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MARKETPLACE:  Auto | Jobs | Personals | Yellow Pages  November 30, 2003
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A�s look for first-round breakthrough
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- In the last three regular seasons, the Oakland Athletics� good pitching consistently beat good hitting�and in October, the formula failed.

This season, the A�s again have plenty of good pitching with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Ted Lilly. But those standout starters are facing the Boston Red Sox�one of the most fearsome offensive teams in baseball history.

�It�s an interesting contrast between the two teams,� Oakland manager Ken Macha said. �They have a tremendous offense, and we�re going to have to try to stop that offense. We probably have the pitching to do it ... but the first round of the playoffs is short.  Anything can happen.�

Of course, playoff failure is relative. The A�s merely must look across the Coliseum field Wednesday night at the Red Sox�a talented team in its ninth decade without a championship.

Belief will be a large factor in the AL division series. While the A�s must believe in their pitching, the Red Sox must mentally overcome generations of heartbreak.

�You think about history when you�re a baseball player sometimes, and there�s a little superstition involved, too,� said Macha, who managed in the Boston organization for four years and nearly took over the Red Sox two years ago. �But it�s not the main issue. We�re focused on winning the opening game, and so are they.�

The teams are connected by much more than their postseason struggles. For less than a day last winter, A�s general manager Billy Beane accepted an offer to take the same job in Boston before changing his mind.

Under first-year general manager Theo Epstein, the Red Sox have begun to retool their organization as a high-budget version of the A�s, with an emphasis on on-base percentage, strong pitching and a deep farm system.

Both teams will pitch their aces in the opener, with league ERA champion Pedro Martinez facing 16-game winner Hudson. The late start (10:06 p.m. EDT) should only add to the tension when Boston�s league-best offense takes on the best of Oakland�s top-notch pitching staff.

�That�s very hard to handicap,� Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez said. �The game may be 1-0, and a solo home run or a bunt may be the difference. In order for Oakland to win, Game 1 is paramount.  Oakland is the type of team ... the more they play, the better they get.�

Martinez refused to speak to reporters Tuesday, keeping his focus squarely on the series.

�He�s a stud. He�s been one of the best pitchers in the American League every year since I�ve been here,� Hudson said.  ï¿½He has dominating stuff. He�s a guy I always looked up to coming up. He has his reputation for a reason. He�s going to be tough, but I like our chances anyway.�

Perhaps that�s because Hudson pitched a two-hitter when he faced Martinez in Oakland nearly two months ago. While Hudson dominated, the A�s ratcheted up Martinez�s pitch count, and the Boston ace pitched just five innings in a 4-0 loss.

�Thank God he won�t do it every time, or he�d be 35-0,� Boston�s Kevin Millar said. �That was our first and only time we�ve seen him this year, and hopefully we learned something from it. ... We saw him at his best. The next few pitchers we saw were like a walk in the park.�

Neither team set its postseason roster on Tuesday, but few major decisions remain. Macha plans to start outfielder Jose Guillen, who broke a bone in his hand on Sept. 14, while Boston still is evaluating injured outfielder Trot Nixon.

Oakland needs all the pop it can get from its lineup. The A�s offensive production declined for the fourth straight year, finishing with just 768 runs and a .327 on-base percentage -- 10th in the league in Beane�s favorite statistical category.

The powerful Red Sox led baseball in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. Eight players drove in at least 85 runs. Bill Mueller won the AL batting title at .326 and teammate Manny Ramirez finished second, a point behind.

But the A�s earned their fourth straight playoff berth with their usual recipe of impressive starting pitching and timely hitting. Oakland lost left-handed ace Mark Mulder to a broken leg in August, but Lilly filled the spot in the A�s Big Three with an outstanding stretch run.

Most experts believe Boston�s combination of pitching and power will send Oakland to its fourth straight division series loss.  After a strong finish propelled them past Seattle for the wild card berth, the Red Sox have begun to believe their talent could overcome Oakland�s experience and Boston�s decades of history.

�When you can put yourself and your team in this position, you�ve got to be pretty happy about that,� Mueller said. �We�ve got a great group of people. Everybody here had a great year. I�m happy we�re in this situation right now to go on.�


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