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Tom Verducci Inside Baseball

F's for the A's

Everyone in Oakland's organization gets blamed for team's playoff futility

Posted: Tuesday October 7, 2003 4:12PM; Updated: Tuesday October 7, 2003 6:41PM
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One bad event can be a fluke. Two times? Chance. Three times? Unlucky. Four, five, six, seven, eight ... nine times in a row? Now you're talking about a trend. And as much as Oakland GM Billy Beane likes to pass off the postseason as "a crapshoot" and as much as he bristled Monday night saying "Give me $100 million and I'll give you guarantees," what we have in the A's is an honest to goodness fundamentally flawed baseball team when it comes to succeeding in the playoffs. That Beane's Athletics are 0-9 over the past four years when trying to clinch the American League Division Series screams more about his team than the vagaries of postseason play. Oakland's failure to close out teams is no accident.

There are real reasons why the Athletics don't get it done in October, and they have nothing to do with shooting craps. This team doesn't catch the ball well enough, doesn't exceed at situational hitting and, as one Oakland source put it, "We're the worst baserunning team in the league." There is also the matter of their leadership vacuum.

Think about the seminal moments when the A's earned their F's over the past four years of ALDS play:

  • 2000: Terrence Long misplaying a bases-loaded flyball in Game 5 against the Yankees.
  • 2001: Jeremy Giambi's non-slide at home plate in Game 3 against the Yankees.
  • 2001: Three errors in Game 5, which turned a 2-0 lead into a 4-2 deficit.
  • 2002: Errors by Miguel Tejada and Scott Hatteberg leading to five unearned runs in one inning in Game 4 against Minnesota.
  • 2003: Tejada and Eric Byrnes abandoning all efforts to score and allowing themselves to be tagged out on two separate plays in Game 3 against Boston.
  • 2003: Four errors in that Game 3.

The Athletics like to work with numbers. OK, crunch these figures from Oakland's 0-9 record in potential clinchers:

Runs: 24 (2.67 per game)
Errors: 12
Unearned runs: 10
Home runs: 4 in 390 at-bats.

Sorry, despite what Beane says about the postseason being unpredictable, the Athletics don't get a pass for those meltdowns. The GM's voice became angry when he was faced with the questions he knew were coming (again) about the team's failure to play solid baseball in October. Beane said "anybody who wants to diminish" his club's accomplishments by linking the nine losses "is foolish and ignorant. That's not respectful of the players on this team."

Not so. Nobody is taking anything away from how Oakland, with a small payroll, has fought its way into the playoffs four years running. It's an amazing achievement. But the Athletics -- and not some cosmic Ouiji board -- must bear responsibility for their poor execution in the postseason, when home runs and walks are harder to come by and runs are more precious. The A's ineptness does have something to do with the kinds of players they acquire and the construction of the team. Take Jose Guillen, for instance. Nice OPS numbers, but he's a train wreck waiting to happen on the bases. He made the first and third outs of innings at third base in back-to-back games (4 and 5). That's awful baseball, especially because on the first occasion Guillen ran by way of deep shortstop and on the second one he hesitated when running toward third.

Nothing was worse, though, than the comedy team of Byrnes and Tejada giving up on the bases when they should have easily scored in Game 3. Tejada didn't know the obstruction rule (runners advance to the next base at their own peril after obstruction is indicated) and Byrnes concerned himself more with his sore knee and petulantly shoving Boston catcher Jason Varitek than scoring the run that would have won Oakland the series.

As one team member said after the Game 3 debacle, "The immaturity of this team continues to pop up and kill us."

Byrnes' postgame interview was one of the most bizarre sessions I've ever been a part of. He admitted that he didn't know if he was safe or out upon sliding into Varitek, he could not recall shoving the catcher, he had no idea why Varitek might be running to the backstop after the play and he was more focused on his knee (it was numb, presumably not the only such body part) than coming back to touch home plate.

Blame Eric Chavez for the Game 3 gaffe, too. He was the on-deck batter, whose job it is to coach the runner as he approaches home. If Chavez had done what he was supposed to and hustled to the area near home plate, he could have instructed Byrnes to go back and touch the plate as Varitek retrieved the errant ball. Another fundamental breakdown.

The Athletics themselves didn't want to identify a thread running through the nine champagne-popping opportunities they wasted. Said Barry Zito, "They're all different. If anything, when it comes down to it we just have to bear down. We just have the knack of leaving the door open for people. That's kind of been our problem."

Oakland wasn't going to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. Tim Hudson would not have been able to start "for maybe a week," Beane said, because of his strained hip. Mark Mulder was going to be added to the roster, but as a one- or two-inning relief pitcher who might also have been used as a closer when Keith Foulke was unavailable. Zito was exhausted from working twice in four days, after throwing a career-high 231 2/3 innings in the regular season. But at least if the A's had reached the ALCS they would have blown up the First-Round Bugaboo that has become their legacy.

Oakland is in many ways a model organization for getting the most bang for its buck and extending its window for success, a very tough task for a small-revenue team. Its management has been properly commended for thinking outside the traditional baseball establishment. But 0-9 in clinchers is no accident. The Athletics have earned their reputation as a team that plays sloppy baseball when it counts most.

