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'X' marks the spot

Chavez sparks A's to Game 2 rout of Twins

Posted: Wednesday October 02, 2002 10:36 PM
  Eric Chavez Eric Chavez hit his first home run in 47 postseason at-bats Wednesday. AP

By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Itís October. Players are supposed to have blinders on during the game, supposed to be oblivious to anything beyond the white lines that stretch from home plate to the foul poles.

So what was on Eric Chavezís mind after his monster home run in the first inning of Game 2 against the Twins? The type of pitch he had just crushed? The commanding three-run lead he had given his team? Guess again.

ďMy sister asked me yesterday if I could hit the Xbox sign out there for her,Ē said Chavez, a video game addict. A billboard advertising his system of choice hangs off the second deck of Network Associates Coliseum in right field, about 20 feet beyond where Chavezís towering shot landed. "I was thinking about that as I rounded the bases."

The invasion of joysticks and synth music into his thoughts seconds after his first playoff home run was a good sign. It meant Chavez wasnít dwelling on his struggles in last yearís postseason, when he went 3-for-21 against the Yankees in the Division Series. Chavez came away blaming himself for Oakland's loss in five games. "It really ate me up last year," he says. "There were a lot of ballgames we could have won if I got a hit."

Thereís no such guilt after what he did Wednesday. Chavezís three-run shot off a hanging slider from right-hander Joe Mays gave the Aís a quick lead and a huge pick-me-up after their frustrating loss in Game 1. Thereís nothing like handing an early three-run advantage to one of your aces -- in this case 19-game winner Mark Mulder, who allowed one run in six innings -- to make you feel good about your chances to get back into a playoff series. The Aís scored nine runs, but the first three were the biggest. "We needed that," said center fielder Terrence Long. "It was a big confidence boost."

Chavezís ability to put up Nintendo numbers donít shock anyone anymore. He hit 34 homers and drove in 109 runs this season, his second straight 30-100 performance. "We call him Instant Offense," says Long. "I told him to just put his bat out. Heís so strong all he has to do is put his bat on the ball."

The Game 2 homer solidified another aspect of the 24-year-old Chavezís game: His growing reputation as Oaklandís leader. As he rounded the bases, it was easy to think that the blast was the type of spirit-lifting home run a certain Yankees first baseman once hit when he was carrying Oakland on his broad back.

The Aís are still a loose and laid-back bunch -- Mulder prepared for his Game 2 start by staying up until 12:30 on Tuesday night playing the video game Halo with Chavez. But they arenít the travelling keg party that they were in recent seasons. Thatís partly due to the influx of all-business veterans like David Justice, Ray Durham, Scott Hatteberg and John Mabry.

Itís also a reflection of the way young guys like Chavez have matured. Chavez acknowledges that in past postseasons he had trouble controlling his emotions, and that led him to press and lose focus at the plate. "They werenít even throwing me strikes," he says of the Yankees last year. ďI was swinging at everything. You canít even call that being aggressive."

"Last year I took myself out of games trying to go deep," he adds. "I have a little more control over what I can do this year."

It helps too that Chavez is rested. Late in September, while the Aís were trying to nail down the AL West title, he felt himself dragging and asked manager Art Howe for a couple days off. "It got to the point where I felt someone fresh in there would give us a better opportunity to win," he says. "I was a real zero at the plate."

"We were able to give him two days off, which was vital, and he seems like heís rejuvenated," says Howe. "We were hoping he was going to have a great postseason for us."

Heís off to a good start: 4-for-9 with five RBIs in the first two games. He made a handful of stellar defensive plays in Game 1, and in Game 2 he had the biggest hit of the series for Oakland so far. The rotation grabs the headlines and shortstop Miguel Tejada (2-for-9 so far) will grab the MVP votes. But, as this series shifts to Minnesota for Games 3 and 4, itís clear they're relying on Chavez to press the right buttons.


 
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