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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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Defending division champ A's used to being overlooked

Despite the lowest payroll in baseball, Oakland somehow rallied to steal the AL West title last year and has even more confidence now.

The Associated Press

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland Athletics know that few outsiders give them a chance to repeat in a division featuring sluggers Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout making up a loaded lineup for the Los Angeles Angels.

Even with almost the same A's roster that pulled off an improbable late-season rally to stun the Texas Rangers on the season's final day last fall.

No problem. They're plenty used to being overlooked in the East Bay, already second fiddle to the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

Yet the A's showed last October there's something special happening in Oakland, despite a roster once made up of little-known players built with the lowest payroll in baseball. Despite a rundown, often-empty ballpark they share with the NFL's Raiders.

"This year is a little bit easier in the fact we have a lot of guys that have played together," manager Bob Melvin said. "Last year in camp we were trying to get guys just to know each other. It's a group that showed last year that they get along really well and are comfortable around each other."

So much so, this scrappy group pulled off a majors-best 14 walkoff wins and celebrated with all those whipped-cream pie celebrations. It made new catcher John Jaso want to be a part of the fun when he was in the other dugout with the Mariners.

The A's will get their first test Monday night against Seattle and ace Felix Hernandez.

Oakland's rotation had five rookies at the end of last season, and they all have far more experience going into 2013.

The young A's made major-league history in 2012 when they rallied to steal the division title from the Rangers, becoming the first team to capture a division or pennant after trailing by five games with fewer than 10 to play. Oakland then pushed Detroit to a deciding Game 5 in the AL Division Series before losing to Justin Verlander for the second time in the series.

Melvin earned AL Manager of the Year honors in his first full season as A's skipper.

But some things are different this year.

Gold Glove right fielder Josh Reddick is sporting a bushy, overgrown beard that could serve as quite a distraction for those in the visiting dugout.

"He looks like Rip Van Winkle," Jaso quipped.

Whatever works around here.

"We're the A's, for crying out loud. We've got a little history with that," Melvin said of the facial-hair tradition dating to the days of Rollie Fingers.

Oakland added center fielder Chris Young to join Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes and Coco Crisp in a deep outfield.

The A's even brought back Bartolo Colon after his 50-game suspension last August for a positive testosterone test. Colon still has five games remaining on the penalty to be served at the start of the season.

Melvin joked about his depth in the infield and outfield and the challenges of getting everybody in the lineup.

"As far as formulas and so forth going into the season, it could be as easy as who shows up first to the ballpark, who comes bearing gifts," the skipper joked.

The A's won 94 games last season with a payroll of just $59.5 million. Oakland's free-swinging lineup hit 195 home runs before striking out 50 times in the playoffs against the Tigers.

Everybody is counting on continuity and added experience being an advantage.

That includes having Brett Anderson healthy from the start. He is fully recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery and will take the ball opening day. And Pat Neshek is back on the mound for a new season after his newborn son, Gehrig, died 23 hours after his birth just before the playoffs.

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