Monday, Monday - Strap On Your Seatbelts - 06/03/2002
Today is Monday, June 3, and, believe it or not, the Athletics have the same record as last year on this date—27-28. There are three notable differences, however: 1) Seattle is only eight, not 16 (!) games ahead of us, their vaunted bullpen showing the occasional crack, 2) conversely, the Red Sox (are you kidding me?!) have the best record in the majors and look like a lock (wait a minute—nothing is a lock when you’re talking about the Red Sox) make the playoffs, meaning the A’s probably have to win the West, and 3) this year’s version of the A’s is not as strong as last year’s, not by a long shot.
Then why bother, one asks? How will they surge past a well-balanced Seattle team? The answer is simple, but not easy. They have to want it. They have to sell out (and I don’t mean in the stands!) every game, leave it on the field, and most of all, follow the example of one Miguel Tejada.
Those of us who had the television on Friday night witnessed some truly great sports. On a beautiful spring evening in Beantown, Oakland’s native son Jason Kidd, in a feat unparalleled in NBA history, averaged a triple-double for an entire playoff series and led his no-name Nets over the one-dimensional, ironically selfish (Jesus, Antoine, pass the ball!) two-man Celtics and a date with the Lakers, who clearly benefited from the officials’ calls—and some inept free-throwing by Sacramento--in their series with the Kings. Kidd, the St. Joseph’s of Alameda graduate who grew up in the shadow of the Coliseum, was nothing short of spectacular, delivering the series to long-suffering Nets fans when his jumper gave the Nets the lead for good at the Fleet center, paying respect to the memory of the martyred Drazen Petrovic and a hundred other Nets players who history forgot. Good luck in the finals, Jason—you’ll need it, especially with Dave Stern and his henchmen watching, their cell phones (auto-dial set to the scorer’s table, or maybe even the referees’ locker room) in their pockets.
But it was in hot and humid Tampa Bay where the real voodoo went down. I said in last week’s column that if the A’s didn’t turn it around by June 1, they were toast. Well, it was May 31 and fast approaching the witching hour back in steamy St. Petersburg, and the A’s, who had lost back-to-back games to the Orioles and Devil Rays, were on the ropes, the game tied 9-9 in the eighth inning.
The Athletics had blown a 5-0 lead, Cory Lidle once again the culprit, his first outing since coming off of the DL an awful one. The two teams had traded punches and were visibly tiring from the efforts of what would eventually be the longest 9-inning game in A’s history, a four-hour, 15 minute extravaganza. It was the bottom of the eighth, and Tampa Bay had the go-ahead run at second with one out. With the swift Chris Gomez batting, Tejada broke quickly on a hard-hit ball behind second base, gloved what appeared to be a sure base hit, whirled and threw out Gomez by a hair, not only saving the run, but also getting the second out. In retrospect, a HUGE play.
The tie preserved, the Athletics came out on fire in the top of the ninth, and for the first time in this difficult season, hit in the clutch like they’re supposed to. Tejada, who went 4 for 5 to raise his average over .300 (he’s at .303 today) with his proud father in the stands, fittingly delivered the game-winning hit, a shot to left-center which was followed by three more runs, giving the A’s a hard-earned and very satisfying 13-9 win, triggering a series sweep. The reliable Zito and an improving Mulder closed out the series, and now the A’s are at home for a crucial four-game bout with the Mariners, who have been playing great ball all year. A series victory would put the Athletics back in the race, despite Anaheim’s recent surge. If the Athletics continue to play well, they will pass Mike Sciosia’s young Angels. Remember, we have the pitching.
Tejada, even with his shy demeanor and tentative English, may be the leader the team has been looking for now that Jason is gone. Art has bumped him up to the three spot in the order, the place reserved for the team’s best hitter, which of course he is. He’s also their best fielder, in case nobody’s noticed.
David Justice is back and Cory Lidle may be gone, that is, if Beane has confidence in one of the young arms on the farm, or better yet, can engineer a clever trade to steal away another squad’s fourth or fifth starter. Hot-hitting Scott Hatteberg may be the first baseman until Pena shows otherwise, and the ageless consummate pro Randy Velarde is re-installed at second. Chavez will be OK, and Terrence Long is hitting the best .231 in the league. Those of you who are responding to the OAFC poll about centerfield should ask yourself this—how many line drives has Eric Byrnes hit lately? How many has T. Long hit? Five times as many, probably. Give the young man from Alabama a chance, for chrissake. Ramon is showing signs of life at the plate, and the bench, with Byrnes, Myers, Mabry, Saenz and probably Menechino is respectable. Even the much-maligned bullpen is looking better, especially tough guy Jim Mecir.
But do they have enough to give Seattle a run for their money? Why not? What is so great about the Mariners? An over-rated pitching staff, a corked-bat wielding Bret Boone, an arrogant Ichiro? I think their not-so-secret weapon is Lou Piniella. Talk about tough guys. The old chain-smoking outfielder from Tampa Bay has an extra-large chip on his shoulder after the last two seasons. He wants to beat his old team—the Yankees—even more than Art Howe does, if that’s possible.
So, with the old Mamas and Papas song running through my head, I anxiously await tonight’s festivities and brace myself for another summer of comebacks. Hey—anything is possible. Why, my little leaguers, written off a week ago by the powers that be, are now the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs after a late-season surge. After all, we’ve got the pitching, and you know what they say about good pitching. Let’s hope that the same holds true for our local big leaguers. GO A”S!!!
by Peter Elman
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