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LAA@OAK: Milone strikes out six over seven innings

OAKLAND -- Yoenis Cespedes isn't hitting. Neither is Josh Donaldson. Add Josh Reddick to that list, too.

Yet the A's keep winning, slowly strengthening their place atop the American League West.

That's because they have the league's best pitching staff on their side, along with a cast of offensive characters not named Cespedes or Donaldson or Reddick that seems to step up at just the right time.

In Oakland's 3-1 victory over the Angels on Saturday, it was Derek Norris playing the hero role -- the same Norris who entered the game hitless in 14 career pinch-hit appearances, only to notch a big one in the seventh by way of a go-ahead, two-run homer off lefty Scott Downs.

"We all know I haven't had the most success pinch-hitting over my career, but just talking with some of the guys, sometimes it just takes a different mindset," Norris said. "You got to try to attack them early because relievers nowadays, they're so good with their breaking stuff, Downs, especially, with his sinker, so you got to get him early or you're not going to get him at all. So fortunately for me, I saw something up in the zone and tried to catch enough of it to drive. Fortunately it carried enough."

It was the seventh home run of the season for Norris, who hit seven in 60 games as a rookie last year. Half of the catcher's 14 career long balls have given the A's the lead.

With the victory, Oakland improved to 18 games over .500, and its lead over the Rangers, who lost at Cleveland, is now at five games.

This despite a .244 season average, third lowest in the AL, including .197 since the All-Star break. Cespedes is batting just .220 on the season, Reddick .219. And Donaldson? Well, his average dipped below .300 on Saturday for the first time since May 13. He has just eight hits in his last 49 at-bats for a .163 clip during that span.

Hence why the A's are relying on other resources for now, a luxury many teams don't have.

"That's the strength of our team," manager Bob Melvin said. "If Cespedes isn't swinging well, if Reddick isn't swinging well, then there's a Norris, there's [Eric] Sogard. We have a pretty balanced lineup. We feel like we have a chance to score every inning based off the personnel that we have in the lineup.

"It really is a group type of offense for us. In a lot of ways it's good. We don't' really rely on one or two guys to get the job done for us all the time. And when they're not swinging well, we're grinding even harder and have guys who can pick it up."

Said Norris: "We have a lot of guys that contribute and do their little parts that make us a dangerous ballclub. We don't have one guy like a Chris Davis or Miguel [Cabrera] that are putting up ungodly numbers. We have counterparts that come in and combine to make those numbers. That makes us a deep team and a very explosive team as well."

The "heater right down the middle" Norris described hitting made a winner out of Tommy Milone, who allowed a second-inning home run to Josh Hamilton before settling down through seven total frames, despite walking a season-high four.

Milone threw 114 pitches in the effort, allowing just three other hits outside of Hamilton's shot. He struck out six.

"I was just trying to go out there and keep our team in the game, because we have the lineup and the guys to get it done," the lefty said. "And luckily we did. Better late than never."

"You really do pull for at least getting one run there and getting him off the hook," Melvin said, "and the next thing you know we have a lead, and it really rewards a guy who's pitched really well and really couldn't give up anything based on how the offense was doing."

Though one swing of the bat altered this game in the seventh, capped by Jed Lowrie's RBI double, the A's know their inconsistent offense can be exposed at any time, which is why they rely on their pitching staff so heavily -- bullpen included.

Righty Ryan Cook followed Milone with a scoreless eighth, and closer Grant Balfour pitched a perfect ninth for his 28th save of the season. The A's exited the game with an AL-best 3.58 ERA.

"That's just Oakland A's baseball," Norris said. "When our pitching was struggling at first, our offense was picking up on the slack. Now our offense has been struggling and the pitching is picking up the slack. I think that makes us a dangerous ballclub. You know there's going to be a time when both sides are going to click, and that's going to be scary for teams when they come in to face Oakland. That's what makes us a very good ballclub."

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