Maybe Derek Jeter isn't your prototypical Moneyball player. Maybe he doesn't walk enough or hit for enough power to light up a spreadsheet. But every year you watch him in October and he shows leadership, a knack for making the right play, an understanding of how to move runners and get them in, and the passion to run hard and smart on every ball hit. That kind of play, too, is no accident.

The fatal decision

In Game 5, Oakland manager Ken Macha pulled a colossal blunder that will go down as one of the more ill-advised moves in a key spot in postseason play. The Red Sox were trying to give away Game 5, as Scott Williamson, plagued by a serious case of the yips, walked the first two batters in the bottom of the ninth. Ramon Hernandez bunted the runners over. That's when Jermaine Dye walked to the plate to hit next. Dye said that he saw Boston manager Grady Little order an intentional walk from the dugout.

Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was ambling casually to the second base bag to hold the runner during the intentional walk.

All of a sudden, as Dye put it, "The umpire and Varitek told me somebody wanted me over there [by the dugout]."

It was Macha. The manager was pulling Dye for a pinch hitter. Forget for a moment the lack of respect Macha showed Dye, the team's highest-paid player and a proven veteran run producer, by pulling him for a hitter as he was almost in the batter's box. And forget the left-right matchup nonsense that eliminates what few gut instincts any managers might have. The season was on the line. That's when you want your most experienced players in action. What Macha chose to do was send up Adam Melhuse, a 31-year-old little-used catcher with 26 career RBIs, or 505 fewer than Dye.

It gets worse. This was Macha's explanation: "I sent Adam up there yesterday [in Game 4]. Three hits. Swung the bat good.''

Right. Melhuse played so well the previous day that Macha didn't start him against a right-hander in Game 5. And Dye had three RBIs in Game 4, including the only home run Oakland hit in the series.

More wacky Macha on Melhuse: "I was thinking perhaps they may walk him. Then I would have Chris [Singleton] up there hitting with one out and Chris got speed. Chance of a double play diminished a little bit."

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Stop there. Unbelievably, Macha was looking for a walk but hadn't noticed that the Red Sox were about to do exactly that with Dye. The Red Sox were giving Macha the bases loaded and one out with Singleton at bat -- a guy who grounded into only two double plays all year. But Macha threw it all away by sending Melhuse to hit for Dye. It was such a boneheaded decision that Little immediately changed plans and ordered Derek Lowe to pitch to Melhuse. In other words, Macha took out a guy the Red Sox wanted to avoid and sent up a guy Boston wanted to face. Of course, Lowe whiffed Melhuse on a nasty running fastball that started at his hip and broke back over the plate.

Don't blame Melhuse. He never should have been put in such a spot. Later, Terrence Long looked at another strike three -- on the same running fastball -- to end the game. But Macha had already killed the inning himself by sending Melhuse to hit for Dye. It's a move the manager will not be able to live down.

Who let the dogs out?

The amount of outright dogging it on the basepaths that's been going on this postseason is disgusting. It's a mystery to me why players can't run hard, especially in the playoffs. As Oakland coach Bob Geren said, "Run 90 percent. You don't have to bust it 100 percent if you're worried about getting hurt. But run 90 percent and you still get to the next base." Just about every night you look up and see somebody dogging it. Here's only a few examples:

  • Jeff Conine, Florida. Well, yes, everybody wants to paint him as the gritty guy who gives the Marlins leadership, but when Jose Cruz of the Giants dropped Conine's routine flyball near the right field line in Game 3 of the Division Series, Conine was stuck on first base because he wasn't running hard. Way to set an example.
  • Kevin Millar. Save the Cowboy Up act, John Wayne. In Game 3, the Boston first baseman lifted a high pop in the infield. The ball bounced off catcher Ramon Hernandez's mitt and then hit his mask -- which was on the ground -- and rolled 20 feet away. Millar should have been standing on second base, right? He wasn't. He only made it to first for lack of hustle.
  • Millar. That's right, pardner. Our favorite cowboy did it again in Game 5. Fifth inning, he slaps a base hit up the middle. Millar jogged to first base. The ball kicked off the body of center fielder Chris Singleton. Millar decided at that point it might be a good idea to run hard. Too late, cowpoke. He was thrown out.
  • Manny Ramirez. He might have won Game 1 for Boston if he had run hard from second base after Chavez made a fabulous diving stop on a ground ball and got the force on Ramirez at third. But that would have required actual effort. And what was with his over-the-top celebration in Game 4 while jogging to first when his single merely moved a runner from second to third?
  • Dye. He was thrown out by Garciaparra on the pop fly when Johnny Damon collided with Damian Jackson. Why was he easily thrown out? He wasn't running hard for the first 90 feet.
  • Tejada, Byrnes. In honor of the infamous joggers who cost Oakland the Division Series with their Game 3 blunders, we'd like to make a dedication: Take the Long Way Home by Supertramp. Have a nice winter.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.

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