If it hadn't happened the way it did, Trevor Cahill would have graduated from Dartmouth College this June and would now be out in Tri-City, State College or Lowell, getting ready for the Instructional League.

But during Cahill's senior year in high school at Oceanside, Calif., it so happened that the fastball that was 84-86 mph -- not bad for a shortstop/pitcher -- and led to the right-hander's best offer from that Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H., dialed up into the 90s, with run and sink.

"Once I knew I could be drafted pretty high, I knew I wanted to sign," said Cahill. "It was pro baseball, after all. The education was important, and Dartmouth was the only school other than St. Mary's that I was interested in, but I always dreamed of playing."

The Oakland A's drafted Cahill in the second round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, which came as a surprise to some other teams. The A's wish they could have signed their sixth-round pick, Mike Leake, another shortstop/pitcher and high school rival who went to Arizona State en route to the Cincinnati Reds.

Cahill claims he got a few hits -- "flairs" -- off Leake and that Leake didn't get lucky off him, but the point is that Athletics scout Craig Weissman did yeoman work projecting the two infielders-turned-pitchers.

So here we are in the final weekend of August, and the 22-year-old Cahill is 14-5 with a 2.43 ERA that is the second-best in the American League, behind Red Sox youngster Clay Buchholz. Cahill had a run of 20 consecutive starts in which he allowed six or fewer hits, a feat matched only by Nolan Ryan over the past 30 years.

Cahill has allowed 110 hits in his 152 2/3 innings as a starter this year, and in August he has allowed four earned runs over 39 innings for a 0.92 ERA. His 1.00 WHIP this season is the best in the league.

A's general manager Billy Beane compares Cahill to D-backs sinkerballer Brandon Webb, before Webb unfortunately got hurt. Beane's not alone.

"He's strong as a bull, he's got one of those hard-running sinkers hitters can't put in the air, and he's athletic," said one advance scout. "He's a premium guy, and because he gets balls put in play so softly, he's great to pitch behind."

"I've been fortunate to be able to learn and build off my experiences, good and bad," said Cahill. "Being in the Majors as young as I was last season, [going 10-13 with a 4.63 ERA], was something I could learn from. So was going back at the beginning of this season."

Now that Cahill has been an All-Star and is even on the fringe of some AL Cy Young Award discussions, many have forgotten that the right-hander opened the season by making two starts in the Pacific Coast League.

"It was good for me," Cahill said. "I had things I needed to work on."

Cahill has emerged at the front of the youngest starting staff in the Major Leagues.

"It's a great experience being able to develop in the big leagues with other pitchers my age," said Cahill. "We've developed a spirit and camaraderie together. It's a great experience to be growing up with these guys."

A's lefty Gio Gonzalez is 24 years old and eighth in the AL in ERA, having allowed 134 hits in 161 innings. Fellow lefty Brett Anderson is 22, and despite minor injuries and Friday night's loss to the Rangers, he has an ERA in the low 3.00's and No. 1 starter stuff.

Vin Mazzaro is 23 and has a 3.61 ERA. Dallas Braden is the old man at 27 but has been in the top 15 in AL ERA and has a perfect game, to boot. Then go to Andrew Bailey closing and watch Henry Rodriguez throwing 100 mph in Cleveland on Wednesday night.

Oakland's starters this season, which once included Ben Sheets, lead the league in ERA at 3.48 -- with Seattle next at 3.78 -- quality starts (83), batting average against and opponents' on-base plus slugging percentage.

Beane is trying to rebuild the Athletics from pitching and defense on out. When the Tim Hudson/Mark Mulder/Barry Zito generation sprung Oakland into the playoffs, detractors insisted that the reason the A's didn't win in the postseason was Beane's reliance on the home run, as if teams in the past 20 years won without hitting homers.

This Oakland team has a positive run differential and has walked the .500 line with the 11th-most runs in the AL, the fewest homers, highest stolen-base percentage and third-most sacrifice bunts. In reality, if the A's had two or three more big bats, they'd be a lot closer to the Rangers in the AL West race.

The defensive metrics many teams like to use show that Cahill has benefited from what has been the best infield defense in the AL; Daric Barton, for instance, is the league's premier first baseman by such metrics, and Cliff Pennington is near the top among shortstops. The A's haven't received much power from their outfielders, but Coco Crisp and Ryan Sweeney have been among the best at their positions.

The trick is going to be finding offense. The A's have to decide who are keepers and who are not among outfielder Michael Taylor, slugging first baseman Chris Carter and infielders Grant Green, Jemile Weeks and Adrian Cardenas. With so much low-cost quality starting pitching, Beane can scour the market and try to find a couple of veteran hitters. Last offseason, he thought he had a legitimate shot at Adrian Beltre with a three-year offer, but the third baseman took a one-year contract to play in Boston.

The reality is that it's hard to attract good players to spend 81 games at the Oakland Coliseum, which brings the Athletics back to their hope that they will be allowed to build a stadium in San Jose -- a stadium they will build without public funding, for those of you following the revenue-sharing tales of Florida, Pittsburgh, et al.

It's an issue that is very difficult for MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to resolve, because San Jose has been Giants territory since former owner Peter Magowan began his initiative to privately finance the masterpiece once known as Pac Bell.

If the issues can be resolved, the pitching is in place. If the A's can find a kid to turn down a Dartmouth education and four years later be in the Cy Young discussion, they may be able to do most anything.