Having Their Back--While Carrying Them On His - 07/29/2002
Last Sunday I was at the Coliseum for what was arguably the A’s ugliest loss in two years, a 7-3 extra-inning debacle reminiscent of the horrific 2000 Cinco de Mayo weekend against the Rangers in Arlington in which the Athletics lost heartbreaking back-to-back slugfests. My buddy Rich and I had taken our sons, and we were witnessing an entertaining 2-2 duel between Mark Mulder and Chan Ho Park, who has struggled mightily this season. The unflappable Mulder was dealing as usual, and Park was matching him, desperately hanging onto not only his job, but possibly his career as well.
We all remember what happened—the Athletics squandered great scoring chances (against the worst bullpen in baseball) in the 9th, 10th and 11th innings and the Rangers finally broke their eight-game losing streak with five runs in the 12th off of Jim Mecir. The A’s bats, eerily silent for the entire month of July, were again unable to deliver. But this defeat was not totally on the players—it was Uncle Art who uncharacteristically let the team down.
Presented not once, not twice, but three times in a row with golden opportunities to bunt the winning run into scoring position, Howe decided to play the role of American League manager to a ridiculous extreme, and the A’s paid the price. Rich, myself, and even our little leaguers were livid, screaming our lungs out at what transpired on the field as the Athletics gave away a game that had “momentum changer” written all over it.
It was getaway day against an awful Ranger team, and we let them get away with a win. The A’s had a day off to contemplate that disastrous meltdown, but that didn’t stop them from losing two out of three to the suddenly respectable Angels in Disneyland. The Athletics’ stellar pitching staff was no longer invincible, and we were once again forced to confront the reality of a tough division race, this time a battle royal with two other teams. With two-thirds of the campaign gone, the A’s are three games behind both Anaheim and Seattle.
Flying into Arlington Friday was the last thing Rick Peterson wanted to do, because the Ballpark has been, as Ken Korach so aptly describes it, a “house of horrors’ for the A’s, a launching pad where their usually formidable staff becomes as bad as their hosts’. The Rangers certainly have offense, featuring four future Hall of Fame players batting one after another, and they can make it tough for any pitcher who doesn’t bring his “A” game. This series was crucial, what with surging Anaheim playing Seattle, and the Red Sox, behind Pedro and Nomar, refusing to tank--not yet, anyhow. Meanwhile, the Yankees play pathetic Tampa Bay for the 37th time this year, and it’s only July.
The first game on Friday was a disaster, as Carl Everett, of all people, woke up his complacent superstar teammates with two homers in one inning as the Texans pounded the A’s, 12-4, administering an old-fashioned butt-whuppin’. Saturday’s game was even more humiliating, as a terrified Aaron Harang, given a 4-0 lead, threw three innings of batting practice, yielding six runs, and only escaping total disaster when he surprisingly whiffed Alex Rodriguez on a strike-em-out-throw-em out double play.
The bullpen performed admirably, and Ramon Hernandez’s homer managed to tie it up, 6-6. Billy Koch dodged a bullet in the ninth as he kept the home team off the board following a leadoff error by Miguel Tejada, who earlier had kept his hitting streak intact at 16. But the 10th would be Koch’s undoing, as birthday boy A-Rod hit a monster walkoff grand slam to deal the A’s their fifth division loss in six games, hardly what you’d expect from a playoff contender. We all felt that sinking feeling—concern, doubt, hell, let’s admit it-- absolute fear. Maybe the talking heads—you know, the flacks on Sportscenter who give the A’s 20 seconds of highlights and the Yankees 20 minutes--are right—we can’t win without Jason.
Aren’t they forgetting something? On Sunday Howe trotted out the baddest lefty in the American League—the Zen Stopper. When Zito pitches after a loss, the A’s win. Like last Sunday’s game in Oakland, the Rangers threw out a pitcher who is trying to rebound from chronic injuries and failed expectations. Ismael Valdes pitched six strong innings before a cut on his hand forced him out, yielding only one run on a homer by Terence Long, and a trio of Texas relievers held the fort until the eighth. Zito, meanwhile, had been, well, Zito, and after seven innings and 114 pitches, the Rangers had only two runs to show for their efforts.
But with two out and two on in the eighth the A’s were four outs away from getting swept and facing the prospect of a very bleak midnight plane ride back to Oakland, when Ranger pitching coach and old nemesis (who can forget the ’88 Series?) Orel Hershiser went to the pen for the fifth pitcher of the game. In strode the former Giant, washed-up Dave Burba, demoted to the lowly Ranger relief corps. The pious Hershiser was praying that Burba could get an out. Fortunately, for the A’s, this Sunday had a different outcome from last Sunday. God does not play favorites on his day of rest, Orel.
