The easy path for Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane would have been to ride out a train-wreck of a 2011 season – marked by calamitous injuries, clubhouse dissention and underperforming hitters – and start looking ahead to 2012. He could trade some veterans for prospects this summer, then allow Bob Geren’s contract as manager to run out after the season, thus letting his good friend go with some dignity.

The fact that Beane chose not to do so, firing Geren as manager on Thursday, speaks to the deepening misery of the A’s season – a loss at Baltimore on Wednesday night was their ninth straight – as well as the realization that the season, as horribly as it has gone so far, is far from lost. By firing Geren and hiring Bob Melvin as interim manager, the A’s are effectively saying, “We’re still in it.”

“I don’t think anybody really expected this,” A’s reliever Brad Ziegler said on Sirius/XM Radio on Thursday, “just because we knew Geren was only signed through this year, and they could just ride this out, if that’s what they decided to do.”

The fact is, the AL West remains within the A’s reach. Even with nine straight losses, they are only eight games out of first place, and none of their division rivals appears capable of running away with the title.

The A’s injury situation looks bleak – with three-fifths of their Opening Day starting rotation on the disabled list. But for now, only Dallas Braden is out for the season (Brett Anderson is getting a second opinion on his elbow, but could be heading for season-ending surgery). In a best-case scenario, the A’s start getting some people healthy again – when it’s intact, their rotation is arguably as good as any in the American League – and start making a run.

The A’s “don’t want to give anything away, not with 99 games left,” Beane said on a conference call Thursday, “but we also have to be realistic given [the injuries] to the rotation.”

It’s not Geren’s fault all those pitchers wound up on the disabled list, and it’s not his fault Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus – the three hitters who formed the core of Beane’s off-season retooling – haven’t produced as expected.

But the clubhouse firestorm caused by veteran lefty reliever Brian Fuentes – who publicly criticized Geren’s communication skills – opened a window into something that had long been whispered inside A’s clubhouse: the fact that Geren didn’t have the full respect and support of his players.

The 2003 Marlins and 2009 Rockies, to name two recent examples, showed what a well-built but underperforming team can achieve when the clubhouse is subjected to the shock and tumult of a managerial firing. Those teams, under new managers Jack McKeon and Jim Tracy, respectively, surged to postseason berths.

It’s too early to know whether the 2011 A’s are similarly fated, but by making this move when he did, Billy Beane is signaling his belief that it is at least possible.