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Collision COURSE
Daniel G. Habib
September 16, 2002
The A's and Angels, baseball's two hottest teams, steamed into a September showdown that will decide who rules the West
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September 16, 2002

Collision Course

The A's and Angels, baseball's two hottest teams, steamed into a September showdown that will decide who rules the West

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SERIES (Games Remaining)

2002 SERIES LEADER, W-L

2002 KEY STAT

A's-Angels (8)

A's, 7-5

Anaheim, 3-3 versus Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, hasn't faced Mark Mulder, who will start on Thursday.

A's-Mariners (6)

Mariners, 8-5

John Olerud has a .415 BA and a .519 OBP (17 hits, 10 walks, 52 PAs) versus Oakland.

Angels-Mariners (6)

Mariners, 7-6

Despite hitting just six HRs against Seattle, the Angels have scored 64 runs, more than any other team.

A's-Rangers (6)

A's, 7-6

Miguel Tejada and David Justice have teamed for five HRs, 25 RBIs and 54 total bases versus Texas.

Angels-Rangers (6)

Angels, 8-5

In 53 ABs, Garret Anderson has hit Rangers pitching at a .321 clip with four HRs and 12 RBIs.

Mariners-Rangers (8)

Mariners, 10-2

Seattle reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa is 3-0 versus Texas, which is hitting .094 against him.

On the day his club's American League-record 20-game winning streak was to end, Oakland Athletics lefthander Barry Zito strolled into the visitors' clubhouse at the Metrodome wearing a flowered silk shirt and a pair of baby-blue, pin-striped engineer pants. These being the A's—among whom, as third baseman Eric Chavez says, "You're not gonna make it if you have thin skin"—the catcalls began immediately.

" Zito! Choo-choo!"

"Homey the Clown, don't play around!"

"Gotta get the catalog, the Zito Collection!"

Zito smiled sheepishly, but moments later, after he had changed into his warmups, it was his turn to be incredulous. "Three games?" he said quietly, glancing over a teammate's shoulder at that morning's standings in a newspaper. "We win 20 in a row, and we're still only three f——-' games up?"

Welcome to the wild, wild American League West, where the weirdest thing seen last week wasn't Zito's getup, it was this: While the A's were putting together the best stretch of baseball in 67 years, the Anaheim Angels were the rugrats hanging on to the leg of their low-riders. Despite going 22-1 since Aug. 13-the lone loss was Friday's streak-snapping 6-0 defeat in Minnesota—the A's through Sunday led the Angels (18-6 during the same span) by only two games, while the Seattle Mariners (12-12) lurked six games back. Beginning on Monday night, when the A's and the Angels commenced a four-game series, the four AL West teams play only one another for the remainder of the regular season in a round-robin that will determine both the divisional champion and the AL wild card. "It's a damn battle," says Mariners second baseman Bret Boone, "and it's supposed to be."

The end of Oakland's winning streak left the Angels as the hottest team in the majors. Through Sunday, Anaheim had won 10 games in a row and improved to 37-19 since the All-Star break, second only to Oakland's 40-14. The two teams have much in common: Oakland (3.66 team ERA) and Anaheim (3.68) have the AL's top two pitching staffs, each anchored by a twenty-something lefthander (the A's 24-year-old Zito, the Angels' 28-year-old Jarrod Washburn), as well as breakout MVP candidates ( Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada and Anaheim centerfielder Garret Anderson).

During the A's streak the Angels often refused to answer questions about their rivals. But with this week's showdown looming, the topic became unavoidable. "I'm glad they're thinking about us a little bit," Washburn, the Angels' first 17-game winner in 11 years, said on Sunday. "They're in our minds, too. You notice a team that wins 20 games in a row, especially when it's a team you're chasing."

Unlike the Angels, who have had some epic collapses in recent years, Oakland is accustomed to second-half success. Over the last three seasons the A's have gone 107-39 (.733) after July 31, and several key Athletics are only now finding their best form. The team's offensive boom—since the start of the streak the A's have averaged a league-high 6.5 runs per game—coincided with the installation of the lefthanded-hitting Chavez as its cleanup man. Like his team, Chavez, 24, heats up when the weather does; he's a career .256 before the All-Star break, a .303 hitter after it. This season he's become more disciplined at the plate, and the result (a .337 average, six home runs and 29 RBIs since the streak started) is the best second half of his career. Chavez has concentrated on being more selective, which he learned from former teammate Jason Giambi. "Jason would give the team four good at bats every game," Chavez says. "That's what I'm trying to do."

That measured approach has also improved Chavez's ability to hit lefthanders, against whom he's batted a career .228. That may well be crucial down the stretch: In late-inning situations teams may elect to pitch around Tejada in the three hole, then bring in a spot lefty reliever. Chavez will likely face both the Angels' Al Levine (against whom lefties hit .222) and the Mariners' Arthur Rhodes (.168) in clutch at bats this month.

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