Aï¿½s look for first-round breakthrough
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- In the last three regular seasons, the Oakland Athleticsï¿½ good pitching consistently beat good hittingï¿½and in October, the formula failed.
This season, the Aï¿½s again have plenty of good pitching with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Ted Lilly. But those standout starters are facing the Boston Red Soxï¿½one of the most fearsome offensive teams in baseball history.
ï¿½Itï¿½s an interesting contrast between the two teams,ï¿½ Oakland manager Ken Macha said. ï¿½They have a tremendous offense, and weï¿½re 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.ï¿½
Of course, playoff failure is relative. The Aï¿½s merely must look across the Coliseum field Wednesday night at the Red Soxï¿½a talented team in its ninth decade without a championship.
Belief will be a large factor in the AL division series. While the Aï¿½s must believe in their pitching, the Red Sox must mentally overcome generations of heartbreak.
ï¿½You think about history when youï¿½re a baseball player sometimes, and thereï¿½s a little superstition involved, too,ï¿½ said Macha, who managed in the Boston organization for four years and nearly took over the Red Sox two years ago. ï¿½But itï¿½s not the main issue. Weï¿½re focused on winning the opening game, and so are they.ï¿½
The teams are connected by much more than their postseason struggles. For less than a day last winter, Aï¿½s 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 Aï¿½s, 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 Bostonï¿½s league-best offense takes on the best of Oaklandï¿½s top-notch pitching staff.
ï¿½Thatï¿½s very hard to handicap,ï¿½ Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez said. ï¿½The 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.ï¿½
Martinez refused to speak to reporters Tuesday, keeping his focus squarely on the series.
ï¿½Heï¿½s a stud. Heï¿½s been one of the best pitchers in the American League every year since Iï¿½ve been here,ï¿½ Hudson said. ï¿½He has dominating stuff. Heï¿½s a guy I always looked up to coming up. He has his reputation for a reason. Heï¿½s going to be tough, but I like our chances anyway.ï¿½
Perhaps thatï¿½s because Hudson pitched a two-hitter when he faced Martinez in Oakland nearly two months ago. While Hudson dominated, the Aï¿½s ratcheted up Martinezï¿½s pitch count, and the Boston ace pitched just five innings in a 4-0 loss.
ï¿½Thank God he wonï¿½t do it every time, or heï¿½d be 35-0,ï¿½ Bostonï¿½s Kevin Millar said. ï¿½That was our first and only time weï¿½ve 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.ï¿½
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 Aï¿½s offensive production declined for the fourth straight year, finishing with just 768 runs and a .327 on-base percentage -- 10th in the league in Beaneï¿½s 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 Aï¿½s 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 Aï¿½s Big Three with an outstanding stretch run.
Most experts believe Bostonï¿½s 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 Oaklandï¿½s experience and Bostonï¿½s decades of history.
ï¿½When you can put yourself and your team in this position, youï¿½ve got to be pretty happy about that,ï¿½ Mueller said. ï¿½Weï¿½ve got a great group of people. Everybody here had a great year. Iï¿½m happy weï¿½re in this situation right now to go on.ï¿½