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Fifth time's the charm? (cont.)

Posted: Friday September 29, 2006 11:34AM; Updated: Monday October 2, 2006 5:35PM
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Beane, in his ninth season as Oakland GM, put this team together differently than he has any of his other clubs, though he insists that no one can build a team with the postseason in mind. He spent $21 million for pitcher Esteban Loaiza -- a shocking sum for a small-revenue franchise -- and resisted the urge to trade away ace lefty Barry Zito, who will be a free agent after the season. He signed aging and gimpy slugger Frank Thomas to an incentive-heavy contract. He traded a good young prospect, Andre Ethier, for hard-hitting but volatile outfielder Milton Bradley in a move that could have threatened the A's famously loose clubhouse. And at the July 31 trade deadline, Trader Billy didn't do a thing.

All those deals, and non-deals, worked out brilliantly. Loaiza is 8-3 with a 3.90 ERA since the All-Star break. Zito, who is scheduled to start Game 1 of the ALDS, has had another very good season (16-10, 3.83 ERA). Thomas, with 38 homers and 109 RBIs, could be the AL's Comeback Player of the Year. Though hurt much of the season, Bradley has smacked four homers and driven in 13 runs in September.

The A's have had their problems. Shortstop Bobby Crosby has missed much of the season with a bad back and is unlikely to play in the postseason. Third baseman Eric Chavez has fought through injuries to his forearms and, now, his hamstrings.

Still, the A's are ready to go. "We're in as good a shape," Beane said, "as we've been since Day One."

These A's have the deep, starting pitching that they've always had, though it may not be as recognizable as in the days of Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. The A's also have one of the best, most versatile staffs of relievers they've ever had. Oakland's bullpen leads the league with 53 saves.

This team doesn't boast the firepower of the A's of Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye. But they can score, better than many people realize. The A's have the second-best OPS in the AL since the All-Star break, and they're third in runs scored during that span.

The biggest difference between this A's team and the ones from 2000-03 is that this team is much better defensively. Oakland, third in the league in fielding percentage, will commit fewer errors than any of those teams did and could, with a good final weekend, set a franchise record for fewest errors in a season.

Whether all of that produces a win in the first round, we're about to find out. As Beane and many of his GM cohorts are fond of saying, a lot of this isn't up to Oakland.

Don't believe in bad mojo? Assigning the A's postseason problems to a missed call or an unfortunate bounce certainly seems a little too easy. But ask Angels fans about luck and Pierzynski last year. Ask Cubs fans about Steve Bartman in 2003. Ask Orioles fans about Jeffrey Maier in 1997.

"In the [regular] season, those things get washed out," Beane said. "But they can determine the outcome in a postseason series."

If there's a little extra optimism floating around the A's as they embark on their latest postseason mission, much of it has to do with Rich Harden, the hard-throwing righty who has missed most of the season with injuries to his back and elbow. Harden, who is healthy now and is scheduled to pitch the regular-season finale on Sunday, gives the A's something they haven't had all season: a legitimate shut-down starter.

The A's rotation -- Zito, Loaiza, Dan Haren, maybe Joe Blanton -- is good without him, adept at throwing strikes, letting the team's improved defense go to work and piling up enough innings to get to the bullpen. With Harden, though, they can be downright scary.

"I think the perception of our club, with Rich in the rotation, is very different," Beane said. "Rich has the type of dominant stuff that every time he goes out there, he can throw a shutout at you. I do think it changes things."

Does Harden make the difference? Can a deep rotation with a true stopper, and one of the best bullpens in baseball, help the A's turn the postseason corner? Can that solid defense, maybe the best in Oakland history? Or that underrated lineup?

We'll find out soon enough. Meanwhile, Beane will nervously flit about, trying to mine all the good luck he can find.

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