Paul Newman said it in the classic movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid": "I couldn't do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are those guys?".
Butch was talking about the trackers he and the Sundance Kid couldn't shake. Most of the American League may well be saying the same thing about the Oakland A's.
The A's are the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break and are currently holding an AL wild card slot. And yes, this is the same team I wrote about three months ago when they were threatening an all-time record for offensive futility. At the time, the A's team batting average was .210. Yes, you read that correctly.
Things are still pretty offensive with the A's offense. The team's batting average is up to .232, but that's still last in the AL, even worse than the dreadful Seattle Mariners. Cliff Pennintgon's sub-.200 batting average at shortstop was a glaring hole, so the A's went out and got another guy (Stephen Drew) who's hitting below the Mendoza Line.
There are offensive bright spots: Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are having solid seasons, and the two-headed first base combo of Chris Carter and Brandon Moss has combined for 26 homers since their May call-ups.
But the real answer to the Butch Cassidy question is the pitching. Even after losing Gio Gonzalez (who may win 20 for the Nationals), Trevor Cahill (9 wins and a 3.99 ERA in Arizona) and closer Andrew Bailey (just coming off a season-long injury in Boston), the 2012 A's staff trails only Tampa's in AL ERA and only the Angels in staff shutouts (the A's have 13 whitewashes this year).
Even their pitching dominance is sort of, well, A's-like, which is to say: not eye-popping. Tommy Milone's win in Cleveland last night moved him into the team lead--with 11 (he'd been tied with Bartolo Colon, who will not win any more games this year as he serves a doping suspension). The only other guy with more than 20 starts is Jarrod Parker, who has all of 8 wins.
Yet, just like those trackers in "Butch Cassidy", the A's are not just staying with their prey--they're gaining on them. Just as Colon was banned, lefty Brett Anderson returned after Tommy John surgery--and promptly dominated in his first two starts.
How they're doing it might be a bit of a mystery, but the A's--puny payroll, dumpy ballpark and all--are chasing the big boys, and you know how the movie ended.