Writes Sam Frank,

You probably saw David Leonhardt’s “Underestimating Fielding Is A Silly Mental Error” in Sunday’s NY Times, , but maybe you didn’t catch the thing they snuck in this last paragraph: The A’s have quietly become the best defensive team in the league. The author guesses that that’s where they’re finding inefficiencies/good deals these days. Also interesting is the conversion presented: making 0.1 more outs per game when you’re a fielder is worth 25 points of batting average. Oh, and Willy Taveras is playing as well in the field as Beltran did last year.

“Looking at entire teams may be even more telling. The Athletics were known a few years ago for finding inexpensive players with a knack for hitting home runs and walking, even if they were defensively challenged.

But with more teams also focusing on on-base percentage these days, Oakland’s front office seems to have decided that defense is now the skill undervalued in the baseball marketplace. This season, A’s fielders have made outs out of 72.4 percent of balls hit in play against them, better than any other team.

Sadly for Oakland, there wasn’t much way of defending against Steve Finley (above) finally getting a big hit for the Angels (other than not throwing him a pitch right down the middle), the ancient CF’s 2 run HR off Joe Blanton in the 4th providing the difference in a 4-3 victory. The A’s now find themselves 5 games back with 6 to play — it would take a collapse of Mauchian proportions for the Angels to blow the AL West.

On the subject of collapses, which would be the more rare occurance ; Trevor Hoffman blowing a save, or Barry Bonds going 0-5? Either way, San Diego’ (77-79) has seen their lead dwindle to 3 games over the Giants, with another 3 games against San Francisco between now and Thursday night.

Though there’s probably no truth to the rumor that the Houston Astros are planning on voting Mike Jacobs (above, right) a partial playoff share, the Eastern League’s Player Of The Year continues to make the most of his call-up, homering off Philly’s Brett Myers and driving in Carlos Beltran on a sacrifice fly in the Mets’ 6-5 comeback win. Gutsiest move of the night goes to Willie Randolph, who rather than allowing Roberto Hernandez to pitch to Bobby Abreu, intentionally walked the Phils’ right-fielder, putting the tying and winning runs on base. Willie instead chose to have Hernandez go after Met-killer Pat Burrell, who’d already brought his career HR total against NY to 30 with a solo shot off Shingo Takatsu in the 7th.

Hernandez induced Burrell to hit a checked swing tapper back to the mound…and suddenly the Mets are tied with the Marlins in the loss column, just a half game out of 3rd place. After an early September drought that effectively killed the Mets’ playoff chances, they’ve won 6 of their last 7 against the same NL East teams chasing the Astros.