Tonight Barry Zito takes the hill, and wouldn’t it be fitting if the Zen Stopper, in his quest for number 23, puts the Mariners out of their misery for once and for all. Lou Piniella’s entertaining meltdown last weekend was the icing on the cake, a vintage display of pent-up frustration, the exclamation point to a season that wasn’t meant to be. Me, I’m still mad at what Lou’s Reds did to the Athletics in the 1990 Series. Payback for that humiliating sweep, although a few steps removed, is still sweet.
Seattle won 116 games last year, but their pathetic performance in the playoffs should have sounded the alarm as to what 2002 would bring. Who would think that the loss of Paul Abbott (?!) would be significant? Ichiro is great, but where’s the power? Ruben Sierra? I’m sorry. And with a bullpen that strong, how did they fall apart? Perhaps it just wasn’t their year. And please, Bret Boone, when you hit a ball well to right field, is it necessary to do that annoying little flip of the bat? You’re a third-generation big-leaguer, show some class…
The Angels have surprised everyone this year, and give credit where it’s due—namely to Mike Sciosia and his staff for motivating a team that no one expected to make the playoffs. But after the past month’s travails, will they have enough left for theYankees in the first round? Opinions differ—some say the Halos are battle-tested down the stretch while the Yanks have had the cushiest schedule possible. That is true, for sure, but my money is on the pinstripers. A sweep is not out of the question.
The A’s are sitting in the driver’s seat, a place few thought they would be earlier in the season. With a three-game lead and six to go, they can surpass last year’s 102 victories and finish with the best record in baseball. Coming from 20-26 in late May, this has been an amazing run, as remarkable as last season’s accomplishment, and, in some ways, more satisfying.
How have they done it? Start at the top, with Billy Beane, whose leger-de-main in the back room is second to none. He got rid of Jeremy, a key move, and pulled the plug on Frankie M. and Carlos Pena when it was obvious they weren’t helping the team. Moving Ellis up was a bold move that has paid off, and the mid-season exchange of lefty relievers had a positive domino effect on the team. Even the once-maligned Mike Venafro has returned with success; four appearances; four batters—two whiffs and two pop-ups.
The most impressive additions, however, have been the veterans with the highest on-base averages on the team. Justice, Hatteberg, Mabry and Durham have given the A’s a lot of lefty pop in the order, and it is worth noting that most of them are in roles that they weren’t expected to play. Justice was slated to mostly DH, and has played a respectable left field most of the season. Hatteberg has learned first base on the job and has acquitted himself nicely over there. How many big hits has John Mabry delivered this year? And Ray-Ray has accepted his DH role with grace, giving us speed at the top of the order. Every one of them has come up with dramatic home runs.
As anticipated, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez have been consistently outstanding offensively and in the field, and Jermaine Dye, playing below 100%, has come alive at the plate, slugging homers with regularity. Terrence Long’s season has been up-and-mostly-down, but his catch in Fenway may have been the emotional catalyst that turned the season around, and his game-winning homer last Thursday off of Brendan Donnelly was huge. I’ll take his .246 and unsteady defense if I have to—the guy has been clutch.
Meanwhile, Ramon Hernandez has quietly become one of the best handlers of pitchers in baseball. The starting pitching has been, expectedly, dominant. My worries about the bullpen have been assuaged by their performance the last week at home against the Angels and Rangers. Whatever funk they were in seems to be behind them, and Rick Peterson clearly has a plan. My apologies to Billy Koch, who with one pitch—the tantalizing strike three curveball to Alex Rodriguez—has given notice to the other playoff teams that he might throw something else besides the gas. Don’t look for Cory Lidle to start in the first round, but if the A’s advance, he’ll probably start game 4 of the ALCS, and he should have more confidence than last year’s playoff jitters.
The key to the team’s tremendous success this season has been teamwork, and for that Art Howe and his fine coaching staff should be commended. Only Sciosia, and Tony LaRussa, who has had to deal with doubt, tragedy and injuries, have matched Uncle Art as far as managerial brilliance this year. When the A’s were struggling mightily early this season many experts wrote them off. Hell, many A’s fans were saying, “This ain’t their year, they can’t recover from losing Giambi, Damon, Izzy, etc…” Uh…not.
The experience the nucleus of the team gained from 2000 and 2001 has enabled them to pull off this terrific feat. They are poised to win the division, and if they get past the Twins—they will be favored, and—well, you know who’s probably next. Destiny, fate and karma all demand a rematch. The baseball gods are licking their chops at the thought of a third act, this time without the specter of 9/11. The Athletics are fighting for the best record in the league and home-field advantage. If they win the American League and get to the Series they will also have the home-field edge.
Can they do it? Of course they can. They are on the verge of achieving something special. The Athletics are a unique group of individuals. They’ve got youth, style, talent and the baseball mojo in their corner. The excitement they have provided us in 2002 has been well worth the price (I’ll say!) and it’s not over. Their performance in the last two weeks has proved that the streak was not a fluke.
Hold on to your (A’s) hats, folks—we are about to get an adult dose of thrills. Take your change out of your pockets, strap your seatbelt on, and hold on for dear life…
Here come your 2002 A’s—catch them if you can.
by Peter Elman
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