CINCINNATI -- Wait a minute, is this any way to treat a dynasty in the making?
If the Oakland A's had their egos bruised by the 7-0 thumping Cincinnati administered to them last night, they also had their senses rattled by the general reaction. They were aghast that some suspected baseball's most dominating team was about to be dominated.
"We've played five [postseason] games and lost one," A's first baseman Mark McGwire said. His tone served as a strong reminder that a 4-1 record is an .800 winning percentage. "We've lost one ballgame -- and that's just what it is, one game.
"That's the attitude you're going to hear from everybody in this clubhouse -- it's one game. We've played five games, but it's the playoffs and World Series and things get blown out of proportion."
Indeed, the Reds' overwhelming performance in Game 1 of the World Series seemed to trigger a mass exodus from the bandwagon. To which the A's responded, "Pardon us, but we don't quite understand."
Dave Stewart, who has been so routinely brilliant in postseason play that even he admitted to being a little blase in his approach, was hard pressed to explain how he could be so ineffective. But he didn't have any trouble rationalizing why it was such a big deal.
"If I hadn't pitched the way I have at this time of year," said the amiable righthander, "you guys wouldn't even be talking to me right now. You'd be off talking to Rickey [Henderson] or somebody else."
Stewart went into last night's game with a 7-1 record and a 1.98 earned run average in 10 postseason starts during the last three years. That's a little better than he did in the National League playoffs with the Dodgers in 1981 -- when he pitched two-thirds of an inning, had two losses and a 40.50 ERA.
But if success breeds success, it also creates high expectations. So Stewart isn't expected to walk four of the first 10 batters (he averaged two per game during the season), and there has to be an explanation.
"I've learned that explanations sound too much like excuses," said Oakland manager Tony La Russa. "Stew is great just about every time he goes out there. Tonight he wasn't quite right."
Barry Larkin fired the first warning signal when he led off the first inning with a drive that sent Willie McGee to the centerfield fence. Then there was a walk to Billy Hatcher and a long home run by Eric Davis.
"With me, the first inning a lot of times is just adjusting to the mound," said Stewart. "That's what I took it to be."
Nor did he go to his early shower with morbid thoughts. "I'm not going to go take a hot bath and slit my wrist," he said. "You have to give them [the Reds] some credit. They took advantage of the opportunities given to them."
The fact that a former teammate, Jose Rijo, shut down the A's for seven innings only added to the mystique. "He's a different pitcher now," said Jose Canseco. "When he was with us, it seemed like he was always 2-and-0 or 3-and-1 and throwing fastballs down the middle. He doesn't do that now."
Still, that doesn't completely explain why the A's, the big, bad, bashers, haven't hit a home run in five postseason games.
"Are we in a slump?" batting coach Merv Rettenmund repeated a question. "I don't think it's a slump, I think it's a question of how healthy we've been."
For one night at least, the A's were grabbing at straws while trying to explain away what couldn't be explained. "We just got the hell beat out of us tonight," said Rettenmund.
Shades of 1988, when the Dodgers won the first two and stunned the A's in five games?
"Nobody in here thinks back to 1988," said Canseco, who had predicted an eight-game postseason sweep. "We know we're not invincible."
The A's are right, of course. But they also know they are not considered just another good team. They have been anointed with greatness.
Great teams lose occasionally, but a dynasty in the making is expected to do the crushing, not be on the receiving end as the A's were last night. "One game, that's all it was," said McGwire. "Tomorrow night we'll play another game and we'll start out all even."
And the A's better finish the night that way, too. Otherwise they'll be hearing (and probably thinking) an awful lot about 1988.