It has been almost three years since general manager Billy Beane, standing in a somber A's locker room after a Division Series Game 5 loss to the Yankees, sent this message: "We think this is our worst club over the next five years. You'd better beat us now." That ticking sound you hear is either Oakland's biological clock—the team has already said it cannot afford to re-sign shortstop Miguel Tejada, who will become a free agent after the season, and third baseman Eric Chavez could follow Tejada out the door a year later—or Beane's quickening pulse. Though the A's have, indeed, won more games in each succeeding season, they still haven't gotten over the playoff hump.
In the last three postseasons, against the Yankees two years in a row and the Twins last year, Oakland played six games—four of them at home—in which a victory would have put the team in the American League Championship Series. The A's lost them all.
"The first day of camp this spring," says pitching coach Rick Peterson, " Tim Hudson said to me, 'You know what? It would be a real shame, with all the talent we have here, if we don't win at least one championship.' These guys are well aware of what they're up against. They're on a mission."
The A's routinely buzz through the regular season by supporting their premier starting pitching with mostly walks and home runs. Oakland tried fewer hit-and-runs (34) and stolen bases (66) than any other team in the majors last year. Just call them the Un-Athletics. But that big-bang strategy, especially effective against second-line pitching, hasn't worked against playoff teams. In the six squandered playoff clinchers, Oakland scored a total of 16 runs and held the lead after only one of 54 innings. Not even the trio of Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito can be expected to overcome that lack of support.
After pitching well down the stretch last year, Hudson strained a muscle in his hip while playing catch the day before his last regular-season start. He was torched in two starts against the Twins. "I don't want to use [the injury] as an excuse," he says, "but losing [that Division Series] really hurt. Hell, they all hurt. We felt like we were the better team all three years, but it didn't happen."
Unbowed, Oakland will push the rock up the hill in exactly the same way: Let Hudson, Mulder and Zito pile up more than half the team's wins and treat the closer as an easily replenishable resource. There were only 15 pitchers in the majors last year who won 15 games, had an ERA lower than 3.50 and threw 200 innings. Oakland had three of them. Hudson, Mulder and Zito were 149-66 (.693) over the past three seasons for a team that otherwise was 147-123 (.544).
With that kind of pitching, the A's can live with mediocrity on offense, which is how they won 103 games last year despite ranking ninth in the majors in runs. Exhibit A is first baseman Erubiel Durazo, whom Beane has coveted for three years. The 29-year-old Durazo, who was acquired from Arizona in December in a four-team trade, hasn't batted 250 times in a season, does not play any position very well (he'll be Oakland's designated hitter), doesn't run well and breaks down more than a '77 Vega, but he has a .390 on-base percentage and surprising power.
Beane also acquired righthander Keith Foulke in a trade with the White Sox. Foulke follows Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen and Billy Koch as Oakland's closer. Hitters had a tougher time reaching base last year against Foulke (.263 OBP) than against Koch (.314), though Foulke lost his job as the White Sox' closer. "I basically had three bad weeks," Foulke says. "I agreed to step back from closing until I got my stuff back, but after I got it back they still didn't use me [to close]. The trade turned out for the best."
The gravitational core of this club remains Hudson, Mulder and Zito. They have started 11 of the team's 15 playoff games over the past three years. If Oakland is to shed its image as the Adlai Stevenson of baseball, that too must start with them.