They are scouring scouting reports and arguing over who is best at what position only minutes before the start of a recent game in Oakland, Calif., though it isn't baseball that interests this young group of Athletics, but instead a fantasy football draft. A playful argument starts between third baseman Eric Chavez and reigning rookie of the year shortstop Bobby Crosby as to who will win the clubhouse fantasy football league and which NFL player should be the first pick.

Less than three months ago, these Athletics weren't sure whether a fantasy football contest was all they would have to look forward to in September, whether Peyton Manning would become a more important name to them than Randy Johnson. But they have made an almost miraculous -- at least in baseball terms -- comeback this season.

The numbers are staggering. In early August, Oakland became only the third team in baseball history, the first since 1965, to be 15 games over .500 in the same season it was 15 games under .500. After last night's win over the Baltimore Orioles, the Athletics were in a three-way tie with the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians for the lead in the American League wild-card race.

This is a story of a young group of men, hair tousled, faces covered in beards, who grew up in a matter of months after they had lost two integral members of their team.

"We traded two people that most people in baseball thought were untradeable and survived," Oakland Manager Ken Macha said.

Last October, having missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Athletics made the dramatic decision to trade Tim Hudson, one of the best pitchers in baseball. General Manager Billy Beane did just that shortly after December's winter meetings in Anaheim, Calif.

Three days after Hudson was traded to the Atlanta Braves, the Athletics sent pitcher Mark Mulder to the St. Louis Cardinals. In less than a week, they had discarded two former all-stars, both of whom had led the American League in wins, for a group of unproven young players.

Yet none of the expectations for success that Beane had set in the past lessened.

"All I know is we have an organization here that doesn't want to say they are rebuilding," Macha said. "They say we are playing to win all the time. I'm operating under that theory."

Baseball could field an all-star team with the players Oakland has lost recently under what some have dubbed the "Moneyball" system, named after the best-selling book that focused on Beane's innovative approach to assembling a team on a limited budget in a small market. It has been a lack of money that forced Oakland to part with so many players. So it was with Hudson and Mulder, who both were heading for a big payday in free agency.

"Mulder surprised me more than Hudson," Athletics first baseman Scott Hatteberg said. "I wasn't surprised that Hudson got traded because we only had him for a year more. We had Mulder for a couple more. Billy is not one to have a couple good years and then completely start over. He saw an opportunity to get some quality guys and he jumped on it. It's really paid off. It's pretty amazing."

The pitchers left much in the same way that Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, Keith Foulke, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen departed Oakland and then excelled with new teams. But a strange thing happens to these Athletics when they lose star players. They get better.

"That's our market, that's what we have to do," Macha said. "We've lost a lot of players. We're used to losing great players here."

This season did not begin well. Crosby fractured a rib in the first game and missed almost two months. Barry Zito, the only pitcher left from the rotation's heralded Big Three, struggled to win games -- his ERA in April was 6.60 -- and soon found himself trying to accept a leadership role he was ill-equipped to handle.

"I think my biggest fault early in the year was thinking I had to do something and something different," Zito said. "But I'm just pitching, man. That's all I'm doing. Everyone said I had to be a leader now. I think I tried to be, but I don't even know how to do that. I'm just me. If I lead, I lead, that's what I do. I just felt like every game I had to be like perfect and everything off the field had to be perfect instead of letting everything come to me."

Oakland quickly dipped to the bottom of the standings in the American League West. But then just as quickly, the Athletics began to succeed. On May 30, the day Crosby returned from the disabled list, they began an incredible run, winning 49 of their next 66 games.

"I don't think anyone could have predicted what we've been able to do," Crosby said. "I was hoping to help them in any way I could, whether it was to balance out the lineup with me in or just go out and play good defense. I just wanted to bring some energy. People can say, 'Oh when he came back they started tearing it up.' I'm a small reason."

In those 66 games, the Oakland pitching staff allowed just 3.3 runs and 7.7 hits a game. The pitching staff, with young hurlers such as Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Dan Haren, found a way to replace two players considered irreplaceable.

"There's no question you have two pitchers that have been very successful and you're bringing in young pitching in with Blanton and Haren that are unproven as far as comparing them to Hudson and Mulder," Athletics center fielder Mark Kotsay said. "But when you brought Hudson and Mulder up they were unproven and were very successful from the get-go. It definitely does say something about the job Billy has done."

Relying on such young players, though, can be tricky. In the past two weeks, the Athletics have cooled considerably, allowing the Yankees and Indians to creep back into the wild-card race. Even so, the team is in an enviable position.

"I think at the end of the year," Kotsay said, "depending on the success, we'll evaluate how great the season was or how bad it was."

Mark Ellis, Jay Payton (16), Bobby Kielty (23) and Nick Swisher, right, have helped the Athletics get back in line.