Vs. Yanks, Howe vows A's won't go quietly

Bad karma, injuries, 102-win wild card to test champs' October mettle

Baseball

October 10, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe is a soft-spoken sort, slow to anger and almost immune to controversy. Imagine Mister Rogers in spikes. When his club lost 18 of its first 26 games this season and rumors of his imminent dismissal sprouted, Howe shrugged, offered a wry smile and maintained trust in his clubhouse full of rowdies.

So it came as more than a little surprise that Howe walked into Yankee Stadium yesterday afternoon and, in his own understated way, drew a line in the dirt for the New York Yankees to cross during a riveting Division Series set to start tonight.

"We expect to have a good postseason. That's the bottom line," Howe said. "We've played great the whole second half. We don't anticipate doing anything differently. It's going to take a great series from the Yankees to have a shot to beat us."

The Yankees have won three consecutive and four of the past five World Series, making them the most dominant franchise in almost 50 years. They reclaimed the American League East by 13 1/2 games and never trailed after July 3. Only three teams - the A's among them - had more than the Yankees' 51 home wins.

However, Howe's out-of-character boldness is merely an honest appraisal of the balance of power that shifted west this season. While the Yankees labored to a 12-20 record against the AL West, the A's were 31-14 against the East, including 6-3 against the Yankees.

The A's also enter tonight's opener with seven more regular-season wins (negligible import) and probably the game's premier threesome of starting pitchers (hugely important). They're also a more experienced and better rested team than the one that battled the Yankees in last October's five-game Division Series.

The Yankees, meanwhile, worry about the health of starters Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez, middle reliever Ramiro Mendoza and several veteran position players, including Paul O'Neill and Chuck Knoblauch.

Worse, for the first time since their remarkable run began, the Yankees seem to be playing beneath bad karma. Neither manager Joe Torre nor general manager Brian Cashman has received a contract extension beyond this season from owner George Steinbrenner. Coupled with facing a wild-card entry with 102 wins and the whipsaw alignment of starting pitchers Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, the defending world champions may be underdogs in their own park.

How far have the A's come since their sluggish start?

Consider they were 44-43 at the All-Star break - only four games better than the Orioles. Their 58-17 finish left them with the game's second-best record, trailing only the 116-win Seattle Mariners. Howe also has been able to align his rotation, a luxury he could not afford last season. Mulder, then a rookie but now a 21-game winner, was not on the postseason roster because of a back strain.

"I don't look at any of last year's stuff. I [was awful] last year," Mulder said.

"This is probably the best team we've played in the first rounds," Torre said yesterday. "Somebody suggested it's maybe the best team we've ever played in postseason - and that's no question a possibility. They are impressive. They were good last year and they are better this year, and we held on by our teeth last year."

Tonight's game pairs Mulder against five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. Mulder lacks postseason experience; Clemens has 16 postseason starts, four of them last year. The A's represent a thorn to him. Clemens is 0-3 in five playoff starts against Oakland. His most infamous outing came Oct. 10, 1990, when he was ejected from the second inning of the decisive game of the American League Championship Series.

"I've pitched in a number of postseasons, and only pitched poorly a couple times," Clemens said. "Again, I've pitched great and ... I could care less if I get the win."

The Yankees have asked for this. They drew the A's because they out-kicked the Cleveland Indians to earn the privilege of playing host to the wild-card entry.

"How do you want to get your hand burned? Put it under fire or some charcoal? We didn't really have a choice," Torre said. "The only reason we wanted to win and play Oakland was so we could be home. It wasn't that we wanted to play Oakland over Seattle."

The Yankees desperately need a quick start against a peaking team that won its last 17 home games and swept the teams' six games at Network Associates Coliseum.

Panic is an emotion the Yankees do not know. "I think last season we struggled down the stretch," said first baseman Tino Martinez, a pending free agent who is possibly one of several Yankees on his last tour in pinstripes. "But coming into the postseason, we were healthy, so we felt good about that. Once the postseason started and we got a couple wins, we felt like we were a great team again. This year's the same way."

A's first baseman Jason Giambi, a leading MVP candidate and self-described "leader of this idiot band," even winced a little at his manager's assertion. "I've heard that the last four years," he said. "It's like they [the Yankees] play the season almost bored knowing they're going to get to the postseason. Then they turn it on."

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