Even as Chavez matures at the plate, the San Diego native retains his cockiness. He sometimes sports a T-shirt that reads DO YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE on the front and TO HAVE JUST SEEN ME? on the back and freely criticizes management's May crackdown on video games, cellphones and blaring rap in the clubhouse. "I think it was b.s.," he says. "For the last two years that's what people were giving us credit for: "They have fun, they're relaxed.' I thought it was kind of childish, to slap us on the hands like we were kids, telling us, 'We don't want you guys on the phone or the computer. We don't want you listening to music' I took offense at that. Now we're winning, and everybody's looking the other way again."
Like Chavez, Billy Koch is peaking at the right time, giving Oakland a closer who matches up with Anaheim's Troy Percival and Seattle's Kaz Sasaki. Koch, 27, is a great fit for the free-spirited A's: a husky 6'3" and 215 pounds with a sharply curled blond goatee and a shaved dome. The literature in his locker is crossword puzzles and hunting magazines, and before games he tirelessly flips cards in games of Spades with his bullpen mates. But Koch, acquired from the Blue Jays for third baseman Eric Hinske and a minor leaguer, was a bad fit in one respect: He has historically been at his worst late in the season. In three years with Toronto he was 5-8 with a 4.60 ERA after Aug. 1 and blew 8 out of his 43 save opportunities. "I was all over the place with my arm angle, with my spot on the rubber, and that's why I went south as the year went on," he says.
To fix those flaws, Koch spent the first week of spring training tightening his mechanics with pitching coach Rick Peterson. He improved the coordination of his upper and lower body during his motion, slotted his arm at a three-quarters angle and shifted to the extreme first base side of the rubber, which allows him to run his fastball in on lefties while driving his hard, 90-plus sinker in on the hands of righties. Since Aug. 1 Koch is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA and has converted 12 of 13 save chances. "I think he's battle-tested now," A's manager Art Howe says.
Armed with a peaking slugger and a resilient closer, Howe and his A's marched into Anaheim, paradoxically, with both the swagger of a division leader and the paranoia of a club being doggedly pursued. "Sure you scoreboard-watch," he said before Sunday's 6-0 whitewash of the Twins, in which Zito became the league's first 20-game winner. "It's September. The main thing is, nobody can gain on us if we win."
So the A's sped toward October, one eye fixed firmly on the road ahead, one trained warily on the rearview mirror.