Athletics know well danger of easing up

Three years of frustration keeping Oakland on toes

Division Series

October 04, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - The Boston Red Sox have come face-to-face with their star-crossed history again, and they are not alone.

The Red Sox suffered another strange postseason defeat in Game 1 of the Division Series and went down so quietly in Game 2 that their imminent exit from the playoffs appears to be a foregone conclusion, but those Oakland Athletics who ignore history could also be doomed to repeat it.

The A's aren't sagging under the weighty curse that makes Red Sox fans enter every promising October with such delicious trepidation. They won a world title as recently as 1989 and had a handful of them in the '70s. But their recent playoff history has kept them from getting too excited about the two-game lead they will carry into Fenway Park tonight.

"We learned a pretty good lesson in 2001, when we came home up 2-0 on the Yankees," said A's left-hander Barry Zito, who was largely responsible for the victory Thursday that put the A's in such a commanding position. "Being up two games is great, but we're not taking anything for granted. We know what can happen, so we've got to stay on them."

What happened in 2001 provides a painful reminder of how quickly momentum can shift in a short series. The A's had beaten the mighty Yankees twice in the Bronx to puncture their aura of invincibility and bring the Division Series back to Network Associates Coliseum.

Former Orioles ace Mike Mussina kept the Yankees alive with a dominating performance in Game 3, and the defending world champions ran the table to send the youthful A's back to square one.

It wasn't the first time and it wouldn't be the last. The A's have been one game away from the American League Championship Series three straight years and have fallen short each time.

They took the Yankees to the limit in 2000 before coming unraveled in the first inning of Game 5. And they jumped ahead of the upstart Minnesota Twins, two games to one, last October before getting smoked in Game 4 and losing a one-run game in the series finale.

This year could be different, because this year's team is different. The players are older and, after all that, presumably wiser.

"I think we're more prepared," said general manager Billy Beane. "We know that being up 2-0, we have to approach the next game like the series is tied. That's what maturity brings you."

That's why veteran outfielder Chris Singleton was quick to put Game 2 in perspective when the A's got back to their clubhouse on Thursday.

"Nine more wins," he said to no one in particular. "That's all we need."

Maybe in 2000 and 2001 it was about getting to the playoffs. The Yankees, after all, were the Yankees and the A's were trying to drink champagne on a beer budget. But last year, it started to get frustrating.

"I think we have something to prove," Zito said. "It was heartbreaking to lose to the Twins last year. We know that we're going to lose people every year. We lost Jason Giambi last year. We know what the [Miguel] Tejada situation means. We don't necessarily have a lot of years to get this done. We have to go to Boston and get this done as soon as we can."

The A's will try to close the series out tonight behind No. 3 starter Ted Lilly, who has held the club's strong rotation together since Big Three starter Mark Mulder was forced out for the season by a stress fracture in his leg. Derek Lowe, who threw 42 pitches in relief in Game 1, will start for the Red Sox.

Lilly went 6-1 with an impresive 2.08 ERA after moving up in the rotation, but his only previous postseason experience was a pair of rocky relief outings in last year's Division Series. If he is to make his mark in this year's playoffs, he'll have to do it in one of baseball's most intimidating environments.

"It's going to be tough," said teammate Eric Chavez. "I think the crowd's going to be pretty crazy."

And there is the small matter of the Red Sox being the best offensive team in baseball, even if that wasn't apparent in the first two games of the series. Big swingers Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were conspicuous by their lack of production in Oakland, a situation that could be rectified quickly at home.

But the A's also have some untapped offensive potential. Chavez and Tejada were a combined 1-for-20 in the first two games, and no one seriously expects them to stay quiet forever.

"We're not worried about our averages," Chavez said, "but we want to get it going. We're playing well right now. We're getting good pitching, playing good defense, getting timely hitting. We're kind of letting the game come to us."

The Red Sox, meanwhile, have to hope some of their more recent postseason history trumps nearly a century of overall futility. They were down 0-2 to the Cleveland Indians in the 1999 Division Series and came back to win three straight.

"It can happen," said manager Grady Little, "but you have to make it happen."

NOTE: Pedro Martinez, who threw a season-high 130 pitches before leaving after the seventh inning in Boston's first-game loss, will start for the Red Sox in Game 5 if the series goes that far.

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