if so, that should come as no surprise.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Reporter Jane Lee contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.