A’s in Driver’s Seat After Beating Santana
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Wouldn’t it be something if the Oakland A’s finally won their World Series this year?
The A’s were supposed to be the best team of the decade. In 2000, they won their first division title since the days of the Bash Brothers, behind a roster packed with a stunning array of stars, from Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada to Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. General manager Billy Beane was feted as a genius, and with a productive farm system they looked to be a lock for success for years to come — which they have been, by any reasonable standard. From 2000 to 2003 they made the playoffs every year and won 100 games twice, and while they didn’t make the playoffs the last two years, they won 91 and 88 games. That’s a good run.
There were problems. The biggest wasn’t even that all the winning added up to nothing in the postseason, it was that it did so in a way that made one wonder if there wasn’t something gravely wrong with the way Oakland played baseball.They lost nine straight games in which they could have clinched a trip to the American League Championship Series, a failure too consistent to be written off as bad luck. Meanwhile, the team was gradually dismantled, as Giambi and Tejada left as free agents, and Mulder and Hudson were traded for prospects.
The Hudson and Mulder trades worked out well, but Tejada has probably been the best player in the American League since leaving Oakland, while Eric Chavez, the one player Beane signed to a long-term deal, has been a very good but never truly excellent player. Add that to the big money spent on the likes of Jason Kendall, Mark Kotsay, Mark Redman, Esteban Loaiza, and Jermaine Dye, and the team had lost its aura of inspiration, and taken on the feeling of one whose window had passed — something I say despite having picked them as the best team in baseball (largely because of their depth) coming into this season.
Thankfully, baseball games aren’t won on aura, inspiration, or feeling — they’re won by good ballplayers. In yesterday’s 3–2 upset victory over the Twins, in which they dealt Minnesota ace Johan Santana his first home loss in over a year, the A’s showed why they may finally go all the way.
In truth, what was impressive wasn’t what they did do, as much as what they didn’t do. The story of the game was Minnesota’s ridiculously sloppy and undisciplined play. Up and down the lineup they hacked away early in the count, as if Zito was a first-pitch fastball pitcher, and beat the ball into the ground, despite Zito’s tendency to give up fly balls. It was as if their approach — be aggressive and swing for line drives — had no relation to who they were facing. Beyond that there were errors of commission and omission, silly attempts at small ball, failed bunts, bad baserunning plays — you name it. All of this was rather surprising given the Twins’ well-deserved reputation as a heady and fundamentally sound lot of players.
Leaving aside Milton Bradley losing a pop-up against the white backdrop of Minnesota’s dome, the A’s just didn’t make those kinds of mistakes.They didn’t do anything spectacular, but they didn’t give away outs and, one five-pitch inning aside, they didn’t make Santana’s job any easier than it needed to be by swinging at pitches they shouldn’t have been swinging at. They looked, to a man, like a savvy and calm veteran club rather than the jumpy bunch of frat boys they’d always resembled under Art Howe.
What gave them the win, though, were two great players: Zito and Frank Thomas. It’s perfectly fair to point to Kendall and Loaiza as evidence Beane has lost his touch, but the presence of these two on the Oakland roster is convincing evidence he hasn’t. Zito is the one pitcher Beane refused to trade despite having probably the highest market value, and he came through with a sterling performance, needing only 92 pitches to get through 8 innings against a very tough lineup. At times he overthrew a bit or tried to get too cute bouncing curves in the dirt, but he showed why he’s going to make a great deal of money this off-season.
Thomas came into the season with a reputation as a washed-up jerk, and having last played a full slate in 2003. After a slow start he helped drive the A’s into October with a monstrous second half fully worthy of a man with a claim to being the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. His incentive-based deal looks like an obvious move to have made right now, but it wasn’t at the time. Beane deserves credit for taking a risk on Thomas, and Thomas deserves credit for a great season and for muscling two huge home runs that helped his team beat the best pitcher in the game. When he’s healthy, he’s still every bit as strong and smart a hitter as you’ll see anywhere.
This game leaves the A’s in great shape. Zito is their best pitcher largely because he’s so durable and consistent; Danny Haren and Rich Harden are much better on a per-inning basis, and Harden in particular takes no-hit stuff to the mound every time out. They don’t have to beat Santana again to finally win that playoff series and prove the skeptics wrong; it’s the Twins who are in bad shape, with two of the 10 or so best pitchers in the league lined up against them. It was a great start to what should be a cracker of a postseason.