OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -When the Oakland Athletics broke camp in March, Jack Cust was a minor leaguer for San Diego, Chad Gaudin was an extra arm in the bullpen and Santiago Casilla was trying to find himself at Triple-A.
In an injury-filled first half that has had two starting pitchers miss most of the season, nearly every outfielder spend time on the disabled list and injuries to the team's top two relievers, the performances from those three players have gone a long way toward keeping Oakland respectable.
``It feels like they're not even fill-ins,'' first-year manager Bob Geren said. ``It feels like they have emerged. It's great. I think they've held us together. They have been the guys who really kept us where we're at.''
But for the A's to go on a big second-half run to make it back to the playoffs for a second straight year, they will also need contributions from injured players who missed much of the first half like Mike Piazza, Huston Street and Rich Harden.
After losing the final three games of the first half to Seattle, the A's come out of the All-Star break with a 44-44 record and trail the Los Angeles Angels by nine games in the AL West and are eight behind wild-card leader Cleveland.
That's Oakland's biggest deficit at the break since 2001, when the A's trailed Seattle by 19 games in the division and were seven back in the wild-card race with a 44-43 record. They then put together one of the best second halves in history, going 58-17 to win the wild card behind Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada.
``It's the same thing every year if you look at how we do in the first half,'' Harden said. ``It seems like some things don't go our way. After the break we always turn it around. I don't think anybody is too concerned. We need to start playing better but I think that will come.''
Being healthy would be a big help. The A's have already used 45 players this season, their most since 1998, and used the disabled list 16 times. There were at least eight players on the DL for the final 57 days of the first half and the team has lost 682 games to injuries.
``What's been disappointing is the number of injuries to key components of our team,'' Geren said. ``Every team expects injuries and we have had so many more than normal. That's been the most difficult part of the first half.''
Esteban Loaiza hasn't made a single start all season because of injuries to his neck and knee but could be back soon. Harden has been limited to four starts because of a shoulder injury and his status is unknown after coming out of his first start in nearly three months not feeling quite right.
Gaudin has been outstanding after moving into the rotation with an 8-3 record and 2.88 ERA to give Oakland a strong third starter behind All-Star game starter Dan Haren and Joe Blanton. Unfortunately for the A's, the other fill-ins have combined for a 5-15 record and 4.81 ERA, contributing to Oakland's struggles.
Closer Huston Street has been out nearly two months with an irritated elbow nerve, but could make it back later this month. Top setup man Justin Duchscherer is out for the year with a hip injury and Kiko Calero also missed time with an injury.
In the outfield, the A's traded Milton Bradley to San Diego in between his third and fourth stints on the disabled list and have also been without Mark Kotsay, rookie Travis Buck, Bobby Kielty and Chris Snelling at times. First baseman Dan Johnson and Piazza also have been on the DL.
Cust has made the most of his opportunity after making his debut in Oakland on May 6. He hit six homers in his first seven games and leads the team with 15 homers at the break.
``It's been a crazy little ride,'' he said. ``I'm just excited that I'm finally where I've wanted to be for a long time. Hopefully when everyone comes back we can stay healthy the rest of the year. It can only get better.''
That's just what the A's are counting on.
``We're about to get hot here,'' Nick Swisher said. ``I have a gut feeling. Write it down. A lot of things haven't been going our way, and there's a lot that can go our way.''

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