Up to the plate strode a determined Tejada, who was looking to extend his hit streak to 17 and give the A’s the lead. Earlier, in the fifth inning, with the bases loaded and Juan Gonzales licking his chops at the plate, Miguel had taken an errant throw from Ellis and, with baserunner A-Rod doing his best Ty Cobb sliding into him, threw off the wrong foot and brilliantly completed a double play to keep the score at 2-1. With the game, Zito’s winning streak, his own hit streak, and a helluva lot more (the season?) on the line, Tejada took the measure of a 2-1 fastball from Burba and destroyed it, a dramatic three-run blast over the centerfield fence which gave the Oakland the lead—and, more importantly, their confidence back. It was the biggest hit of the year for the A’s. The shortest player on the team and strongest, pound-for-pound, Tejada would not let that red-eye flight home to California be a painful one. We all saw it on television, with an excited Greg Papa and a relieved Ray Fosse doing the blow-by-blow, as the Athletics exploded for eight more in the ninth, hopefully ending the batting slump which has gone on way too long. Burba’s line, you ask? 1/3 of an inning, seven hits, seven runs. Genuflect on that, Orel.
Anyone who questions Tejada’s heart and what he means to the Athletics is blind. All season long he has been there for the team, playing with more passion than the rest of these guys put together. Maybe now they’ll wake up, and realize that the poor shoeshine boy-turned-all-star cannot continue to do it all himself. Koch turned to Tejada after his error in the 9th inning of Tuesday’s win at Anaheim and said, “I’ve got your back”, and closed it out. Hopefully Long Island Billy is not the only one.
So what if he makes some errors? How many remarkable plays has he made to keep the A’s in games? He has been out there every single day, busting his ass, giving 110% and carrying the team. And now he has 83 RBIs, and it’s still July. He’s not just the MVP of the Athletics—for my money he’s the MVP of the American League. He defines “most valuable” because he does what it takes to WIN. Last season it was Tejada’s heroics in a seemingly innocuous getaway game in July against the Royals that catapulted the Athletics into a 58-17 finish. You can have the $252 million man, the Yankee matinee idol, and even “No-mah”. I’ll take Miguel. Why? Because he’s ours.
Let us not forget that we have a great team right here in our town, and if it weren’t for Jeremy’s no-slide and village idiot Kerwin Danley’s ensuing here’s-your-punishment-for-not-sliding, meat, bad call, we could have won it all last year. Art Howe waited nine months to let Danley know what he thought of him, and Danley, like the arrogant, incompetent, egomaniac he is, gave Art the perfect opportunity when he allowed Jerry Narron to take five minutes to get a pinch-hitter to the plate Saturday night. So what if Mike Lamb had to go to the can? Get someone else up there! Howe correctly called Danley on the rule, and we saw the umpire’s overblown reaction, giving Art the heave-ho—“you ain’t gonna show ME up!” Good for you Art—don’t pay the fine. Fans don’t come out to the park to watch you, Kerwin, in case you haven’t noticed.
So here we are, at 60-45, with Cleveland and Detroit coming into town after beating each other’s brains in over the weekend. The Indians (45-58) have thrown in the towel and backed up the truck and the Tigers (40-63) are simply awful—don’t let that recent hitting surge fool you. So it’s time to make hay while the sun shines. A sweep this week would be nice. There are six tough teams in the AL and eight bad ones. A quick look at the team stats shows the playoff contenders in the top five spots for team pitching and team hitting, except for the A’s, who are down the list in batting average.
Perhaps this last month was the lesson the A’s needed. We know the pitching is solid, but without some runs everyone feels the pressure a little more, and pitchers need to be relaxed to do well. Just don’t go in there relaxed against Miguel Tejada, however—he’ll make you pay. As long as he is in the lineup I, for one, am not worried.
Brace yourself for a wild last two months. If the billionaires and millionaires can avoid a strike, we are assured of a great finish. This could be big fun. The tremendously talented Mariners, the youthful nothing-to-lose Angels and the historically tortured Red Sox are all good teams who will not easily fold. But somewhere along the way, possibly in the last week of the season, two of these fine teams might fall by the wayside, and the A’s can then surge into the post-season, where they might get their chance against the swaggering Yankees. The third time is the charm, right? What we would all give to see the A’s punish the pinstripers in October…
Oh, yeah, and if they do get there, you can bet it will be on the strong back of their high-strung Dominican shortstop, the one who screams and swears—in English--at the pitcher for striking him out on a breaking ball. God bless you, Miguel, for you are the heart and soul and guts of this team, and maybe someday, you will make us forget Jason. This is one young man who will never shine shoes in the Bronx.
by Peter Elman
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