Put Up Or Shut Up Time (notes on deadline day, 7/31/01) - 07/31/2001
Sunday the Athletics found themselves at a crossroads. It was the first time this roller-coaster season that they were facing a loss that could have had truly serious consequences. On getaway day after a disappointing and poorly played series against the perenially pathetic Royals, the “exhausted” (Jason Giambi’s words, not mine) A’s held a shaky 2-0 lead in the eighth behind Barry Zito’s best outing of the year.
But it didn’t look good. Art Howe second-guessed himself and brought in Jason Isringhausen with only one out—an ill-starred move as it turned out. My little league team, there because we won a fund-raising contest (and our name on the Diamond Vision, no less!), were all over Uncle Art for that decision.
Unfortunately, my ten-year-olds were right. Izzy melted down, and the home nine was looking at a 4-2 deficit with only six outs left and the prospect of a depressing plane ride to Cleveland, where slugger Jim Thome and his pitcher-eating buddies awaited them.
But the intense Miguel Tejada, who may be the most dangerous .270 hitter in baseball, simply would not let that happen. With two down and the Royals up 4-3 he smoked a laser shot over a confused Carlos Beltran in dead center that tied the game. After an intentional pass to Eric Chavez—his fourth walk of the afternoon—Tejada stole third with a headfirst lunge to put both runners in scoring position, where they joyously came home on Ramon Hernandez’s bloop hit that barely eluded the unlucky Beltran. 19,000 went home happy, and a disaster of epic proportions was avoided.
The implications of a loss were scary—it is not exaggeration to say that this game had “backslide”, or even worse, “season-ender” written all over it. It certainly felt that way up there in the stands. The A’s, who had been playing not to lose, rather than to win, had barely and luckily pulled off a huge victory.
Earlier in the week, Billy “Beane, Beane, the more you deal, the better we feel” had pulled off another of his trademark coups. Getting Jermaine Dye was a terrific move in the long (three months?) run, but in the short run has had the effect of disrupting a fragile chemistry that appeared to be working quite well.
Terrence Long is, despite his critics, an excellent outfielder who makes the difficult plays and has a deadly arm from any position. Apparently there are some who think that his misplay in the first inning of that final playoff game against the Yankees last fall cost us the series. What they forget is that the bright October twilight sun was low in the sky and glaring right in his eyes! Blame NBC—not T. Long, please. So now Art puts him in left to preserve Damon and Dye’s chemistry and Long promptly has a rocky first few games out there. Hopefully he’ll settle in to that position. I liked him in center, however, where he played well all last year—and brilliantly Tuesday night against the Twins—and believe that the quick but weaker-armed Damon should return to left.
The resilient journeyman Gil Heredia has finally, inevitably, reached the point where Howe can no longer afford to run him out there every fifth day to get lit up. And to make things worse, we have virtually no bench, and when the slumping Frankie Menechino had to head back to Staten Island for the birth of his child, we were left with an ineffectual Mark Belhorn to cover for him. And where is Jose Ortiz, you ask—starting for the Rockies, of course. I pray that we haven’t mortgaged the future—is that Ray Walston (Mr. Applegate) I hear at the door?
What will it take for the A’s to win the wild-card? They must get past the Red Sox and the Twins, most likely. Will the return of Nomar, Everett, Saberhagen and, eventually, Varitek and Pedro Martinez energize the Sox? Or will they all be so rusty that it won’t help? The two teams play each other next week. Only time—and the curse of the Bambino, we hope--will tell. Hey, whatever it takes—hell, bring on the Ouija board…
We’ve been waiting all season for Tom Kelly’s overachievers to fade, and when they came into Oaktown last week they were on the ropes. But the A’s gave them life, and hope, and the renewed belief that they are for real, which of course they aren’t (right?). But try telling that to Doug Mienkiewicz and Denny (the reincarnation of Pete Rose) Hocking.
So now it’s up to the Athletics to get it done. The Yankees have their groove on big-time and the Mariners are in a zone (My God, what a bullpen!!) the likes of which baseball has never seen. Both teams have won eight in a row. The mellow folks up there in Caffeine City must be thinking this is finally their year, and the fast-talkers in the Big Apple surely feel the same about their Bombers, who always manage to get it done in October.
What will it take? Three things come to mind: first, the hits have to keep coming—relentless barrages of line drives off those young bats is what we need. Secondly, the bullpen—especially Izzy--must regain the confidence it showed in early July when they swaggered in and preserved victory after victory for the starters. Lastly the dreaded intangible—the team must “find itself”, like they did last September. Let’s just hope it happens in August, because this year, with the Red Sox loaded and the Twinkies refusing to fold, September might just be too late.
Sunday’s nail-biter was crucial. A loss would have been devastating—it’s as if the team fought off the grim reaper, disguised as the lowly Kansas City Royals. With 57 games left and our heroes only five in the loss column behind the Twins and Red Sox, there is a solid chance that the A’s will make the playoffs as the wild card. I’ll take that bet. Something tells me that before the 2001 season is in the books, the green and gold will make a run for the pennant. As fans, all we can do is root, root, root for the home team, and hey, if they don’t win, well it’s a damn shame, or in this case, something worse…
by Peter Elman